Sarah Schulman’s new book The Gentrification of the Mind adopts the exasperated tone of the old lesbian who knows better. In this case, she does know better, and I adopt the male version of that tone all the time. We’re both justified in using it.
I’ll start from the premise that “kids today” have access to more information than any generation in human history yet are still stupider than any generation before them. It’s true, but it isn’t a kind of unifying principle you can tell your friends about. For that, we need Schulman, who has a brilliantly concise description of the phenomenon. It involves a triumphant ruling class telling lies about the past. That is what Schulman calls “gentrification”: The lie that you were always here and that the current state of being occurred naturally and never had a history.
Schulman connects real estate, art, the education of artists and writers, the theatre, publishing, gays, and AIDS.
saw their dominance as simultaneously nonexistent and as the natural deserving order…. They replaced the history and experience of their neighborhoods’ former residents with a distorted sense of themselves as timeless.
That “those people” lost their homes and died is pretended away, and reality is replaced with a false story in which the gentrifiers have no structure to impose their privilege. They just naturally and neutrally earned and deserved it. […]
This is why we see so much quashing of public life as neighborhoods gentrify. Permits are suddenly required for performing, for demonstrating, for dancing in bars, for playing musical instruments on the street, for selling food, for painting murals, selling art, drinking beer on the stoop, or smoking pot or cigarettes. Evicting four apartments and replacing them with one loft becomes reasonable and then desirable instead of antisocial and cruel…. The relaxed nature of neighborhood living becomes threatening, something to be eradicated and controlled.
look in the mirror and think it’s a window, believing that corporate support for and inflation of their story is in fact a neutral and accurate picture of the world.
eighborhoods became defined as… “safe” because they became dangerous to the original inhabitants.
It is clear to me, although it’s rarely stated, that the high rate of deaths from AIDS was one of a number of determining factors in the rapid gentrification of key neighborhoods in Manhattan…. or every leaseholder who died of AIDS, an apartment went to market rate.
“At first America had trouble with people with AIDS,” the announcer says in that falsely conversational tone, intended to be reassuring about apocalyptic things. “But then they came around.” […]
After all the death and all this pain and all this unbearable truth about persecution, suffering, and the indifference of the protected, now they’re going to pretend that naturally, normally things just happened to get better. That’s the way we nice Americans naturally are. We come around when it’s the right thing to do. We’re so nice. Everything just happens the way it should.
At an ACT UP reunion:
Happy to be part of it, and standing at an admiring distance were the younger people… but the two worlds were not mixing…. When the ACT UPpers were in their 20s, they were dying.
The deaths of these 81,542 New Yorkers, who were despised and abandoned, who did not have rights or representation, who died because of the neglect of their government and families, have been ignored. This gaping hole of silence has been filled by the deaths of 2,752 people murdered by outside forces . The disallowed grief of 20 years of AIDS deaths was replaced by ritualized and institutionalized mourning of the acceptable dead. In this way, 9/11 is the gentrification of AIDS.
Schulman has an excellent treatment of what she calls “replacement artists from professionalization programs.” She offers a highly convincing argument that Andrew Sullivan’s media space, as I’ll call it, crowds out other writers – even quite famous ones like Edmund White, who have what Schulman calls more “accountability” with the actual lesbian and gay community. And if you need a single-chapter biography of Kathy Acker, Schulman has one.
What about literature? Schulman is principally concerned with lesbian literature written by lesbians with lesbian protagonists, but her analysis applies to us too:
hen you look at the thousands of boring books by straight people that not only have nothing to offer but financially tank, why should our most interesting writers be constantly sent to Siberia? Punished for telling the truth and writing well?
Scratch an old lesbian, find a dyke who hates gay men
Schulman has a vein of hatred for gays she deems elite. She provides the following assault on her fellow gays – and it really is presented in this sequence.
entrification is blamed on gay people and artists who survived, not on those who caused their mass deaths. We all know about white gay men coming into poor ethnic neighborhoods and serving as economic “shock troops,” buying and rehabbing properties, bringing in elite businesses and thereby driving out indigenous communities, causing homelessness and cultural erasure.
