I live in a majority Mexican neighborhood, and I’m white.*
(*Sort of. It depends who you ask, but for American purposes, I’m white.)
My neighborhood is being gentrified. I still live in the mostly ungentrified part, but I see it everywhere I go. Two new coffeehouses. A cafe I can’t afford to eat in. A gourmet hamburger place with white tablecloths (wtf?). The “hottest” new restaurant in the city which caters to yuppies who take cabs in and are too scared to leave the corner. Less Spanish being spoken. Fewer murals being painted. Vintage shops that I never have actually seen anyone in. The Zapatista bookstore disappeared seemingly overnight.
I love the Mexican-ness of this neighborhood. It makes me feel at home. Not because I’m Mexican, but because I’m an immigrant from a small country. A permanent outsider. And here, in Pilsen, I’ve found a place where outsiders aren’t outsiders. They’re the majority. The paleteras are often migrants, here from Mexico for the summer, staying with family and sending money back home.
I’ve talked with them as I count out quarters for a tamarindo paleta. They ask me where I’m from and I tell them with no fear of being told to go back. They, like me, are caught in a sea of endless motion. The structures of markets, war, and empire having ripped us from our roots.
And yet, it’s not that simple.
I’m a contradiction in terms, in many ways. I grew up non-white but became white in a way that’s unfathomable to most people who grew up here. I work multiple jobs and rely on foodstamps, but am a PhD candidate at an elite private institution. I had to leave my last apartment in Pilsen because I couldn’t swing the rent. I have few material possessions…with the exception of a massive book collection that makes many people scratch their head. I bike year round because even public transit is financially inaccessible for me on a daily basis. In a country where white skin confers the privilege of feeling comfortable wherever you go, I live in a constant state of discomfort. The puzzle piece that looks like it fits but doesn’t quite. I live in between worlds, on the borderlands.
Perhaps I’m exceptional, perhaps not.
But I understand, in a very visceral way, the feeling of being pushed out. It makes me incredibly sensitive to the claims that people like me are responsible for gentrifying the neighborhood, even if I shop at the Mexican grocers, eat at the family owned taquerias, speak Spanish with my neighbors, and support the social and political struggles of the community. I completely understand the desire to stake claim to a place. To demand that this place belongs to us. Especially for Mexicans and Mexican Americans who basically run the country with their labor, and who have been crossed so many times by the border.
Generally speaking, however, that’s not the terms of the debate for most people. Everyone in this neighborhood—Mexican and non-Mexican—doesn’t want what they love about Pilsen to change. They want to hang on to the sense of community that exists here, the sense of belonging. The vibrant culture—political and artistic. And while they recognize that gentrification is racialized, there is also an increasing understanding that race and socioeconomic analysis of what’s happening isn’t enough.
Gentrification is a complex process of displacement and “development”, which is neither just about race nor about class. It’s a mechanism by which our communities are ripped apart and destroyed, then reconstituted as something unrecognizable. We emerge on the other side weaker than before, poorer, demoralized, marginalized. All of us, though some more than others based on webs of exploitation and oppression that can be difficult to parse apart.
And the conclusion I’ve come to, after two years of thinking about this question long and hard, after discussing it with my neighbors, watching the neighborhood continue to change, is that the very process of gentrification has to be viewed in the context of “neoliberal totality.”
Neoliberal gentrification, by narrowing the definition of what gentrification is, has also limited our capacity to talk about it. People understand the difficulty even if it’s difficult to find the words. That’s why when I talk about gentrification, they start talking about the metal shredder being built (the opposite of the gentrification project, according to the so called “urban renewal” model) and about the school closings, the poor condition of the roads and sidewalks.
When gentrification is all about who moves in and who moves out, we’re taking neoliberalism on its own terms. And that is something we should never do. We talk about gentrification as though it’s a communicable disease, as if we can stop it from invading, we can stop its spread. The only alternative to that outlook is to build insular—even as they are strong—communities that get marginalized, cut off from state and city services, lack jobs and maintained infrastructure.
That communities manage to endure that marginalization for as long as they do is a testament to their strength. But, at least in the US, it is impossible to hold out forever. Infrastructure degenerates. Poverty takes a toll. Marginalization weighs heavy. And then we’re told that there is only one option: renewal. Let capital move in. Invest. Rents go up and people are forcibly displaced. The vicious cycle begins anew and the only real beneficiary are the landlords, the entrepreneurs, the developers, the education deformers, etc.
What’s the alternative to isolation and gentrification, then?
Democratic control of urban space (and everything else).
More soon on what urban democracy means to me, this was just on my mind tonight, wanted to get it out.