Reviewed: The Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Schulman

Paradise lost.

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)

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

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

David McNew/Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Wood Wide Web: the world of trees underneath the surface

Mycorrhizal networks, better known as the Wood Wide Web, have allowed scientists to understand the social networks formed by trees underground.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden, an extensive rumination on his two years, two months and two days spent in a cabin in the woodlands near Walden Pond. It was situated on a plot of land owned by his friend, mentor and noted transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau’s escape from the city was a self-imposed experiment - one which sought to find peace and harmony through a minimalistic, simple way of living amongst nature. Voicing his reasons for embarking on the rural getaway, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Walden cemented Thoreau’s reputation as a key figure in naturalism; his reflections have since been studied, his practices meticulously replicated. But in the knowledge that Thoreau’s excursion into the woods was a means to better understand how to integrate into society, curious minds are left to wonder what essays and aphorisms Thoreau would have produced had he known what the botanists of today know of nature’s very own societal networks.

As scientists have now discovered, what lies beneath the ground Thoreau walked upon, and indeed beneath the ground anyone walks upon when near trees, is perhaps the most storied history and study of collaborative society in something which is now known as the mycorrhizal network or the “Wood Wide Web”.

Coined by the journal Nature, the term Wood Wide Web has come to describe the complex mass of interactions between trees and their microbial counterparts underneath the soil. Spend enough time among trees and you may get a sense that they have been around for centuries, standing tall and sturdy, self-sufficient and independent. But anchoring trees and forestry everywhere, and therefore enjoining them into an almost singular superoganism, is a very intimate relationship between their roots and microbes called mycorrhizal fungi.

Understanding the relationship between the roots of trees and mycorrhizal fungi has completely shifted the way we think about the world underneath them. Once thought to be harmful, mycorrhizal fungi are now known to have a bond of mutualism with the roots – a symbiotic connection from which both parties benefit.

Despite the discovery being a recent one, the link between the two goes as far back as 450 million years. A pinch of soil can hold up to seven miles worth of coiled, tubular, thread-like fungi. The fungi release tubes called hyphae which infiltrate the soil and roots in a non-invasive way, creating a tie between tree and fungus at a cellular level. It is this bond which is called mycorrhiza. As a result, plants 20m away from each other can be connected in the same way as plants connected 200 metres away; a hyphal network forms which brings the organisms into connection.

At the heart of the mutualistic relationship is an exchange; the fungi have minerals which the tree needs, and the trees have carbon (which is essentially food) which the fungi need. The trees receive nitrogen for things such as lignin – a component which keep the trees upright, and various other minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper and more. In return, fungi get the sugars they need from the trees’ ongoing photosynthesis to energise their activities and build their bodies. The connection runs so deep that 20-80% of a tree’s sugar can be transferred to the fungi, while the transfer of nitrogen to trees is such that without the swap, trees would be toy-sized.

It’s a bond that has resulted in some remarkable phenomena. Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia, has researched into these back and forth exchanges and has found that rather than competing against one another as often assumed, there is a sort of teamwork between the trees facilitated by the mycorrhizal fungi.

In one particular example, Simard looked at a Douglas fir tree planted next to a birch tree. Upon taking the birch tree out, there was a completely unexpected result: the fir tree – instead of prospering from the reduced competition for sunlight – began to decay and die. The trees were connected underground via the mycorrhizal system, transferring carbon, nitrogen and water to one another, communicating underground, talking to each other. As Simard says in her TED talk, “it might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”

It has been documented that trees share food not just with trees of the same species, but with trees of all kinds of species, forming a social network which some have come to describe as a socialist system. Growth rates are positively affected while seedlings face greater chances of survival. There is in fact a group of plants – the mycoheterotrophic plants of which there are around 400 species – which wouldn’t survive without the mycorrhizal network. These plants are unable to photosynthesise and are therefore heavily dependent on other plants for carbon and minerals.

Over the years, Thoreau has had his fair share of critics who deemed his trip to the woods nothing more than an exercise in self-indulgence and narcissism. Perhaps if Thoreau had the chance to head back to Walden Pond with the knowledge of the Wood Wide Web at hand, he would fully understand that no one man is an island, as no one tree is a forest.