Gentrification: When the children of the suburbs kill a city

Writer Sarah Schulman on the ‘gated-community mentality’ of generation gentrification

Sarah Schulman, the writer, novelist, Aids historian, screenwriter, playwright, college professor, and more.

Driving through Greenwich Village in New York, Sarah Schulman, the writer, novelist, Aids historian, screenwriter, playwright, college professor, and more, points out the car window at a small, nondescript city garden.

The patch of land was once the site of the New York Women’s House of Detention, and as a child, Schulman remembers imprisoned women shouting out the windows at the street below, where pimps would gather. New York is full of things that were once there, and Schulman’s analysis of how gentrification operates examines how and why the cutting edge softens.

On March 10th, Schulman will deliver a keynote talk at the Town Hall Sessions, a series of talks curated by Dublin Theatre Festival artistic director Willie White, as part of thisispopbaby’s Where We Live festival. The festival, which features film screenings, theatre and more, takes place at the Complex in Smithfield, Dublin, itself the setting of a type of developer-led gentrification which has rendered the immediate area unrecognisable in just 20 years.

The car stops near the United Nations, where Schulman has turned up in solidarity with a small group of people protesting the imprisonment of Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi, including a group of supportive Orthodox Jews who are getting it in the neck from Israeli-flag-wielding counter-protestors.


Things get almost comically heated when Schulman makes the call - “okay, let’s go” - and strolls up to 2nd Ave Deli, where, over turkey and pastrami sandwiches the size of toddlers’ heads, celery soda, and one large knish, she discusses gentrification, the lessons Trump’s America can learn from Aids activism, and queer politics.

Foremost thinker on gentrification

A multidisciplinary writer, Schulman has published nine novels, with a tenth out this year. Her six works of non-fiction include the brilliant The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost ImaginationStagestruck: Theatre, AIDS and the Marketing of Gay America, and the recently lauded Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility and the Duty of Repair. She has written four plays, and produced four films, from the transgressive farce Mommy Is Coming to the powerful documentary United in Anger: A History of ACT UP. She is known as one of the foremost thinkers on gentrification, and as "the lesbian writer Rent ripped off," as Slate put it.

As an activist, she has participated in pro-choice direct actions, joined ACT UP and co-founded the Lesbian Avengers direct action group, was routinely arrested protesting the exclusion of LGBT people from St Patrick’s Day parades in America, is on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace, co-founded the New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival . . . the list goes on.

One of the connections Schulman makes in The Gentrification of the Mind, is between the mass deaths of gay men, and how the emptying housing stock and neighbourhoods became gentrified. "It's not just gay men, it's also drug users," Schulman says.

“There were significant neighbourhoods that had very high Aids deaths here because of IV drug use. It’s not discussed broadly because the history of Aids is completely erased in the United States. I mean, we’re sitting in a city where about 90,000 people died of HIV/Aids and you would never know it. There’s no recognition. . .

“It’s also a city where 3,000 people died in 9/11 and [that] has become a cultural fetish of repetition. So, you know, certain lives matter and other lives are considered negligible. And that’s why our country - which has had over 500,000 Aids deaths - has never engaged in it.”

 Activism lessons

Yet the lessons from Aids activism remain pertinent today. “I think there are a lot of reasons why Aids activism succeeded, but one of the number one ones was that the movement did not use consensus. I think that’s a huge lesson. They really were structured in such a way that people could be where they were at. Movements that try to force people to be at a place that they’re not at, fail. Movements that try to force people to try to all share the same analysis, or use the same language, or do the same strategies, fail. They always have failed. Movements that are very open, and allow lots of difference, lots of different approaches and different analyses, are the movements that can succeed, at least in America.”

Regarding the frequent use of the term "political correctness," Schulman wrote that it is "the classic supremacy response to demands of accountability." Her thoughts on the victimhood stance taken by those doing the oppressing are equally clear. Her 2016 book Conflict Is Not Abuse, is, she says, "very relevant given Trump and his discourse about how he's such a victim and it's so sad and it's a witch-hunt. This is a very typical language trope for people who are perpetrators to describe themselves as victims. At the same time, he takes people who are actually victims - which are immigrants - and makes them scapegoats for globalisation, which is actually caused by the white one per cent."

 Homogenising cities

Schulman’s analysis of anything at all is interesting, such as her compelling argument for how the gentrification of cities is caused by suburbanisation. “Prior to World War Two there were no suburbs,” she says, “People lived in small towns, which is completely different [to] a suburb. Suburbanisation is this kind of like racially stratified, conservative, privatised families living in identical housing, where there’s chain stores and car culture. It’s not an organic village that grows over time. This produced a certain kind of person that never existed before, because historically, people from small towns came to cities because they wanted freedom.

“They wanted to have sex, or make art, or get away from religion, or whatever. They would come to the city and they would get urbanised and enter into city life. But suburbanites, people who grew up in a gated community mentality, they didn’t come to New York to become New Yorkers, they came here to change New York. So you see that generation, that’s who gentrifiers are, children of the suburbs. They really trust authority, and they believed in policing, and they brought a gated community mentality. They like homogeneity and they are more comfortable with it. They’re threatened by the mix. . . When you homogenise a city, you kill it. . . Difference is what produces things like women’s liberation or gay liberation. They weren’t invented in the suburbs. They came from urbanisation. So now we have cities that don’t have urbanity because they’re homogenised. That’s very serious.”

‘We’re a disaster’

And serious America’s situation is. “We’re a disaster! I mean, you’re here in the middle of a national cataclysm,” Schulman says. “Look at what’s happening here. It’s falling in front of our eyes. And we have a population that can’t conceptualise. A lot of that is based in racial separation. The only constituency that really is aware, is black women. Black women have been the best citizens, the most active participants in society in terms of voting rates and organisations, but that’s a small minority.”

That week in America, a new kind of student movement was emerging from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida. “It’s a really interesting movement because it’s interracial,” Schulman says, “They’re very radical. They’re not invested in the systems. They’re extremely charismatic. They’re ethical. Morality is on their side. Their enemies are evil. I mean, there’s a lot of potential there. Maybe something exciting will come from that, you know? I don’t know. I think that we’re in a moment where no one knows what’s going to happen in five minutes.”

  • The Gentrification of the Mind, a keynote address by Sarah Schulman, takes place at 2.30pm on March 10th in The Complex, 15 Little Green St, Smithfield, Dublin.