# TOPIE IMPITOYABLE /// Colonial Architectures and Situated Gentrifying Bodies

Map of the five New York City boroughs represented by a dot per person living there / Dot Map / (blue: white / green: black / red: asian / yellow: hispanic / brown: other)

In a city like New York, gentrification is one of the main social and racialized violence that is currently at work. Brooklyn neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Bushwick, Green Point, Bed Stuy or Park Slope are experiencing it at speeds that makes it impossible to attribute this process only to immanent causes. Its origin that consists in a reduced amount of middle-class often white people moving in a lower-class often black or Hispanic neighborhood might be immanent indeed, although it is also motivated by prohibitive prices in other parts of the city, but this displacement is quickly identified, then multiplied at much larger scale by profit-driven developers.

Gentrification is implemented through bodies choosing to locate themselves (as usual, our body can only locate at one space at a time, and only this body can be located on this specific space) in a space where they are historically, culturally and racially outsiders. The presence of these bodies exercises only a violence when it triggers a disruption in the modes of existence of the local population. Bodies rarely come alone indeed: they bring with them standards of comfort that modify the urban fabric and drastically increases the price of life (rent, goods, services, etc.) to a point that it becomes prohibitive and thus exclusionary to the local bodies. The gentrifying bodies also carry with them the promise of safety that society made to them. As Spike Lee argues in a diatribe that I will evoke below, there is therefore a retrospective legitimate frustration from the local black or Hispanic population to see that the thing that will effectually bring the police to secure a given neighborhood is the presence of white bodies.

There is an architecture of gentrification that crystallizes this need for the gentrifying bodies to bring with them their standards of comfort. This architecture involves a certain amount of commercial and leisure facilities (count the amount of wine stores and trendy cafes in a given neighborhood to have an idea of its state of gentrification), as well as the housing itself. As far as the latter is concerned, it goes from the renovation of existing building to their absolute destruction to be replaced by luxury condominium apartment complexes. In the specific case of Brooklyn, there is also another specific architecture that propagates: defensive massive housing blocks with large balconies that spread the limits of the Hasidic Jewish districts. In this latter example, the scheme of gentrifying violence is however different as it corresponds to the territorial growth of a community that has been living in these neighborhoods (Williamsburg in particular) for the last seventy years. The effects of local population displacements that it triggers are however similar.

The colonial characteristics of gentrification are summarized by Spike Lee in his answer to a question about the “positive aspects” of this process when he was invited to speak at the Pratt Institute on February 25, 2014 (see the recording below). He calls the tendency that gentrifying white bodies have to speak of their new neighborhood as some sort of “discovery” as the “Christopher Columbus Syndrome” in an obvious reference about the fact that there was various indigenous populations living on the American continent before its European discovery in the 15th-century. The various genocides of this native population that followed then constituted a most violent attempt to deny this previous existence of bodies on this land.

Let it be clear: the mix of social and racial population is not the object of dissension here. Such a mix is actually what allows the reduction of antagonism in the daily encounters of the bodies. Despite what many good (white) souls seems to think when they talk about these “positive aspects,” this mix of populations is however not the goal of gentrification, it is only a temporary effect in between the beginning of this process and its end that sacralizes the gentrifying body as the new owner of the land. The colonial aspect of gentrification is exercised in the fact that the gentrifying body refuses to bring with it this baggage of comfort and way of life. Now, this rhetoric is also used by the various right wings of Europe to talk about their immigrations. The difference is however easily distinguishable and deny any legitimacy to the recurrently claimed feeling of “invasion” that these politicians nourish: the gentrifying body, on the exact contrary of the migrant body, is recognized both socially and racially by the norm as the dominant body to which privileges have to be granted. It belongs to each of these bodies to recognize and accept its responsibility in the processes of violence in which it finds itself involves.

bed-stuy-condos_650Recent condominium building in Bed Stuy (Brooklyn)

18_201310010853am_0Recent condominium building in Bushwick (Brooklyn) landmark-park-slope-exteriorRecent condominium building in Park Slope (Brooklyn) williamsburg-11Recent condominium building in Williamsburg (Brooklyn)

