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AIDS and (Its) Gentrification

By Alan Davies


Sarah Schulman / The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost
/ University of California Press / 2012

For several years I’ve been considering the sprawl of MFA and BFA
programs with which we have become inflicted / the fact that people
talk about having “workshopped” a poem / and about the course
they’ve taken in “journaling” / these terms seeming somehow self-
evidently empty / vacuous / striving without finding. Our literature is
so infected nowadays by “creative writing” as it’s taught and imagined
– that we stop being aware that we’re being made unaware.

I was struck then by what Sarah said in a talk at St Mark’s Book
Shop – MFA programs are to the world of art what gentrification is to
your neighborhood
. She had hit the head on the nail (if you know
what I mean). In the book she refers to MFA programs as markers of
caste and brand

The book poses the much broader gentrification question –
What is this process? What is this thing that homogenizes
complexity, difference, dynamic dialogic action for change and
replaces it with sameness? With a kind of institutionalization of
culture? With a lack of demand on the powers that be? With

She answers it clearly – To me, the literal experience of
gentrification is a concrete replacement process. Physically it is an
urban phenomena: the removal of communities of diverse classes,
ethnicities, races, sexualities, languages, and points of view from the
central neighborhoods of cities, and their replacement by more
homogenized groups. With this comes the destruction of culture and
relationship, and this destruction has profound consequences for the
future lives of cities.

Her book is concerned with the relationship between
gentrification and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s / with the fact that it
allowed New York City to replace those people who died – and they
were often artists / sexually diverse / forward-looking / articulate –
with people that were relatively bland and unassertive. Statistics to
prove this might be difficult to marshal (Sarah does offer statistics in
support of her thesis) / but those of us who lived through those years
in the East Village and elsewhere saw that happening / and we
experienced its results (the influx of young urban professionals / the
incursion of brand name stores / the decline of grass roots
organizations / the replacement of courageous artists with college-
trained ones / and so on). Just as gentrification literally replaces mix
with homogeneity, it enforces itself through the repression of diverse

Put bluntly / and in material terms – So for every leaseholder
who died of AIDS, an apartment went to market rate.

Sarah’s thesis is that this physical gentrification does not occur
alone — … there was also a spiritual gentrification that was affecting
people who did not have rights, who were not represented, who did
not have power or even consciousness about the reality of their own
condition. There was a gentrification of the mind, an internal
replacement that alienated people from the concrete process of social
and artistic change.

Gentrification replaces most people’s experiences with the
perceptions of the privileged and calls that reality.

Sarah contrasts the relative silence in response to the more
than 80,000 New Yorkers who have died of AIDS / with the vast
outpouring of feeling for the less than 3,000 who died in the World
Trade Center. For in the end, all this self-deception and replacing,
this prioritizing and marginalizing, this smoothing over and pushing
out, all of this profoundly affects how we think. That then creates
what we think we feel.
Among the very fine parts of this book / are
the pages she devotes to remembering some of the people she knew
who died of AIDS / memorializing them for the vigor of their lives / for
their commitment to others / and for the works of art that they

She also notes a positive aspect of the constructive rebellion
that the AIDS epidemic released in some – The true message of the
AIDS crisis is that making people with power accountable works.
goes without saying / that this byproduct of a horrible epidemic / is the
work of those who suffered / and of their friends / and not at all of
those who stood by and watched.

A chapter of the book is devoted to what Sarah terms The
Gentrification of Gay Politics
. She sees a significant shift / from the
radical organizing and vigorous forms of response to the AIDS crisis /
to the statements of those who have been selected now to speak for
the gay community / who are vetted because their message is
relatively bland / and because the dominant hetero-culture has
nothing to fear from their message. They ignore (eg) the fact that –
Separating distinctions between the sexually explicit and the
politically necessary would never make sense.

In and around these central theses / Sarah weaves cautions
about the inadvisability of motherhood / the difficulties of making
higher education work / and her own experience as a tenured
professor. The book is a sort of extended editorial / that strives
always to keep the key point about AIDS and gentrification at its
center. Let’s end with the following statement / which she makes
generously about the potential for all of us – The impulse to express
and understand will always compel some people with integrity. And
integrity has its own strange trajectory – greater than any one person.

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Tuesday, April 9th, 2013 by Alan Davies.