i lived around the corner from a kennedy fried chicken during my first blissful years on troutman street, and recall being a faithful customer during all of its operating hours. the afghan owners each wore a dour mug when serving patrons, fake smiling only when affably begged by their loyal locals, their faces snapping back to a glum mask when they received the cash for their chicken. the place was always crowded despite this. to combat congregation management removed the stiff seating from kennedy’s waiting room to encourage customers to leave with their food, but they ate standing up instead. to the owners it was just a restaurant, but for the customers it was a hostel, a public sphere, and a place to reconnect with old plugs. for me it was a source of pride; a major perk that accompanied the rare fortune of finding my ideal apartment after one afternoon’s chance glance at craigslist.
on a cold spring morning in march 2013 our kennedy fried chicken failed to open its roll gate. i reasoned that the owners chose to take an overdue vacation, reassuring myself after two weeks with hypotheses of renovations, imagining a sparkling, new credit card machine, maybe a juice bar. only when that dependable red awning was stripped away, and a pile of aborted kitchen ware appeared on the sidewalk was i able to admit my delusions. i quietly mourned the demise of my kennedy fried chicken as the end of an era.
these trends of structural change were influenced by the widespread taste of the neighborhood’s new and affluent residents, and took precedence over mine. the kennedy fried chicken would become a bar like that vacant lot became a condo, like that bodega became an organic market, like the auto body shops became tattoo parlors, yoga studios, micro breweries, patisseries…
dope and hard dealers were replaced by bearded bike nerds delivering designer strains of marijuana. working class migrants were displaced from their long rented apartments, their homes gutted and redesigned to accommodate the hot young singles looking to rent.
demographic changes are understandably threatening to low income renters, but the discourse regarding gentrification’s negative effects is endless and stale and popular. social tension is stoked by promoting misunderstanding in the form of stenciled sidewalk slogans, which only condense discussion into a fallacious sound bite: gentrification is the new colonialism.
understanding economic history is mandatory to reject these disingenuous claims. doing so will not ease pessimistic opinions of modern economic trends, nor supply methods for stopping them; it will only provide context for the present, insight into the future, and hopefully inspire a cynical acceptance that change is law, gentrification a pixel, and everyone’s opinions meaningless.
colonialism was a state’s method of securing foreign resources for the accumulation of wealth, and was enacted from the 16th century to the mid 20th century, under mercantilism and capitalism, respectively. mercantilism was an economic system based on the theory that wealth was finite, and trade could only be increased if taken from another state, which frequently lead to war. wealth was measured by the amount of gold bullion a state hoarded, because it was so pretty and shiny. colonies expanded state wealth by exporting raw materials for manufacture in the motherland, the goods sold across europe and her colonies for substantial private profit of states and merchants.
mercantilism was the economic equivalent of an absolute monarchy because it stressed patriotism, urged efficiency to benefit the nation’s wealth, and enacted policies to suppress free trade: limited wages, gold and silver banned as exports, markets controlled by government monopolies, tariffs on imports. england’s navigation acts banned colonies from selling raw materials to rival european states, which helped lead to the american revolution.
adam smith’s “the wealth of nations” (a lengthy and valuable forward to “the economist” subscription) criticized the mercantile system, and laid the groundwork for classical free-market economics through the seven tenets of capitalism and theorizing the creation of wealth. putting the individual in control of the fruits of their labor was beneficial to the wealth of the state, as it gave individuals incentive to work in their own self interest to grow personal wealth. competition between self interested individuals would create an environment of constant innovation in products, services and technologies. smith supported these theories with tangible solutions like the division of labor (specializing labor produces more jobs and more manufactured goods), which when combined with complex industrial processes and machinery created a surge in trade and products.
with free trade adopted european powers industrialized at different rates. emphasis shifted from manufacture and geopolitical strategy towards expansion of empire due to competition among the the powers. the long depression, a period of price deflation promoted home industry and abandonment of free trade. africa was remapped in the berlin conference to regulate competition between the powers. this tricky conference feigned a humanitarian effort by resolving to end slavery in africa and the islamic world and prohibiting the slave trade in european spheres.
nations overlooked the rights of african natives as they scrambled to colonize africa. once again, colonialism was a strategy of securing foreign resources for global trade at a staggering cost of human life. racism served as a moral loophole by which colonists made excuses for slavery and genocide to meet their own self interested needs. they amassed wealth by stealing rather than producing, violating capitalism’s classical theory.
capitalism has seen many forms since the brutality of african colonization, and varies throughout societies. for instance, the united states is not pure capitalism. bank bail outs, social programs, lobbyists and crony politicians in bed with corporate interests are all methods of market control. some tenets of classical capitalism are still honored, like the ownership of private property.
in common law private property is divided into real property (land and its improvements) and personal property (stuff, abstract, intellectual). depending on the region, property owners have different rights and responsibilities, but the efforts of international law is to recognize the right to property as a universal human right. in capitalism wealth can be created without stealing, and the respect for private property protects owners and gives them incentive to work because the property that is created by the worker belongs to that worker. slaves do not own the fruits of their labor, and the abolishing of slavery meant that all people became free to earn compensation for their labor.
