Gentrifiburbia: Everything Old Is New Again

Gentrifiburbia: Everything Old Is New Again

There’s no pretty way to put this. I grew up in the suburbs. . . . In a way, those really were the wonder years for us there in the suburbs.

Although I love The Wonder Years, I can’t speak to whether Kevin Arnold was right or not. I didn’t grow up in the suburbs, and I don’t know whether they were any more wonderful than any other place. But I do know that my generation doesn’t do suburbs. At least not all of us. We do gentrification. And while we, as a generation, might think it makes us “different” (indeed, that’s the point) or makes us more “cultured” (also, the point) than the suburbanites before us, it doesn’t. It is, I think, just a suburb in a different dress.

Gentrification has best been defined as “[w]hen ‘urban renewal’ of lower class neighborhoods with condos attracts yuppie tenants, driving up rents and driving out long time, lower income residents.” Traditionally, it arrived with the “local artists looking for a cheap place to live,” which in turn gave “the neighborhood a bohemian flair.” It resulted in a noticeably changing neighborhood with modish cafes and bars and shuttered local establishments. The debate over its effect on communities in cities across the country and world has raged and raged. (Certainly, I’m not here going to enter the fray on this heated debate.)

On the other hand, The New York Times explained that suburbia sprung from “an acute shortage of dwellings in all urban areas.” Maybe that’s why it came in “typically ‘prefabricated'” parts that were “suddenly assembled on the spot” and did “not evolve gradually but emerge[d] full-blown.” It’s also probably why, in 1954, people feared that these Lego communities would result in children “becoming ‘homogenized'”:

In this atmosphere children are likely to picture the good life in terms of uniform, standardized patterns; and that tends to block invention and experiment. Because nothing out of the way ever happens in these quiet, sanitary and standardized surroundings.

But that was September 1954. Months earlier, the Supreme Court had desegregated schools across the country (or at least set into motion desegregation), and, to put it bluntly, white people fled the cities and the schools. More than a few studies urge that this is the real reason the suburb sprouted up—not the “acute shortage” of places to live in cities, which, by their very nature, housed millions of people quite efficiently and comfortably.

The migration continued through the 1990s, but now we’ve reversed that. As early as 2006, The Wall Street Journal declared the end of white flight: “Sooner or later, the pendulum was bound to swing back, and that appears to be starting.” Nearly ten years later, that proposition can hardly be questioned. The reasonable rents and sundry streets beckoned the artists back into the city first. My peers and I then followed.

In the process we displaced low-income families who could not afford to or did not want to move into the suburbs or were not welcome there. They tend to have deep roots in the community nowadays, which after 50 years of being the majority group in the city makes complete sense. They also, unsurprisingly in the face of white flight, tend to be black and Latino. This leads to talks here in DC like: “District of Change: Is D.C. Still Chocolate City?”

It’s clear why we came back. The suburbs that most of us grew up in (albeit, not me) were too “quiet,” too “sanitary,” and too “standardized.” We were told throughout our entire childhood that we were special, that we could do anything and go anywhere. And after all that, and after college (where many of us fled to foreign cities for a semester or two), returning to suburbia felt or at least we thought it would feel more like a cultureless prison surrounded by chain-link disguised as white pickets.

We came back with money too, but importantly we didn’t come back with kids. So the money burned even hotter in our pockets. And then the fateful event happened: Developers realized that they didn’t need to wait for the artists or the bohemians to germinate gentrification in this neighborhood or that. They could build it all themselves. And the city councils were not too far behind. Variances were granted, liquor licenses issued, homes gutted, and residents displaced. It started off slow, like a dripping faucet. Some people came back—but some was enough.

They had no roots in the community and didn’t feel like they fit in at the neighborhood bar. So a developer built a new one down the street. It was trendy, and it was called “Hardware” because it used to be a hardware store run by this man named Steve who used to live down the street but left last year because he couldn’t afford to stay. It had old-fashioned light bulbs that were great for atmosphere but not so much for light. It seamlessly incorporated the hard lines of the old store and some old fashioned tools just to drive the point home. It had a drink menu with cocktails named like Hollywood children, “Katama” and “Vagabond.” Oh, and it had a “secret” password you had to know to get in, but you could find it on the bar’s website.

The developer didn’t stop there. After that bar, came another—but this time it was a new twist German beer garden (spelled, of course, “biergarten”) because who doesn’t like a good fucking soft pretzel and a beer whose name you cannot pronounce. Then came more people, and then, then came new condos. They weren’t just beige people shelves; they certainly didn’t look the same—purposefully of course. They were new age—and old age. They were sleek—and stately. They were big—and small. They were close to the downtown—and far from downtown. They were whatever you wanted them to be—and didn’t.

All of this, the speakeasy, the biergarten, and the condos, came quick and didn’t leave much room for their surroundings to catch up. Much like the suburbs, they were somewhat haphazardly peppered among what once was there—except this time the cornfields were corner shops and laundromats. And the neighborhood transformed from chocolate, to salt and pepper, to mostly salt until eventually the old one would break under the weight of the new, leaving behind only empty shells—shells of old buildings whose façades had been saved to serve as the swanky corner entrance to a 20-unit condo.

But it felt good and it felt new; that is to say, it felt unlike the suburbs. There was no single grocery store, because there were twelve. There were no finely manicured lawns, because we 86’d the lawns altogether. There also weren’t any cookie-cutter homes, because every building we razed we raised it back to seem unique. And at the end of the day, you could walk down a street that five years ago had been overrun with drugs and prostitutes and it felt exciting and different and foreign but familiar all at once.

Was it though? Is it? That’s exactly the thought I had recently. I was standing in a market that didn’t exist when I moved to DC. It had been built under the shell of what I imagine although do not know was an old bulk-foods warehouse, because the market is precariously nestled in warehouse district, where no self-respecting market should ever be nestled. But the market itself is remarkable. It overwhelms one’s senses with its perfect architecture and interior and with all kinds of food and drinks and happy people milling about. It is a sight to see.

But it also had the Edison bulbs and the bright orange paint that is often equated with the “new,” especially if it’s paired with a nice teal. And, of course, marble counters and butcher block were found here and there. It also had that manufacture feel to it because of where it came from, making it appear both old and new all at the same time. But it didn’t have much diversity in patrons, and I can’t imagine that any of the patrons there made less money than enough—enough to afford an $11 Bloody Mary with “natural raised,” “thick-cut” bacon dolloped on top. There’s one of these markets in New Orleans too—it is mostly the same, indiscernible in its difference; I’m sure they have a brother and sister in New York and San Francisco as well.

And then it hit me: gentrification is the new suburbia. It now comes in “‘prefabricated'” parts that were “suddenly assembled on the spot” and did “not evolve gradually but emerge[d] full-blown.” In our hurry to escape the monotony of Main Street, we’ve gone looking for something unfamiliar but we’ve gotten too good at it: we’ve got it down to a science. Gentrification is cookie-cutter in its ability not to be cookie-cutter. It’s one of those old western movie sets that is just a bunch of varied façades all the same underneath: vacuous. In many ways the 1954 New York Times article could just as easily be talking about gentrification as being “sanitary and standardized.”

Whether all of this is good and bad, I don’t pretend to know and I don’t care to try to answer. But putting that aside, let’s not hoodwink ourselves. Let’s not pretend that we are fashionable or cutting edge or more cultured than our parents were. Because after all, we came back to the city looking for something different, and, in some twisted way, we found it; but we didn’t just find it, like our parents, we constructed it for ourselves: an artifice of culture. The least we can do is acknowledge that and put away our feigned enlightenment.

Image courtesy of wader. Some rights reserved.