The Psycho-Geography of Gentrification in L.A.

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But what does this mean?

Much has been written about gentrification, but simply put it is the name for the rise of property values (and then ipso facto rent prices), resulting in displacement and often cultural erasure of those who were displaced. As Stuart Hall said, “race is the modality in which class is lived” and so by this logic gentrification is also deeply racialized. But what is the cause of this rise is more contentious. Some point to art galleries/spaces; others to international & national real estate speculation looking for new markets to profit off of; some see it is as a natural process of re-vitalization of areas once thought of as blight (if life under Capital could be seen as natural); some see the incursion of the (white) hipster as the cause. Suffice to say the cause is complex and may include all of these.

Now what is psycho-geography? In 1955, Guy Debord [a French anti-state communist who wrote much about art & cinema & The Spectacle] defined it as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” Of course, as gentrification attests, the physical environment we encounter does not effect all of us in the same way. Later in 1961, he clarified things a bit by saying, “sectors of a city…are decipherable, but the personal meaning they have for us is incommunicable.” We may all be able to see how hostile architecture (as seen below) works to discourage loitering and/or camping by the homeless, though others may not understand why the appearance of a juice bar (also seen below) may be just as offensive to some of us (especially since a Mexican juice & snack shop is right up the street selling the same thing at cheaper prices).

So psycho-geography could be a way to think about how certain spaces in a city could be seen as either welcoming, hostile or open-ended. Most spaces are very controlled in Los Angeles, though their control is highly racialized. For instance, public drinking is illegal in Los Angeles but curiously at art gallery openings, where a largely white audience take their Tecates or cheap red wine onto the sidewalks or street, there seems to be little enforcement of this law. The video below, take from a 2010 documentary on Skid Row, sheds some light on this racialization:

Part of the power of whiteness is that those emboldened by it feel they can and should be able to go anywhere and be safe. Freedom of movement and safety are two things we all desire, but because whiteness is something which demands defense under the White-Supremacist society we live in — that enforcement comes along with an armed gang with a monopoly on violence: The Police. There are countless of stories of white people calling the police on Black or brown people where there was indeed no threat and the Black or brown person ends up being brutalized or killed by the police. One of the clear fears of Black and brown proletarians who live in a neighborhood being gentrified is that with new white neighbors with money, so will come a police force who either would ignore their neighborhood in the past or would already terrorize their neighborhood. What were normal house parties would now attract aggressive police attention (house parties which occur because often bars/clubs prove too expensive for proletarians).

But what does “the real subsumption of everything to Capital” mean? This is a topic which has been explained much better in Ultra-Left communist texts than could be explained here, but briefly as Endnotes note in their second volume: “formal subsumption affects only the immediate labour-process, while real subsumption extends beyond the sphere of production to society as a whole.” Or as Théorie communiste put it, it is “capital becoming capitalist society.”

So, at one point in time Capital only absolutely controlled proletarians when at work, but over time Capital has been able to control proletarians non-labor time as well (“free time)”. Gentrification could very well be seen as the intensification of this control within (typically) the realm of the city. One of the tell-tale signs of gentrification is how what were once old mom-and-pop shops which likely fulfilled a need within a specific ethnic neighborhood (fresh tortillas and tamales!), transition to boutique or high-end shops which fulfill needs much more based on commodity-fetishism: the purchase of things (or services) not so much based on need but based on what they say about the purchaser:

I buy a coffee at Café de Leche because it says that I have refined taste in coffee and also that I have the disposable income to spend much more for something as banal as coffee, rather than picking up a cup from a Cambodian-owned donut shop for much less. I buy crystals supposedly-imbued with healing or other properties because I see they are part of a trend I've come across on Instagram (and I will post them on Instagram) vs. buying candles in a local botánica from a culture I don't know enough about to spin for social capital.

Interestingly enough many times defenders of gentrification advocates say that the changes brought by gentrification amount to bringing much needed services and/or access to certain commodities to poorer neighborhoods; or some even claim they are bringing culture & difference. The first claim assumes that residents wished they could pay more for the things already for sale in their neighborhoods. This second claim is rather ludicrous as anyone who has visited more than a few gentrified neighborhoods will attest to their sameness: juice shop, high-end café, yoga studio, crystal shop, wine shop, etc. What gentrification is bringing is the blight of middle-class/bourgeois whiteness. A blight which sees itself as the default and cannot imagine that those outside of it could not want what they want.

El Sereno starts to look like Highland Park which looks more and more like Echo Park which inevitably becomes annexed by Silver Lake.

More and more what could have been a street where people hung out on and could buy cheap snacks to pass the time becomes a place where one cannot visit without spending less than $20 (currently LA’s minimum wage can be as low as $10.50/hr). The last remnants of what some would call community disappears. A recent LA Times article on the creeping gentrification faced in Lincoln Heights notes how some people stay in this L.A Eastside neighborhood not just because it is still relatively cheap, but because they have found a place they cherish and call home. For the petit-bourgeois/bourgeois who see themselves as cosmopolitan and shuttle from living in one city to another and then on to another city based on whim or fancy, Lincoln Heights has no historical or personal meaning. Their newly-flipped rental (or mortgage) is just a nice place (with maybe a nice view).

  • "Oh you can see Downtown L.A. from here."
  • "It's so conveniently close to everything."
  • "It feels like a real L.A. neighborhood -- not like Echo Park does now."
  • "It's really an up-and-coming neighborhood!"
  • "If only it had a Trader Joe's!"

Gentrification is the further realization of the power of Capital over the lives of proletarians. And this realization says one thing loudly & clearly: you don’t matter and your connection to a place does not matter. Perhaps the coming years will continue to show a Los Angeles which says:

FUCK YOU, WE DON'T WANT TO LIVE WITHIN THE LOGIC OF WHAT CAPITAL THINKS MATTERS. WE WANT TO LIVE OUTSIDE OF ITS LOGIC AND WILL DESTROY CAPITAL IF NECESSARY.

Cuz we know when we drive or walk around a gentrifying Los Angeles we know that what we see is akin to a fuck you to the revolt of 1992. Capital is taking the city back and it’s time we remind Capital of what we can and will do.

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