The Gentrification of the Mind

Sarah Schulman

As with most historical traumas of abuse, the perpetrators — the state, our families, the media, private industry — have generally pretended that the murder and cultural destruction of AIDS, created by their neglect, never took place. They pretend that there was nothing they could have done, and that no survivors or witnesses are walking around today with anything to resolve. They probably believe, as they are pretending, that the loss of those individuals has had no impact on our society, and that the abandonment and subsequent alienation of a people and culture does not matter.

This memoir of the AIDS crisis and analysis of its parallels to gentrification might be the best book of the year for me due to its concise power. Schulman begins with a story of hearing an NPR feature about the twentieth anniversary of AIDS and finding herself aghast that the activism she was a part of is erased into the general public just “coming around” to accept people with AIDS. Groups like ACT UP brought attention to a crisis those in power were trying to ignore and eventually achieved the situation today where much less people contract and die from the disease (though living with HIV brings its own problems).

I’m sure not everyone will agree with the extent of Schulman’s criticism — in particular her words against anyone deciding to raise children seem especially harsh! — but it was interesting that she spoke with frustration of Barnes and Nobles’s gay and lesbian section “upstairs on the fourth floor behind the potted plants.” Maybe just a month ago I listened to a long-time West Village resident who spoke of the shuttered B&N there that became a makeshift memorial where Mark Carson was killed. She spoke almost longingly for “the shelf” and the potential it had represented to her, then how shaken she felt to see that space framing a memory of violence.

Eventually there’s something hopeful about this book, though the process of degentrification doesn’t seem easy.

Herein lies the problem. We live with an idea of happiness that is based in other people’s diminishment. But we do not address this because we hold an idea of happiness that precludes being uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable is required in order to be accountable. But we currently live with a stupefying cultural value that makes being uncomfortable something to be avoided at all costs. Even at the cost of living a false life at the expense of others in an unjust society… Being uncomfortable or asking others to be uncomfortable is practically considered antisocial because the revelation of truth is tremendously dangerous to supremacy. As a result, we have a society in which the happiness of the privileged is based on never starting the process towards becoming accountable. If we want to transform the way we live, we will have to reposition being uncomfortable as a part of life, as part of the process of being a full human being, and as a personal responsibility.