Reviewed: The Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Schulman

Paradise lost.

Between 1981 and 1996, over 80,000 people died of Aids in New York City
Between 1981 and 1996, over 80,000 people died of Aids in New York City. Photograph: Getty Images

The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination
Sarah Schulman
University of California Press, 192pp, £19.95

Between 1981 and 1996, over 80,000 people died of Aids in New York City in conditions of horrifying ignorance and fear. Patients were left for days to die on gurneys in hospital corridors. Politicians and public figures called for those with Aids to be tattooed with their infection status or to be quarantined on islands. At the time, the “plague”, as the lesbian novelist, playwright and activist Sarah Schulman sometimes calls it, seemed like the beginning of the end of the world. Yet somehow, as treatment improved and the death rate declined, a seeming normality has been restored.

According to conventional wisdom, that somehow was a natural process, a slow shift from prejudice towards justice and effective care. When Schulman realised that this was becoming the official history of Aids in the United States, she was appalled. A long-standing member of Act Up, a directaction group formed to end the crisis, she knew precisely what was being elided: 15 years of struggle by people who were profoundly disenfranchised – queers, drug addicts and prostitutes, many of them now dead.

This process of banalisation, this insidious forgetfulness, seemed to reflect a larger cultural trend that has taken place in the wake of Aids: the ongoing creep of gentrification, the physical reconstitution of cities such as New York from diverse and vibrant to homogenised and bland, exclusive compounds for wealthy whites. In the post-Aids world, this tendency has spread like bindweed, suffocating diversity and bringing with it conservatism, disempowerment and passivity. Are the two linked, Schulman wonders? If so, why does it matter and what can be done about it?

Gentrification is never the result of a single factor. In New York, it was facilitated by tax incentives for developers and moratoriums on city-sponsored low-income housing. The role of Aids in all this was both coincidental and expedient. Because of rent control, properties couldn’t be moved to market rate unless the leaseholder either moved out or died. Aids accelerated turnover, changing the constitution and character of neighbourhoods far more rapidly than it would otherwise have been permitted. In the East Village, where Schulman lived, “The process of replacement was so mechanical I could literally sit on my stoop and watch it unfurl.” The new residents, for the most part the clean-cut citizenry of corporate America, were almost wholly ignorant of the people they’d displaced. In short order, an entire community of “risk-taking individuals living in oppositional subcultures, creating new ideas about sexuality, art and social justice”, had almost disappeared from record.

It’s hard to imagine, for those who have not lived through it, what it might be like to lose one’s entire community, one’s social circle, one’s peers and friends and lovers. It’s harder still to gauge what it might be like to have such a loss publicly unacknowledged or erased. Schulman hauls old enemies to account, among them Ronald Reagan and the late former mayor of New York Ed Koch, who by their homophobia, indifference and indecision permitted the disease to spread. “There has been no government inquiry into the 15 years of official neglect that permitted Aids to become a worldwide disaster,” she writes. “Where is our permanent memorial? Not the Aids quilt, now locked up in storage somewhere, but the government-sponsored invitation to mourn and understand.” It’s understandable that she might feel bitter at the institutional opulence of the 9/11 memorial to “the acceptable dead”, noting in a phrase both shocking and apt: “In this way, 9/11 is the gentrification of Aids.”

A self-declared old school avant-guardian, there’s nothing homogenised about Schulman’s counter-attack. The Gentrification of the Mind is best understood as a polemic, a passionate, provocative and at times scattergun account of disappearance, forgetfulness and untimely death. To her mind, the undigested, unacknowledged trauma of Aids has brought about a kind of cultural gentrification, a return to conservatism and conformity evident in everything from the decline of small presses to the shift of focus in the gay rights movement towards marriage equality.

The sorry thing about this is that the true message of the Aids years should have been that a small group of people at the very margins of society succeeded in forcing their nation to change its treatment of them. The memory of this lost moment of accountability drives Schulman’s final, stirring call for degentrification, her dream of a time in which people realise not only that it’s healthier to live in complex, dynamic, mixed communities than uniform ones but also that happiness that depends on privilege and oppression cannot by any civilised terms be described as happiness at all.

Olivia Laing is the author of “To the River” (Canongate, £7.99)