Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The perils and pitfalls of nostalgia, especially for urban planning

Gentrification is an invasion, an occupation by the middle and upper classes of lower class neighborhoods in a nostalgia-fueled revel to secure the promise that has been the American social narrative for seventy-five years: Carefree living in the cradle of familiarity. The hostile takeover of real estate, especially urban neighborhoods, to craft fantasy into reality has been the aim of those who can afford it at the expense of those who cannot stop it since the turn of the twentieth century.

Nostalgia is dangerous. If for no other reason than it takes our focus away from the present, it is dangerous to our peace of mind. In its worst forms, it devalues the present in favor of a romanticized version of the past, one that likely never existed and never could, and holds this bit historical romance as the standard against we are all measured and, naturally, found wanting. Nostalgia might seem harmless, endearing, even, but it is an engine of discontent that drives social ills far and wide, and gentrification might be amongst the worst of its crimes.

In the case of urban planning and daily life, nostalgia-through-gentrification assumes that a different time was easier, simpler, safer, and ultimately more carefree. When we look at the ads for planned communities from any era, the halcyon call of fewer cares remains a constant, despite the differences of how we are told that this thriving and serene outcome will be reached.

When Trump comes in talking about “renewal,” he is suffering from his own form of nostalgia, electing not to see or to regard the history of what the underclass and disenfranchised, Black more often than not, in America have suffered in the quest for “renewal.” Urban planners and Trump advisers alike would do well to acquaint themselves of the history of renewal in the United States as the upper echelons of society have made it highly lucrative for developers to spin their tales of foursquare and loft bastions of golden contentment. As a society, we regard ourselves as rugged individualists, possessed of an enterprising and scrappy spirit forged on the advancing lines of the American Frontier. We have, especially through the twentieth century, prided ourselves on our ability to succeed in competition, personally and professionally. And yet, we seem to crave the opposite of competition in our home lives, a garden of tranquility in which effort is rendered nearly irrelevant, a place where we are, at long last, content.

The history of urban renewal in the United States is on of state-sanctioned land-grabbing for the upper classes for the profit of developers at the forcible displacement of the lower middle and poor classes who already live in these areas, typically without beautification and community services that will be brought in to justify and attract those who can afford the upscale price tag for areas that were once avoided by walkers and drivers alike.

Public transit, for example, is free and plentiful all day downtown courtesy of the Star Trolley -- a nod to the intersection of of nostalgia and branding -- which runs at every stop no less than every 15 minutes. The working population it serves are predominantly upper middle class medical staff, legal staff, or other professional and executive workers. Meanwhile, in neighborhoods where residents are less likely to own a care, transportation is less available, expensive, and fraught with negotiations from pass purchase to routes and schedules, to say nothing of the crime level in these districts. These folks, often described as “less decent,” are seen as not able, willing or interested in making use of community services, even if they were available. Such an attitude, held by otherwise care and intelligent people, persists even in the most liberal camps. The social gospel continues to inform and shape our feelings about the poor as a nation.

One of the things I find ironic about the urban planning and development efforts in Roanoke is that it is gentrification that spurs the city to increase and improve community services, from the condition of the sidewalks to the complete renovation of a library for residents who, now that gentrification has taken place, only walk for leisure (as opposed to a method of transit to schools and work) and who are more likely to use the library as a place to get a coffee and sit to read their latest kindle purchases. The residents who would have used the parks, sidewalks and services to materially increase their quality of life are no longer able to afford the rent.

And speaking of rent, there is one thing that has changed in the thirty years since Hamnet wrote. These days, there is no longer a “tenure transition from renting to owning.” The social elite are, more than ever, willing to think of themselves as competent while offloading the responsibilities of life and ownership to staff, typically referred to as management. In the Riverhouse, an exemplary development effort of taking a disused, abandoned building of bygone industry, whose parking lot was used more for drug trade than for anything else, the rental includes the super high-speed internet we cannot live without these days, and building management extends to changing a light bulb for residents if you call (they will do it that day for $10, and no, residents aren’t allowed to do it themselves). We no longer cook our own food, preferring to let others make choices for us, and highlighting this way of life as somehow more simple, possessed of a purity that is desirable.

Yoga retreats bring us the mindless side of mindfulness, promising an idyllic weekend, week or month, while we are in charge of nothing more difficult than showing up through the day-long offerings of bliss. If we are truly to be mindful, we must own our lives and our existences, and the consequences we enact when we buy, rent, or use anything, from land to water to clothing. This is a challenge, not only for urban planners who want to provide the best for their residents in an increasingly-intense environment of municipal competition, but also for us as individuals, occupying a stream of stimulation and distraction that seems to grow exponentially each year.