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Reflections

Gentrification and the AIDS epidemic

Charlie Clemoes
New York

Sarah Schulman’s book The Gentrification of the Mind explores the wide reaching impact of the AIDS epidemic on New York and American culture more generally

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Sarah Schulman’s book The Gentrification of the Mind is about the AIDS epidemic and the huge, criminally forgotten impact it had on New York’s cultural life and its queer scene. Published in 2011, it remains a crucial text for understanding the broader mechanisms enabling the process of gentrification.

Schulman begins the book by naming the two most gentrified cities in the US: New York and San Francisco. She then names the most gentrified neighbourhoods in Manhattan: East Village, West Village, Lower Eastside, Harlem, and Chelsea and compares them to the findings of a report on the social impact of AIDS, published in 1993 by the National Research Council, which recorded that Manhattan’s highest rates of infection were also in Chelsea (1,802 per 100,000), Lower Eastside East Village (1,434 per 100,000), Greenwich Village (1,175 per 100,000), and Harlem (722 per 100,000), as compared, for example, to the less gentrified Upper Eastside which had 597 deaths per 100,000.

In these areas, AIDS-related deaths had the effect of drastically increasing the turnover of apartments. They also allowed landlords to side-step the limits imposed by rent controls, since the partner of the deceased was not legally entitled to inherit the lease (which often also meant that they were forced to vacate shortly after their partner’s death).

“The Polish butcher was replaced by a suburban bar”

In their place came a predominantly white, middle class cohort, raised in the suburbs and looking for a bit of edge, yet bringing their own tastes with them and gradually forcing out the diverse businesses these neighbourhoods already had to offer: “The corner bodega that sold tamarind, plantain, and yucca was replaced by an upscale deli that sells Fiji Water, the emblematic yuppie product. Habib’s falafel stand, where he knew everyone on the block and put extra food on your plate when you were broke—he was replaced by a “Mexican” restaurant run by an NYU MBA who never puts extra food on your plate. An Asian fish store was replaced by an upscale restaurant. The Polish butcher was replaced by a suburban bar.”

For the most part, we understand gentrification as an urban or economic process. It is that, to be sure, but Schulman identifies some other important qualities. “Spiritually,” Schulman writes, “gentrification is removal of the dynamic mix that defines urbanity—the familiar interaction of different kinds of people creating ideas together. Urbanity is what makes cities great.”

“Gentrification works much more effectively if it can exploit death”

She also sees this process of homogenisation as something which can happen just as much to the artistic process as it can to a specific inner-city neighbourhood. “There is something inherently stupid about gentrified thinking. It’s a dumbing down and smoothing over of what people are actually like.” Schulman’s book also reminds us that, while gentrification may often work by gradually pricing people out, it works much more effectively if it can exploit death. People who are priced out can fight back in a way that the dying cannot and they aren’t so easily forgotten as those who have died from a heavily stigmatised illness.

The act of forgetting factors heavily in Schulman’s book. One moment that sticks out is when she recalls almost forgetting someone she knew, Mark Fotopoulos, until he kept appearing in footage she was reviewing for United in Anger, a documentary on the history of AIDS activist organisation ACT UP. Fotopoulos was always standing alone at demonstrations with a placard that read “Living with AIDS 2 Years and 3 Months, no thanks to you Mr. Reagan” with the date updating every month. She didn’t immediately realise, but he stops appearing in later footage: “Maybe one day he just didn’t feel well enough to come out with his sign, and he stopped coming altogether, and then he died”. He had become an apparition. In another moment, she recalls spotting a dumpster filled with a lifetime’s collection of playbills, a sign that “another gay men had died of Aids, his belongings dumped in the gutter”.

The Gentrification of the Mind is a book intended to fight this process of erasure, which is, after all, one of the most important tools in the gentrifier’s arsenal. Gentrification only works if we do not have to reckon with its underlying violence and indecency.

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