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

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Tracey Thorn: I’m nostalgic for revolutionary feminism and the whiff of patchouli

Off the Record.

A couple of weeks ago I happened upon a BBC4 documentary called Property Is Theft, about squatting in the late 1970s and 1980s. Great old footage of Villa Road in Brixton was intercut with present-day interviews with the former squatters, reminiscing about those righteous, ideological times. Pumped full of theory, living out their ideals of deconstructing the nuclear family and opting out of capitalist society, they were a beguiling mix of the inspiring and the nutty.

Their fundamental point – that housing is a basic right and a nexus of inequality – still rang clear as a bell. They had inhabited buildings that were earmarked for demolition, and saved them. A three-bedroom flat in one of those houses now goes for half a million-plus. So much for the revolution they all believed was imminent.

But other aspects of their thought and practice seemed too niche to catch on, too purist to accommodate human contradiction. Their living conditions were pretty squalid, which probably put off any working-class families dreaming of a better life, and so the community consisted of young, highly politicised graduates, most of them white – the Rastafarians apparently all living in the next street along.

The old clips made the past seem both familiar and strange. You could smell the 1970s: the lentil bake and patchouli, the dope and the wet towels, all mixed up with a whiff of bullshit – cranky theories, a houseful of primal screaming. I was hooked and, on enquiring, discovered that this programme was the first episode in a series called Lefties, made by Vanessa Engle in 2006. I waited in vain for part two to appear, but eventually found it on YouTube. Called Angry Wimmin, it tells the story of the birth of late-1970s revolutionary feminism, and again, it’s full of cracking stuff.

It opens with Sheila Jeffreys singing a revised version of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” – “Men grow bald as they grow old/And they all lose their charms in the end./All men are wankers,/Said Christabel Pankhurst./WIMMIN are a girl’s best friend” – and moves on to tell of how feminists broke away from the socialist movement, defining women as a class of their own and declaring, “Men Are the Enemy!”

There are scenes of women sitting around a campfire and making the vagina sign with their hands; in full karate kit taking self-defence classes; and in dungarees, doing DIY, resolutely sawing and hammering, manlessly happy. The women relate how the removal of the word “men” led to the new framing “womben” – or, more usually, “wimmin”, which was soon adopted as a term of mockery. I remember how, in the early 1980s, Ben’s parents had a party invitation from the playwright John Osborne propped up on their mantelpiece, at the bottom of which were printed the words “NO WIMMIN”. Even then it made me fume.

The language policing sometimes went too far, demanding, say, that instead of “Oh God!” you should cry, “Oh Goddess!” Separatism led some to establish all-women households, which were then taunted by local lads, one neighbour posting a nude photo of himself through the letter box in a kind of early, analogue trolling.

Male violence led women in Leeds to set up Women Against Violence Against Women. It was the era of the Yorkshire Ripper. I was in Hull at the time, just near enough to feel the chill of his presence, and I remember the Reclaim the Night protests, and the resentment at the police advice not to be out alone after dark, imposing a curfew on the victims, not the perpetrators.

The documentary ends with Vanessa Engle asking if they are all still revolutionary feminists, and they mostly are, many working in the field of domestic violence. One woman asks Engle if she calls herself a feminist. Momentarily nonplussed, she replies, “Yeah, I’ve always thought so, but no one really asks me any more.” They laugh and conclude that feminists are “on their way to becoming an extinct species”.

Well. We’ll see about that.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit