This past week, I went to New York for a couple of days to catch some gigs and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge for the first time in my life. Cue my departed grandmother: “If all your friends jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do it, too?” Grandmom, if you’re up there, the answer is “probably, yes.”
I’m frankly fascinated by the so-called “Great Inversion” in which, we are reliably told, the next generation of affluent young whites will move to the inner city to live vibrant childless hipster bodega lives, driving housing prices through the roof and banishing the uneducated poor to newly ghetto-ized suburbs. Where the next generation of affluent young whites will be found is anybody’s guess, since as a group middle-class American white people have chosen to voluntarily self-exterminate through lack of interest in having children. You can think of it as “Subliming” if you’re an Iain Banks fan, and the idea is the same. An entire culture has looked at the future and the responsibilities attached to that future and responded with a hearty “Fuck that, I’d rather drink craft beer.”
It’s been rather convincingly argued that it ain’t working, and that American cities are more poverty-stricken and hopeless than ever before. You’d have to be blind, however, not to see that nearly every formerly-scuzzy pothole-rathole from Brooklyn to the Tenderloin has installed, or is currently installing, some sort of sanitized Downtown Disney for the convenience of newly-converted urbanites. My adopted hometown of Columbus is no exception — and, as you might expect, not all is going smoothly.
Some time ago, the Powers That Be in Columbus conspired to forcibly shut down a large-scale encampment of homeless people on the bank of the Scioto River. (“Not my finest hour,” was how one of the people involved described it to me.) This land was then used for a park and a pricey restaurant called “Milestone 229”. I’ve never been, but I’ve gone by it a couple hundred times and it attracts exactly the kind of people you would think want to eat an $80 meal in downtown Columbus. The park has a set of fountains and a fair amount of open area. In hot weather, the fountains attract the families and children who live in and around downtown.
We’ve established that the new generation of urban dwellers is childless, so take that in mind when you read the Clash Of The Fountains article in my local paper. I’ll excerpt a few relevant bits:
Columbus’ decision to shorten the time that children can play in the Scioto Mile fountains at Bicentennial Park came after complaints from people living in nearby high-rise condos and the owners of the restaurant at the park.
Doug Griggs, co-owner of Milestone 229, the restaurant next to the park, also said children were climbing the retaining wall near the restaurant and running onto the patio. Once, wet children made it into the restaurant’s lobby and took mints.
Gretchen McBeath, a longtime resident of Waterford Tower, the condominium building that rises just south of the fountains, wrote the city in June 2012, a year after the park opened, complaining about blaring music and loud children.
“I know I am supposed to enjoy hearing the children playing, but that has gotten old very fast and it has continued without letup,” she wrote. “I really wonder whether the people of Columbus have to be so constantly entertained all of the time at the expense of the peace and quiet we purchased when we bought into the Waterford.”
“But my husband and I would be lying in bed at 10:30 at night, and all we heard was all this noise from the park,” she said. “We’re trying to coexist with the park, but it’s all a little much for residents there.”
Having ridden a bicycle through the fountain area, I can tell you that what is going on is nothing more complicated than the intersection of two racial-cultural groups. The fountains are packed with black kids (the claptrap from the developers about “rich kids and poor kids playing together” can be safely ignored) who are amazingly loud and vibrant and disrespectful of things like quiet eighty-dollar-a-plate dinners. Today, they’re taking the mints. What will they do tomorrow?
Black children have lived in downtown Columbus since there was a downtown Columbus, and they are a known quantity, so I’d venture to say that they aren’t really causing the problem here. The problem is with a group of people who simultaneously wanted to get in on the ground floor (read: pay less money to be part of) a revitalized Columbus downtown and be assured that there was no vibrant ethnic behavior in the area when they arrived. Somebody told them, whether subtly or explicitly, that the black people would be gone by the time they got there. That the homeless camps would be cleared out, that the streets would be policed with aggression, and that they’d be free to do stupid shit like let 25-year-old women walk through the East Village at 12:45am wearing a miniskirt, swinging a purse, and focusing on a cellphone to the exclusion of the outside world.
Yes, I saw that last week.
These people have used the force and power that comes with money to have their dirty work done for them. Via the proxies of developers and city officials, they’ve eminent-domained hundreds of acres and forcibly displaced the people who lived there. They’ve torn down hundreds of homes and businesses to re-create the “Short North” in the image of Williamsburg.(Brooklyn, of course.) They’ve paid for this dirty work to be done and they are unhappy when it’s not done to their complete satisfaction. They want their Disney World, a “downtown” filled exclusively with high-net-worth individuals and a fascinating variety of shopping opportunities staffed by people who vanish into the ether when their shifts finish, and nothing less than perfection is acceptable.
It’s easy to hate them, easy to despise the unthinking, callous way in which they assume that the mere fact of their willingness to pay $500 a square foot for downtown condo space should remove all barriers, human or otherwise, to the SoHo lifestyle. But the real problem is that there aren’t enough of them and that they aren’t parents. The existence of a large group of successful young parents in downtown Columbus would improve everything from the streets to the schools, and those improvements would be shared with the people who live there now.
Unfortunately for that plan, most people with any sense, and certainly most people with any combination of sense and children, wouldn’t move into downtown Columbus if the housing were free. You get all the inconvenience of living in Manhattan with none of the benefits. You can’t park your car anywhere but there’s also no grocery to which you can walk. It’s noisy at night but there’s not a single jazz or blues club open. Most of the shops close at seven or before.
And the natives of the area aren’t inclined to treat your gentrification with the respect you’d like. Not only are the local kids stealing mints, they’re defecating in the pool a few times a month! A forty-four-million dollar fountain, and the kids use it as a toilet! Which, perhaps, displays the true divide between the New Successful in this country and the people who were long ago left behind by a series of recoveries-that-weren’t. It’s not just demographics, it’s not just education, it’s not just luck. It’s two groups of people. The first group is probably unfamiliar with the earthy phrase “don’t shit where you live,” but it has internalized the priniciple. The latter group? It doesn’t matter how pretty you make their neighborhood. They’re going to shit in the fountain. They’re going to shit where they live. And if you live near them, they are going to shit where you live, too.