I’ve been called a lot of things in my day, but never a colonialist. That is, until now.
Our neighborhood anarchists — grubby twenty-somethings who squat in abandoned buildings and wage war on local business owners’ surveillance cameras — have begun using that term to describe people like me: yuppies who move to a down-and-out urban area and purchase and rehab a dilapidated house.
Not only that, but we homeowners (the so-called gentry class) have the cheek to become involved in our communities in the hopes of making our streets more livable. Some of us even attend neighborhood meetings, organize neighborhood watch groups, pick up litter and report crime to the police.
What could possibly be wrong with that, you ask?
It’s a textbook case of gentrification, that’s what. Or worst case, it’s the new colonialism.
The term gentrification has been around since the 1960s. Our local hipsters, on the local hipster website, define the term as: “the process of renovating and improving (especially a house or district) so that it conforms to middle-class taste. [It] is entwined with issues of politics, class, and race” (my emphasis).
There it is again, that appalling “middle-class taste.” What could be more despicable? You wouldn’t think that buying a former crack house and turning it into a nice home would be “entwined with issues of politics, class and race,” but you would be mistaken.
Evidently, what makes homeowners like me so contemptible is that by purchasing and renovating a ramshackle house, by taking care of my property, and by working to make my street safer, I am potentially raising the value of my property. And if enough people like me move into my neighborhood (sadly, this is unlikely), it just might become a decent place to live.
That’s not to say there are no negative effects to gentrification. Sometimes an urban pioneering couple will purchase a rental property from some soulless slumlord who wants to get out of the business, and thereby take that particular piece of low-income housing off the market. This, of course, reduces the number of low-income/government subsidized housing units and forces would-be renters to find housing in some other dangerous, noise and litter-infested neighborhood, which is apparently a cruel injustice. Or so the argument goes.
NEW COLONIALISM is a whole other matter. It is not just idealistic urban pioneers passively displacing the poor from their neighborhoods — neighborhoods that forty or fifty years ago were made up of the working class — it is a more aggressive form of gentrification and comes complete with racial overtones.
Here, in the words of a stereotypical unrepentant socialist academic, is how people like me exploit the poor:
Gentrification is a continuum of modern man’s land and human exploitation. Similar to colonialism, gentrification not only usurps local and economic power to newer and often wealthier residents, there are also implied class and racial components attached to it as well. A number of individuals amass wealth and power through gentrification…both gentrification and colonialism require an economically empowered few…to economically and politically displace one group for another, while achieving financial gain and political power.
The individuals supposedly amassing wealth are, of course, the capitalists, i.e., the landlords, contractors, real estate developers, and bankers. With the exception of the drug dealers, I have yet to see anyone amassing wealth in my neighborhood. Though, unlike the opponents of gentrification, I would not have a problem with that.
Here in St. Louis the gentry class is by no means affluent or powerful. They are, with the exception of me, liberal, lower-middle class idealists who work in social services or nonprofits or own small unsustainable businesses. All are guilt-ridden Obama supporters who moved to the city because they loathe the “staid, conformist suburbs” and longed to live among the “real people.”
Far from being demonized, the gentry class ought to be prized for leaving the security of the suburbs and risking everything on a ramshackle house in the ghetto, for bringing a semblance of order and stability to deteriorating neighborhoods, and, not least, for making city life a bit more tolerable.