Yes, “e all know” these facts. Whereas it takes a plague to “driv out” gay men, causing their “homelessness and cultural erasure,” “white gay men” naturally and neutrally do the same thing to powerless local minorities. (And here again we have the lazy journalistic myth of “driving out” original residents. “I just moved in here and I’ve got more money. You’ve got five minutes to leave.” That never happens.)
Meanwhile, Schulman makes it sound like the Lower East Side was populated by aboriginals. When the English Defence League refers to white Britons as indigenous, people like Schulman lose their shit.
She continues: “he racism of many white gay men” – not all, mind you, only “many,” which means “most” – “and their willingness to displace poor communities in order to create their own enclaves is historical fact.” But Schulman had just spent the earlier part of her book explaining how legitimate neighbourhoods are made up of a heterogeneous mix of people.
Individuated young people came to New York to “make it,” to come out, to be artists, to make money, to have more sophisticated experiences, to have sex, to escape religion, and to be independent of their families. No one is inherently problematic as a city-dweller because of his/her race or class.
Instead of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Eastern European and Italian immigrants, lesbians, noninstitutionalized artists, gay men, and other sexually adventurous and socially marginalized refugees from uncomprehending backgrounds living on the economic margins…, the replacement tenants were much more identified with the social structures necessary to afford newly-inflated mortgages and rents.
(Not incidentally, in a book that simply was not copy-edited, Schulman gets away with always writing “Black” and “white” thus.)
In the book’s conclusion, Schulman goes into venomous detail about just how power-mad gay men became, especially in the theatre, once AIDS medicines finally began to work.
The only neighbours Schulman names as illegitimate are racist, elite white gay men. Yet Schulman had just finished telling us the true cause of gentrification in New York was the death from AIDS of countless gay men. How can they be so victimized they’re dead but also elite oppressors of indigenous peoples?
How many actual “elite” gay men are there? (David Geffen, Elton John, Anderson Cooper, Andrew Sullivan?) How many could there be when masses of rich gay men are a myth (one told by marketers with a financial stake in that myth) and gay-male and lesbian incomes tend to be the same?
How could someone as smart as Sarah Schulman be so stupid as to blame gay men for being white and claim they are nothing more or less than racist and elite?
Here, then, Schulman hauls out from the deep freeze the shopworn lesbian shibboleth that their real enemy is gay men. (Unless of course you’re a gay man in that particular lesbian’s social class when Schulman was young, in which case you must be OK.) Isn’t one of the lessons of Schulman and Jim Hubbard’s ACT UP Oral History Project that gay men needed lesbians during the 1980s AIDS crisis in New York and that lesbians were right there for them? But now that lesbians’ artistic gay “brothers” aren’t dying anymore, we’ve reverted to being the oppressor. Gay men of Schulman’s current generation are no longer useful as proof of the lesbian’s natural and neutral superiority compared to us.
What are those lesbians doing now? Trashing the gay men who were “elite” enough to survive. (And, I guess, “transitioning.”)
Old lesbians in Sarah Schulman’s class, and her specifically, are people whom gay men who survived the AIDS crisis need to regard with distrust and suspicion. (Even though we are contemporaries.) You could always be the wrong kind of gay and end up being blamed for something. That’s what old lesbians do: Blame. Their poverty, the scarcity of lesbian bars and bathhouses, the troubles of every minority group on the planet but especially in the Middle East, their fibromyalgia, their plainness, their obesity, their gender-identity disorder, their inability to get published – everything is someone’s fault and it’s always someone else’s fault. (It couldn’t just happen as a result of the kinds of structural trends and forces Schulman documents.) And whaddya know, the blame rests with racist elite white gay men, who are to this cohort what welfare queens are to Republicans.
Sarah Schulman wrote a smashing book, except for that one page (39) that gives gay men of our shared generation good reason to fear her. But she’s the kind of person you can support only half the time anyway: Schulman is the activist who testified in court on behalf of Little Sisters but also, in the Pride Toronto dispute-resolution process, on behalf of QuAIA.