Joe Sparrow : Super-local socialism and disappearing Diners: New York City’s cowardly rush for gentrification
It’s a creaking cliché to discuss how New York and London are losing their soul in the relentless, remorseless rush for gentrification.
But the feeling of helplessness in observers like me who think that it’s a deeply sad state of affairs mean that it will be discussed endlessly, until the whole depressing process has finally turned these great cities into the middle-class theme parks they are destined to be.
Try to read this NY Times article without letting out a big, long, deep sigh.
“It’s going from a family neighborhood to a corporate neighborhood,” Mr. Gouvakis said, though most would probably say it has already gone.
The tremendous pressure of money on that pushes families like Mr Gouvakis’ out of their neighbourhoods is not about improvement, evolution, or even simple economics.
Put more simply, it’s a lizard-brain act of cowardice: by rich cowards, for other rich cowards, to make ‘grubby’ areas more palatable for their cowardly world-view that eschews mild risk, minor discomfort, gentle experimentation or slight acceptance of otherness.
When I was living in Greenpoint in Brooklyn, there was a diner next to the Greenpoint subway station called Three Decker, and going there for breakfast and coffee with Gem is still my favourite memory of NYC.
I based all of my expectations of NYC on TV, movies and Beastie Boys LPs. Excitingly, Three Decker was exactly as I’d imagined NYC to be.
There was a friendly, wry, gruff woman behind the counter asking if I wanted “caw-fee”, who slung out great big bowls of the stuff – and then refilled it without asking, which I honestly thought was a thing that only happened in the movies for the sake of dialogue continuity.
The whole place had a community, family, working-class feel. There were a few young hipster lifestyle-tourists (of which I guess I was one too), but really, it was too pleasingly uncool to be co-opted by that crowd.
I loved everything about it, and the simple but deeply satisfying food. The place was exactly the kind of socialism I enjoy: good food, hard work and a warm, caring welcome to all and sundry.
I also remember worrying, channeling an estate agent’s eye: this is a neighbourhood on the up, this location is primo, how much rent would a Starbucks command here?
On one hand, everything moves on, and everything must come and go – that’s why going for breakfast in that diner was so great to experience: one day, this café and all these people will be gone.
But on the other hand, a relentless, rapid, death-by-a-thousand-cuts disappearance of these non-corporate, meat-and-potatoes places seems like a total betrayal of the working (wo)man’s society.
We’re all middle class now, apparently; except for the huge majority who aren’t, and are being marginalised at the expense of individuality, family and the opportunity to make their own lives better (or just to control it) without being in kow-tow with big corporations.
Putting the means of production in the hands of the workers is not just about moustachioed revolutionaries handing the keys of the factories over to the workers; or even Startup World™ providing bunch of buzz-word #lifehack #apps that allow us to bypass middlemen of old.
It’s also about small-level socialism: family, community, and being able to eat, drink and read the paper in places that belong to the workers too. The Three Deckers of the world are not just scrapping to keep trading, but for the very soul of our cities.
I suppose there’s no simple solution to saving and evolving these places so that they can survive money’s stupefying, paint-the-town-grey onslaught – but putting one’s money where one’s mouth is and supporting the small guys would be a good start.