A Witness to a Lost Imagination
John Bernd (1953–1988) was a pivotal figure in the 1980s downtown NYC dance scene. (Image credit: Dona Ann McAdams)
By Sarah Schulman
Prolific author, critic, and LGBTQ activist Sarah Schulman, who moderated a talk this season with Penny Arcade at the Bing, vividly takes on the ways HIV/AIDS and the forces of gentrification and cultural amnesia have affected once-diverse urban creative centers like New York's Lower East Side, where, in the early years of the epidemic, young avant-garde queer artists like the late choreographer John Bernd and his collaborator Ishmael Houston-Jones converged to make innovative and impassioned work.
It is not a conspiracy, but simply a tragic example of historic coincidence that in the middle of this process of converting low-income housing into housing for the wealthy, in 1981 to be precise, the AIDS epidemic began.
In my neighborhood, Manhattan’s East Village, over the course of the 1980s, real estate conversion was already dramatically underway when the epidemic peaked and large numbers of my neighbors started dying, turning over their apartments literally to market rate at an unnatural speed. As I watched my neighborhood transform, it was quickly apparent that the newly rehabbed units attracted a different kind of person than the ones who had been displaced and freshly died. Instead of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Eastern European and Italian immigrants, lesbians, noninstitutionalized artists, gay men, and other sexually adventurous and socially marginalized refugees from uncomprehending backgrounds living on economic margins (in an economy where that was possible), the replacement tenants were much more identified with the social structures necessary to afford newly inflated mortgages and rents. That is to say, they were more likely to be professionalized, to be employed in traditional ways by institutions with economic power and social recognition, to identify with those institutions, to come from wealthier families, and to have more financial support from those families. So the appearance and rapid spread of AIDS and consequential death rates coincidentally enhanced the gentrification process that was already underway.
Just as gentrification literally replaces mix with homogeneity, it enforces itself through the repression of diverse expression.
The process of replacement was so mechanical I could literally sit on my stoop and watch it unfurl. The replacement tenants had a culture of real privilege that they carried with them. I know that’s a word that is bandied about, and can be applied too easily in many arenas. But what I mean in the case of the gentrifiers is that they were “privileged” in that they did not have to be aware of their power or of the ways in which it was constructed. They instead saw their dominance as simultaneously nonexistent and as the natural deserving order. This is the essence of supremacy ideology: the self-deceived pretense that one’s power is acquired by being deserved and has no machinery of enforcement. And then, the privileged, who the entire society is constructed to propel, unlearn that those earlier communities ever existed. They replaced the history and experience of their neighborhoods’ former residents with a distorted sense of themselves as timeless.
Ishmael Houston-Jones, who danced with John Bernd in the '80s (Image credit: Pamela Moore)
That “those people” lost their homes and died is pretended away, and reality is replaced with a false story in which the gentrifiers have no structure to impose their privilege. They just naturally and neutrally earned and deserved it. And in fact the privilege does not even exist. And, in fact, if you attempt to identify the privilege you are “politically correct” or oppressing them with “reverse racism” or other nonexistent excuses that the powerful invoke to feel weak in order to avoid accountability. Gentrification is a process that hides the apparatus of domination from the dominant themselves.
Spiritually, gentrification is the 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, because the daily affirmation that people from other experiences are real makes innovative solutions and experiments possible. In this way, cities historically have provided acceptance, opportunity, and a place to create ideas contributing to freedom. Gentrification in the seventies, eighties, and nineties replaced urbanity with suburban values from the sixties, seventies, and eighties, so that the suburban conditioning of racial and class stratification, homogeneity of consumption, mass-produced aesthetics, and familial privatization got resituated into big buildings, attached residences, and apartments. This undermines urbanity and re-creates cities as centers of obedience instead of instigators of positive change.
Scenes from a Life and other works by John Bernd
Just as gentrification literally replaces mix with homogeneity, it enforces itself through the repression of diverse expression. This is why we see so much quashing of public life as neighborhoods gentrify. Permits are suddenly required for performing, for demonstrating, for dancing in bars, for playing musical instruments on the street, for selling food, for painting murals, selling art, drinking beer on the stoop, or smoking pot or cigarettes. Evicting four apartments and replacing them with one loft becomes reasonable and then desirable instead of antisocial and cruel. Endless crackdowns on cruising and “public” sex harass citizens. The relaxed nature of neighborhood living becomes threatening, something to be eradicated and controlled.
Since the mirror of gentrification is representation in popular culture, increasingly only the gentrified get their stories told in mass ways. They look in the mirror and think it’s a window, believing that corporate support for and inflation of their story is in fact a neutral and accurate picture of the world. If all art, politics, entertainment, relationships, and conversations must maintain that what is constructed and imposed by force is actually natural and neutral, then the gentrified mind is a very fragile parasite.
Excerpted from The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination with permission from the University of California Press.
Upcoming Event: May 4 & 5
Variations on Themes from Lost and Found:
Scenes from a Life and other works by John Bernd