Bed Stuy Jewish Orthodox BuildingHasidic Jewish multiple-family housing building in Bed Stuy during Sukkot


5 Comments on “# TOPIE IMPITOYABLE /// Colonial Architectures and Situated Gentrifying Bodies

  1. Leopold, I have to respectfully disagree. I take great offense at Spike Lee’s rant, and I find it extremely hypocrytical. Here is why:

    First of all, I don’t think that his racially-charged arguments are that different from the xenophobic and racist discourse that is suspicious of immigration in any way. In fact, It is exactly that, xenophobic. I am an immigrant. The reason why I’m not “in my place” is because, like all immigrants, something drove me out of the place I was born, and, instead of committing suicide and dissapearing so as not to bother anyone, my family and I had the audacity to show up at someone else’s “god given space” and try to scrape a spot for ourselves. But no place has the upper hand as far as economics, politics and opportunity for long. Immigration trends around the world show it. Cuba, for example, has been in a state of mass exodus for decades, but back in the 1930s, it was the desired destination for immigrants coming from Spain and China, who were fleeing wars and famine. People are flocking to NYC neighborhoods now, but it wasn’t always like that, and it might change again.

    Now, in a place like New York, which is what we are discussing, most people are not “native” by any accepted definition of the term. It’s extremely fluid. In fact, when you dig just a little bit, most “native New Yorkers” turn out to have just arrived here a little earlier than the current crop of newcomers. Spike Lee was born in Atlanta, for god’s sake. He came to Brooklyn as a child. Therefore he has zero right to be so belligerent towards other people moving from other states or from other neighborhoods into what he perceives to be “his” neighborhood. He has no right to be offended by strollers carrying the children of newcomers, because he was once one of those children.

    Second, Spike Lee doesn’t even live in Brooklyn. He left “his neighborhood” to live in a mansion in the Upper East Side that he recently put in the market for 32 million dollars. It is because of people like him, real estate speculators, that people are priced out of places like Manhattan, and young professional families that live and work in New York begin to move into neighborhoods farther away from the city, which they absolutely have the right to do.

    What does Spike Lee suppose people like me do, just leave? Most of the people around our age that I know living in New York, in neighborhods like Bedstuy, Williamsburg or Bushwick are working really hard, extremely long hours in order to be able to afford their tiny spaces in run-down buldings. Just because they are some shade of white, although many are Asian, Hispanic, Middle-Eastern, etc., is their hard work not worth discussing? But either way, we newcomers don’t have much of a choice, because if we are to work in NY, and most of us are here either to work or study, as there are more opportunities in NYC than in other places, we need to store our bodies at night somewhere, and that place will be located wherever we can afford that is close to a subway line so we can get to work, whether or not we have the correct racial composition in order to blend into the neighborhood’s current population.

    Where are we supposed to go? Any discourse that send us “back to where we came from” opens the doors for very terrible implications.

    • Lidu, I have to agree here. I enjoy Leopold’s writing and he makes a very passionate argument against the gentrification of neighborhoods and displacement of native populations, but there is something very wrong with the rhetoric used on either side of this very important urban issue. Spike Lee’s hypocritically racialized argument comparing middle-class whites to Christoper Columbus claiming a territory is an obvious but paper-thin argument, as you have noted in your comment about Lee’s true hometown. It’s not leading to progress and understanding of the dynamic, fluid urban condition that has cyclically brought lower income families into the city (via “white flight” and suburbanization) and flung them out unceremoniously (gentrification). I agree that there is a problem, but it’s primarily historic and architectural in nature. How can these neighborhoods progress while still retaining their history and character that made them desireable to higher-income families in the first place? I think that’s an important issue.

      But this aggressive, entitled rhetoric removes the room for rational discussion. As an opening statement: “In a city like New York, gentrification is one of the main social and racialized violence that is currently at work.”

      Really? A racialized violence? While I agree that gentrification is one of the biggest urban issues of our time, Leopold, I’d don’t think it should be classified as a hate crime. When it comes to a city like New York, things are never black and white. Literally.