gentrification ostensibly begins when artists (people w/o marketable skills or ambition) seek to rent inexpensive housing from property owners to continue production on work that is only of importance to themselves. when the artist (customer) signs a contract with the owner (business) they are peacefully agreeing to the terms of the lease. these artists still have a taste of their middle class background, despite moving to a working class neighborhood. entrepreneurs open coffee shops that serve imported italian espresso to appeal to the tastes of these artists because they believe there is a burgeoning market and wish to profit. because artists are supposedly fringe, cutting edge, and “cool” , their forward thinking practices are mimicked by early adopters (people with more money than taste). more amenities are opened by motivated entrepreneurs to accommodate the influx of people with tastes different from those original residents. rents increase because property owners rent their properties to people with means. contracts are signed. money changes hands. word spreads. more people move. lots are sold to developers. rents increase again. entrepreneurs scramble to make offers on “worthless” buildings and my chicken place closes.
a sophist will describe this as neocolonialism because on the surface it is the migration of middle class white people to working class neighborhoods like *sigh* european ancestors colonizing african land. but you can’t colonize your own nation. property owners have rights, and the state is not forcing people out of property they legally own. the neighborhood doesn’t belong to anybody unless they are orthodox jews. contracts have replaced violence, and all people have the freedom to move about the country. any argument against these facts are arguments for segregation.
it’s fine to have moral issues with unthinking economic trends that benefit the wealthy and marginalize the poor while reducing crime and growing the living standards of the middle class, but scapegoating customers with disingenuous comparisons will not end gentrification.
likening gentrification to neocolonialism is not just insulting to the natives that were enslaved and exterminated, but it is also ignorant of neocolonialism’s covert techniques of occupation by proxy (i.e. post-war japan, pre-revolution iran) and humanitarian propaganda as invasion excuse (us occupied iraq & afghanistan via project for the new american century.) every taxpayer arguably funds neocolonism.
even the “educated” are misinformed by trendy zeitgeist. my efforts of gentrification documentation are chronicled in the work right here (2013) and critiqued by guilted gentrifier and PhD candidate for performance studies at nyu tisch school of the arts olivia gagnon:
Unfortunately, the video disastrously misses its mark, as it fails in its supposed attempt to expose the violence of gentrification.
olivia thinks gentrification is violent and therefore believes that everybody else does too. in this way my video fails to expose her views of gentrification in a way she approves because it offers no opinion of gentrification. as previously stated, gentrification is not violent. there is no physical force exerted to physically harm a person or their private property. people are not killed; they move.
Mittiga’s interactions with gentrification’s victims (mostly people of color who are clearly living below the poverty line and /or are struggling with addiction) are shot through with an unfortunate irony, as his joking manner and faux-panic screams mock those who bear the real brunt of the neighborhood’s transformation.
i’d argue that drug addicts are victims of poverty and drug addiction. they don’t own, lease, or rent property. they only stand to lose a conveniently vacant property to abuse drugs undisturbed. people of color living below the poverty in my video are not harassed or mocked for living below the poverty line. victor, the hispanic man hired as a night watchman for a developing condo could be an example of gentrification creating jobs for “people living below the poverty line,” but i won’t assume he was living below the poverty line because of his skin color or line of work.
the irony is that i am living below the poverty line. still. and as a leaser i am always at risk of losing my apartment if the owner chooses not to extend our lease, or raise our rent, or just sell his property. quite possibly i am mocking myself, but that’s up to the viewer. i divulge nothing of my personal life in the video, yet olivia assumes to know all about me.
The sympathetic identification Mittiga attempts to foster with those he encounters ends up feeling like one more instance of exploitation, as his camera intrudes into intimate spaces of destitution. The audience at Grace Space that evening laughed as they watched “Right Here,” but I couldn’t help but feel troubled by the specter of privilege: it’s easy to laugh when one is safely ensconced on the other side of the camera. If Mittiga’s video is a sincere attempt to expose the tragic future of a rapidly changing Brooklyn neighborhood, then I can only wonder: whose future is he really most concerned with?
the exploitation critique is is too easy, i’ve heard it before. her evidence for this claim is easily debunked: the derelict house on jefferson st was private property that belonged to no one in the video. we were all trespassing. i trespassed without any prior knowledge of who was inside, though it was always a possibility i would find someone. i was driven by curiosity. they were driven by the need for a quiet place to get high. we respected each others different reasons for trespassing and always interacted amicably.
olivia vaguely assumes my privileges without listing them, and offers no evidence from the video to support these assumptions. for her sake i have listed the privileges that contributed to right here’s creation: i was privileged to be unemployed at the time of the filming, which allowed me the ample free time necessary to explore my neighborhood. i was privileged to be able to save up my money to buy a refurbished camera due to my apartment’s cheap rent. and i’m privileged that my life’s only tragedy was losing my kennedy fried chicken.
but tragic is olivia’s word, not mine. gentrification has benefits and it has drawbacks, but i don’t think either are tragic. i think genocide is tragic. i think misunderstanding of history and economics and self-inflicted guilt is tragic. i think life will never be fair, but that is not tragic, that is life.
where’s a good place to get some fried chicken around here?