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The Gentrification of the Mind

Sarah Schulman. Photo uncredited


Freeing The Wild Space

There was something profoundly apt, or ironic depending on your perspective, about playwright and activist, Sarah Schulman’s sold-out, keynote speech at The Complex as part of the “Townhall Sessions” for “Where We Live” on Saturday afternoon. Its theme, “The Gentrification of the Mind,” attracted an enthusiastic audience into an area currently experiencing its own extensive gentrification. Once a haven for aspiring artists, the area has seen many of its low rent spaces, like Market Studios, beginning to disappear. A space where a once vibrant and diverse community of artists was housed until its closure in October 2014, Market Studios is now a private college offering games and animation courses to those who can afford them. The college connection is crucial, because education as industry is a significant factor in the process of gentrification.

As a native New Yorker, the soft-spoken Schulman has seen it all before, and had many words of wisdom, and warning, to impart. In an impressive and articulate talk, Schulman traced the beginnings of gentrification in NYC back to World War Two, which upset the American apple cart in so many untold ways. The most significant being the rise of suburbia, which moved those who could afford it out of the city and into dwellings designed for the idealised, nuclear family. Similar to the exodus of communities to corporation estates from the city's tenement buildings in Dublin during the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. This left the poor and disadvantaged behind to fend for themselves. As Mom and Pop tried living the American Dream in 1950’s suburbia, the near deserted cities once again became refuge for the mad and the misfits, the rebels and non-conformist, be they musical, theatrical, literary, sexual, addictive, artistic, or just plain otherwise. Seeking to escape the new suburbia, or small town America, in order to create or express themselves, many ran to neighborhoods like Harlem, Greenwich, Alphabet City, and Schulman’s own beloved East Village. Places that have since become synonymous with a transgressive and dangerous New York City, seen by many at the time as the artistic and activist capital of the world.

Until the children of suburbia decided they wanted to move back into the city in order to enjoy the conveniences it had to offer, and to avail of better employment opportunities. This presented a gilt edged opportunity for those with property, who sent rent costs escalating exponentially, driving out those who could no longer afford them to allow in those who could. Neighborhoods were transformed, with many now living on the street, or in derelict buildings. Yet higher rents could only be sustained with lower crime. With drugs and AIDS becoming prominent, it became imperative that those deemed dangerous be completely driven out to maintain an area's market value. Efforts to remove a homeless community congregating in Tompkins Square Park, for example, resulted in riots in 1988, and again in 1991, as the homeless were forcibly evicted by police and the park boarded up.

As the city became safer and money and development moved in, arts and activism was slowly forced to move out, or at least to move back several paces. Once iconic spaces like CBGB’s disappeared, becoming an over priced clothes shop. Places that stayed, like St Mark’s Place, once W.H. Auden’s beloved home, became gentrified tourist traps offering fusion food and a photo opportunity in front of the building on the cover of Led Zepplin’s Physical Graffiti. Much of the East Village and Alphabet City became what many see as an extended campus for those rich enough to afford to attend NYU. A situation, curator Willie White, borrowing from the New York based playwright and performance artist, Penny Arcade, described as the once wild and dangerous Big Apple becoming the Big Cupcake.

MTUSA producer Bill Hughes, who travelled extensively between Dublin and New York in the 1980’s, spoke in detail of his perceptions of gentrification in Dublin, focusing on the way gentrification has transformed the city for the gay community. Once a place where regular gay bashing, and murdering of gay men, went unpunished, the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1993, and the subsequent referendum on marriage equality in 2015, has transformed the city for the better he argued. Something Schulman was quick to point out only happens when those holding the dominant position decide it’s okay for those changes to take place. Yet the issue of a safe, gentrified city raised some interesting questions. While no one would want a return to gay men being murdered, or people being mugged and killed in order for Dublin to have its wild spaces, just how safe is safe? How many of our citizens can truly afford to avail of that safety?

As Schulman reiterated on several occasions, gentrification is defined by those who control the dominant cultural narrative. By those who decide what, and who, is permissible. As with education, a city’s appearance might suggest an all-inclusive society, but it’s always screening those who conform and can afford it from those who can’t. Which, when it comes to art, raises some fascinating questions around who makes art, along with how, and why? In the absence of wild people inhabiting wild spaces, who are our artists today? As Penny Arcade so eloquently argues, holding an MFA makes you someone who holds an MFA, it doesn’t make you an artist. Nor does having done two shows straight out of college. More importantly, art shouldn’t be produced solely by, and for, those who can afford it. But, as Penny knows only too well, this isn’t part of the dominant cultural narrative. Which is perhaps why she’s so often pressed out to the fringes where she can’t be heard as well. Thankfully, like Schulman, she refuses to be silenced.

So what does all this mean for Dublin? For many, Dublin has been experiencing gentrification for decades and it’s not stopping anytime soon. In the 1980’s, Temple Bar was an artist’s haven, where galleries, studios, The Alchemist’s Head and a host of other secondhand bookshops fed the creative imagination. Until gentrification took hold, giving us Temple Bar today. Well, at least we’ve still got the Project Arts Centre. We only lost The Crypt, The Focus Theatre, The City Arts Centre, to name but a few. Yet now it’s happening all over again. Only this time the landscape has changed, due in no small measure to the technological revolution. Today Facebook, Airbnb, and YouTube, to name but a few, redefine notions of community, connectivity, and communication, introducing new platform models for how people conduct business, as well as making strange what we mean by things like the joy of sharing. As a result, gentrification has become a lot more pervasive and insidious, especially the gentrification of the mind.

So what, if anything, can we do? While Schulman’s a serious scholar on the subject, she knows she’s no savior, and offered no quick fix solution, much to the disappointment of those who pleaded with her for a way forward. For Schulman knows that once you go gentrified, there’s usually no turning back. If it all felt like a prayer before dying, it might well be because Schulman knows that politics, under their current structures, are unlikely to offer a real way forward. As the great American activist, Lucy Parsons, once said, “never be deceived that the rich will let you vote away their wealth.” Or their properties.

Even so, Schulman did manage to suggest a way forward. Simply. By way of her thoughts and her presence. A way that requires digging in for the long haul, knowing that even if key battles have been lost, and will be lost, the war is far from over. For if the city’s wild spaces have now been tamed, the mind need not remain so. It won’t be easy resisting the gentrification of the mind, but we have it within us to fashion our mind into an act of resistance, a tool for truth, a wild and transgressive space. Something with which we can challenge, and educate, in the proper sense of word, the children of suburbia. Or, in other words, ourselves.

But do we really want to?

In closing, a grateful Willie White, speaking on behalf of all present, described the heroic Schulman as "inspirational." He most certainly was not wrong.

“The Gentrification of the Mind,” the keynote address by Sarah Schulman as part of the “Townhall Sessions” for “Where We Live,” produced by THISISPOPBABY and St. Patrick’s Festival, curated by Willie White, took place at The Complex on Saturday, March 7th

For more information on “Townhall Sessions” and “Where We Live,” visit The Complex or THISISPOPBABY

Sarah Schulman will be reading from her book “Conflict Is Not Abuse” at The Gutter Bookshop, Cow's Lane, on Tuesday, March 13th between 6.30pm and 8pm.

For more information, visit The Gutter Bookshop

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