Vallejo Nocturno 2014 - tourism
Like a lot of cities, Washington is really two cities in the same space. We’ve got “Washington,” the place of popular imagination, gleaming white marble monuments and Aaron Sorkin speechifiers, the mostly-from-out-of-town professional class keeping the rusty wheels of state administration turning.
We’ve also got “DC,” the city distinct from the operations of the federal government, made up of “residents,” who are mostly poor and mostly black. These two cities are locked in a one-sided war of attrition, with affluent “newcomers” and their local allies conducting clear-and-hold operations against their less well-heeled neighbors. I can watch from what Forbes magazine, that barometer of bohemianism, has labeled the sixth-hippest neighborhood in the US, where I live.
This is gentrification, which, if you’re reading this and live in a city, is a process you’re caught up in. There’s a violent side of gentrification — think Rudy Giuliani and his “broken windows” alibi for crackdowns on petty crime. But there’s a softer side to this war as well, the liberal project of city governance whose patron saint is the activist Jane Jacobs, author of Death and Life of American Cities.
In the face of rampant suburbanization and slash-and-burn urban renewal, Jacobs emphasized the attractions of urban life in all its diversity, revealing the support networks that lent resiliency and quality of life to neighborhoods otherwise deemed undesirable. She was also a fierce critic of the monumental architecture of public housing, in favor of the historic charms of low-density buildings. Jacobs’ once-revolutionary ideas are now liberal urbanist common sense: pedestrian traffic, mixed-use development, a heterogeneous mix of architectural styles, businesses, and people. My city councilman’s slogan, “A Livable, Walkable City,” comes straight out of the Jacobs playbook, and it is difficult to find it objectionable.
However, as urban sociologist Sharon Zukin has pointed out again and again, Jacobs’ aesthetic insights can’t make up for her avoiding of class realities. Lambasting “planners” while ignoring the far more powerful real estate developers, Jacobs’ polemic has been turned against even her prized Greenwich Village neighborhood, a site of rapacious gentrification stretching back to the 1980s.
As Zukin remarks, “What Jacobs valued — small blocks, cobblestone streets, mixed-uses, local character — have become the gentrifiers’ ideal. This is not the struggling city of working class and ethnic groups, but an idealised image that plays to middle-class tastes.” In the absence of true diversity in income and ownership, a simulacrum can be easily substituted. In my “up-and-coming” neighborhood in Washington, the superficially eclectic mix of bars and restaurants are owned by the same developer.
Zukin points out that Jacobs’ fondness for buildings ran roughshod over the actual people who made up the neighborhood. A line from the excellent gentrification documentary, Flag Wars, set in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, makes the point clearly: “I just feel bad for the houses,” intones a somber yuppie, as he gazes upon the dilapidated buildings in which his neighbors reside. Moved by this sympathy, he and his cohort of gentrifiers pressure their poorer neighbors by anonymously reporting housing code violations.
Vallejo Nocturno 2014 - on the run