      • Peter,
        thank you for your comment and for bearing with my writing.
        First I apologize as I answered to Lidu directly via email as we know each other well. In substance what I was saying is that the alleged hypocrisy of Spike Lee is irrelevant in this debate. He did not “discover” gentrification and the only thing that I find shaky in what I wrote is that such problem should not be declared as such when a famous person does a diatribe about it.
        However, I absolutely stand by the phrase “social and racialized violence.” The jump you made from “social and racialized violence” to “hate crime” is yours to make, I do not subscribe to it and see in their difference the historical mutation of the way racism operates. I hope that we can agree that racism does not only enact itself through what it easy to point as “haters”. In other words, racism and its violence do not necessarily requires intent to operate.
        This is not about establishing a court in which each gentrifying body will be judged for participating to this process. We are all embedded within capitalism and all have a role and effects in it with various degrees. As I wrote in the article, gentrification would not exist if the original displacement of population related to the high price of rents were not quickly followed by profit-driven development of the concerned neighborhoods. The responsibilities are therefore multiple and complex but simply undeniable. I lived in downtown Brooklyn for a year at a place where, in few dozens of feet, collides three different populations that never mixes: low social classes living in public housing projects, artists more or less precarious middle class living in industrial lofts and young upper middle class living in brand new condominium skyscrapers designed by famous architecture offices. One cheap deli had to close to leave place to yet another tower, while two cafes-restaurant opened simultaneously. It would have been a true catalyst to a mutually beneficial social mix to have these cafe-restaurant offers casual meals and drinks for non-prohibitive prices that would have been appreciated by the three populations. A potentially non-colonial space would have been created and these three populations would have been able to encounter each other on a daily basis. Obviously, this is not what happened and the prices were clearly targeting the socially privileged population of the neighborhood.
        Whether it is about gentrification or any other social relation between bodies, one should always be aware of how this relation is influenced by a system of cultural, physical and historical privileges. In the case of gentrification, that requires from bodies who are moving to these neighborhoods to decolonize in depth their behavior. The most basic example I could see would consist in systematically refusing to move in one of these new buildings that crystallize the capitalist catalyst of gentrification in its most extreme manner. In general, refusing to patron any commercial apparatus that has been clearly designed for this newcomer population and therefore contributes to make the economic context of the neighborhood more and more prohibitive could be considered as something like the beginning of a “solution” to the problem.
        Somehow, I’d be surprised that you would disagree with these immanent measures.

  2. Leopold, thank you for the swift reply! I do not “bear with” your writing; rather, I enjoy it very much.

    I would very much agree with your proposed measures to combat the gentrification of these unique and diverse neighborhoods. In fact, the interesting and varied architecture and people who inhabit densely urban places is why I became interested in urban design and related topics in the first place, long ago.

    Because I am so interested in these issues, it’s disheartening to hear so much air time given to Spike’s charged diatribe (mostly mainstream media), in which race served as the backdrop or even the reason for gentrification in the first place. But you make a good point – racism isn’t always overt, and often manifests itself at the subconscious level. Even if passive, it’s essential to constantly question our own motives and the repercussions for our actions, whether choosing who to interact with on a daily basis or choosing which neighborhood to live in.

    Personally, I would place all of the buildings at the end of your post at the bottom of my wish list were I considering moving to one of these neighborhoods. When I lived in Hong Kong briefly, I ended up in a neighborhood not yet served by the MTR – and was thus still a poorer, less touristy area of the city. The things I loved about the neighborhood were all things that existed befoe I arrived – the street food, the noodle factory on the first floor of my apartment building, and the old men playing mahjong in the pocket park. So in all honestly, it’s difficult to put myself in the shoes of a upper-middle class urban pioneer who wants to move to a place, yet change it.

    Could perhaps a large portion of the responsibility rest on developers, projecting the desires of their target markets onto the construction of site-unspecific quintessential “young professional” loft apartments? Surely, education is a huge part of the problem as well – all I need to do is talk to my friends or family (who don’t pay as much attention to such things) to realize that what someone else sees as a clean, safe, luxury quality of life is perhaps something that contributes to the degradation of the uniqueness and the place itself.

    I would contend, then, that positional ignorance and unconscious racism are equal foes when it comes to combating this issue.

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