The Complexity of Gentrification
Written by Christian O’Brien
As anti-gentrification protests become all the more heated, they raise questions that challenge some of the most accepted ideas of our time. These movements are especially pronounced in areas of California, where diversity is at its peak, arguably more so than anywhere else in human history. These areas produce conflicts like the one we see here, which features a group of anti-gentrification protesters in the heart of a Mexican-LA community. What they were protesting was a local art gallery, operated by the accused gentrifiers, who repeatedly assured the furious crowd that they were “on their side.”The clip was titled “Why Multiculturalism doesn’t work in one video.” This led to some confusion and pushback. Many viewers could not identify the link between anti-gentrification movements and multiculturalism. In their view, the two issues are always detached: the anxiety surrounding gentrification is economic, not cultural. In fact, to many of these critics, multiculturalism is somehow synonymous with racial diversity.
The language that’s spoken throughout the video is important to notice in order to fully grasp why these protests in particular are merely a ripple within a rising tide of cultural tension. After all, language lies at the root of every culture. Though it may not be immediately obvious, what ultimately drives this tension is the unwillingness to conform to the template of what made America prosperous in the first place. Most important is a shared, universally accepted language. In the absence of that,the inability to communicate effectively — by literally speaking the same language — results in an obvious and unavoidable friction. When an immigrant population believes that a substandard or nonexistent grasp on that skill is acceptable, they damage the social fabric, and limit their range of opportunity when English-speaking businessowners enter their communities. This is largely what contributes to these communities’ inability to compete with broader society.
When immigrant protesters proclaim ownership of an entire community, the only language they want to speak after living here for decades becomes suggestive of how they feel. As gentrifying businesses crop up in their communities, a replacement of some sort is begun. These new businesses — art galleries, cafes and restaurants — inevitably replace the old. Discussing this becomes uncomfortable when the time comes to recognize that maybe those previous establishments represented a different culture entirely. The anger the sight of these new businesses produces is one that, they feel, mirrors the MO of the country as a historical whole. Protesters like these operate under the belief that malicious actors are trying to drive out their people by raising rent and employing English-speakers exclusively. In reality, it’s a population being organically displaced by its insufficiency, and its unwillingness to embrace the new opportunities that are flooding onto their doorsteps. While these anxieties and misunderstandings occur in every society, multiculturalism widens existing fault lines. Where for some it’s cynically economic, in others it’s an affirmation of what was commonly believed already.
Often within these communities, America is conceptualized as a nation of imperialistic thieves. Signs such as “Make America Mexico Again” populate the political landscape, and few want to address the source of this deep seated resentment. In their mind, Mexico’s rampant violence and corruption can actually be traced, in some nefarious way, to American foreign policy or business interests. America isn’t innately prosperous because of the philosophy that undergirds it — it’s a parasite whose tentacles strangle the life out of the country they came from, and gentrification is another ploy to do the same in “their” communities. Democrats’ now mainstream calls to “Abolish ICE” validate this distrust and undercuts their willingness to recognize America as a legitimate nation.
For these reasons, this group champions the importance of their separate “community”, elevating it above the national community it’s situated within. Residents of Boyle Heights, in this instance, seem to identify with that area as something other than an American locality that anybody can join. This somehow comes from the same people who believe in open borders, while protesting new, innovative neighbors within their own communities. In a perverse twist, it’s a Mexican community that benefits from our institutions without making any effort to continue or even understand that tradition.
This anger purposely ignores the opportunities now made available to those willing to conform to the new order, while also lowering crime rates. Not to mention, the idea of widespread displacement is a myth in the first place.
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For these reasons, force, protests, and government intervention used to intimidate or preserve their current position is, simply put, at the expense of progress and bullheaded.
But before we can have any of these conversations for the good of these communities and the nation as a whole, we first must speak the same language. This means creating a massive incentive to learn English, through both social stigma and government policy. To strengthen the social bonds of a rapidly changing America, we need to come around a once-shared national ethos. As the fight for free speech becomes one of the most important debates we have today, we should also remember that this presumes our capability for speech period. Without the ability to clearly communicate, there is no foundation for the building blocks of our culture, and we will continue to seep into atomization, distrust and resentment. And the unfortunate truth is that, within many underperforming border communities, over half of its residents mainly speak Spanish. For much larger metropolitan areas, such as that of Los Angeles, which is the 2nd largest in the nation, that number is 36.7%. In others, such as El Paso, TX, that number is a worrying 72.4%.
Clearly, though, language isn’t where that conversation can end. The widespread misunderstandings that surround the idea of “cultural appropriation” spring to mind. While those culturally attached to America are more than eager to wear sombreros and kimonos in an exercise of cultural exchange, many still attached to hyphenated-Americanism reject this as unacceptable. But the historical record shows that by interweaving the elements of our origins into the broader American story, we can overcome our differences and prosper together. When you abandon the idea that your group “owns” a practice, you stop thinking of life in this country as a zero-sum game of your group vs. the outgroup. This mentality also reveals a serious lack of self-awareness when you consider the sheer number of cultural contributions all of us now rely on either for pleasure or necessity. While past immigrant groups faced much more hostility and lived in isolation from the American community, those differences were mended in large by what would now be considered “appropriation.”
Our institutions — academic, cultural, and governmental, have failed at every turn to urge immigrants to adopt those norms and traditions, and in fact make it their mission to do the exact opposite. This is all based on the failed experiment that emphasizing our differences is what makes us great. Except, our differences only put more distance between us if they don’t manifest within a shared social fabric. Hamfistedly insisting that your communities are a chamber insulated from the broader nation as well as its history and linguistic bonds undermines that cause. Ultimately, gentrification, if anything, is one of the greatest calls to assimilation. It depicts the flourishing that can be enjoyed by every member of American society if only they’re willing to embrace it.