Monday, August 27, 2012

Gentrification and Nostalgia For What Is Lost

East Village Graffiti today

As a regular to New York City I have become accustomed to hearing about gentrification and more worryingly for some, the yuppification of various neighborhoods. Gentrification is a poisoned chalice. It makes certain areas unquestionably more livable but in the process the essence is lost as long-time residents and tenants are slowly pushed out due to higher rents.

Today virtually all the island of Manhattan has become gentrified. A strong whiff of sterilization can be experienced in some of the areas which were previously seriously dodgy. This is particularly the case in The East Village and Lower East Side. Here there is to be found ruthless property developers  more akin to other, wealthier parts of the city taking advantage of the increasing desire of people to live in these areas. While still having a particular charm and feel to them, they are completely different to what they were twenty and certainly thirty years ago.
Lower East Side in the 1970's

In the late 70’s and early 80’s the East Village and Lower East Side were virtually no go areas for many and most certainly for the wealthy elite uptown, chambered in their ivory towers on Park Avenue and so forth. However just like many no go areas in big cities it was a cheap place to live. While they attracted the down and outs of society and riddled with social hardships, many artists found a welcoming as in affordable place to live. After a time in situations like this a critical mass is reached and the whole area develops in to a flux of cross breeding of ideas and styles that attracts even more artists. Whole, vibrant and at times, extremely influential scenes emerge.

This was certainly the case for this part of New York over thirty years ago. From the run down tenements and ruins of the Lower East Side that almost looked in parts like Berlin in May 1945 came the flourishings of post-punk, new wave and most certainly no wave. This has all been recounted by a recent documentary about the no wave film scene in the late 70’s and early 90’s by filmmaker Celine Dahnier’s wonderful and accessible documentary called “Blank City” and the inspiration for me writing this article. Not only does it contain a satisfying mix of conversations with influential members of that movement but it creates oddly in this writer a nostalgia for what a vibrant and inclusive place Manhattan specifically but New York as a whole was for artists at that time. Nowadays one must pay an arm and a leg for a run down place in the East Village that has staunchly refused to be eaten up by developers. Back then a hundred dollars would have gotten you the same shack of a place but at least it was financially accessible.

Gentrification is a universal and ongoing process with an uncertain ending. Artists are slowly being pushed further and further away from the centres of cities. Some will argue it is a good thing, that in time artists will find a far away enclave from increasing rents and prices that have bedeviled them in the past from being so close to centres. However it is at times a somewhat symbiotic relationship between urban artists and the wealthy, many that later bankrolled the artists who made great art, such as Jean Michel Basquait in New York. But technology opens up other means of revenue and communication. Nevertheless gentrification as we know it will continue. Areas will lose some of their charm and vibrancy once that new giant condo gets built in the area.

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