How many sides are there? A Meditation on The Many Headed Janus of Gentrification
As the Common Field Convening draws closer, I wonder what, if anything, is left to add to conversations on gentrification. Attempts to study the phenomena are more political than science. We want to know, what is helpful? What is the goal? Especially in a place like Miami in the Time of Zika, the dominant national dialogues start to sound like competitive gibberish. Just understanding becomes a challenge.
Gentrification, that familiar yet elusive beast that rears its thorny head to smile for a short time on artists before devouring them like Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. The unfortunate father, gentrification has an ambivalent expression that is parts deranged and violent but also sorrowful, guilty and confused. A total lack of control that is apropos. He is reliable only in his desperate mission to devour anything that challenges his reign, though as the myth bears out, the cycle is inevitable.
Gentrification. Urban Renewal. Creative Placemaking. The many headed demon sometimes represented by Richard Florida whose mark is the coffee shop and the record store. The Hydra who always regenerates no matter how many heads you manage to sever.
So just know this:
For better or worse, artists are the accomplices of Janus, friend and associate of Saturn, and our Roman god of gentrification.
Janus, for whom the month of January is named, signals transitions, beginnings and thresholds. There isn’t one threshold but many in the form of 23-year TIF districts, coffee shops, demolitions, building renovations, murals, bloody marys, violence, prosperity, galleries, displacement. The transition can happen seemingly overnight or slowly and imperceptibly over decades. Janus can wait.
Janus is also the god of paths and passages. There are steps, but they don’t necessarily go in order and sometimes you can skip them all and still end up in exactly the same place like shoots and ladders or Escher’s staircases. Revitalization projects like Rails to Trails turn abandoned train tracks into above ground parks, implicating the path itself in the road to gentrified neighborhoods and dog parks with special receptacles and dog-height water fountains. Just because there is a path doesn’t mean that anyone is necessarily walking in the same direction. In fact, the two-headed Janus necessitates that groups take the path opposite ways.
Some of Janus’ pathways are forged based on their proximity to public transportation, or the highway, or the mall. But where you step is also dictated by property values, rent prices, the weather, air quality, taxes, access to fresh food, whatever culture is, safety, or at least it should feel safe/ have a blue light to lead you down the path. Should you avoid putting your feet down on the ground altogether? Is that even possible?
If a tree falls in the forest and an original community stages it’s own version of gentrification to improve their own circumstances, will any developers be around to hear?
Nothing rhymes with orange and I’ve never heard of a satisfactory antonym for gentrification.
That’s because its meaning is not fixed and doesn’t move in a single direction. Experts and activists advocate for slowing, but no one ever mentions an option to stop. Instead Janus’ double head looks forward and back, one to the future and one to the past.
Janus and gentrification are both nouns (though “uncountable”), giving one the impression that they are things that you could point at, touch, hold, maybe understand. But it’s just that, an impression. Like Janus, gentrification is truly a verb, a transition, hiding under cover of noun-ness. A process is hard to pin down in one place. It won’t stop long enough for you to get a good look at it. Humans and books try to effect dichotomies like good/bad and black/white but nothing is that neat. Janus doesn’t judge. War and peace are just two states of being to the gentrification god.
Hospitals and grocery stores are built. Good. New community center with a tea room and a record collection. Good. Longtime residents profit from their investments. Good. Rents go up. Your Abuela is forced to move. Bad. A new development springs up. Don’t notice (at first). The implementation of designated lanes results in safer bike rides. Good. Racial tensions and harassment increase. Bad. Gang violence increases. Bad. Your friend gets stabbed walking home at night. Worse. You are mislabeled by a passerby as a gringo. ¿Y qué? This register does not make sense.
It’s all strange.
Around every corner is a red herring. Triggered by a combination of economic and social forces, Janus’ heads spin in many directions.
Which face are you looking through?
Janus’ past face observes the xenophobia that created dense local communities, often ethnic enclaves. It celebrates the beautiful cultures, strong community bonds and family ties. It decries the lack of infrastructure, the inability to get out. The face of the past is dangerously nostalgic for the time before the future.
The face of the future sees what is considered blight pit against what is considered progress. It sees flush local governments and property developers. It sees winners and losers. It sees yoga studios. It sees the Whole Foods at the end of the tunnel. It is ruthless in its disinterest.
The true face of Janus is the one you can’t see. The face of the present is invisible. A transition between the past and the future, it is an imperceptible development in constant flux. No matter where, that is what gentrification is, an uncomfortable and uncompromising force that is happening now. Do you have the option to stop? Do you want to?
In the many news articles and opinion pieces written either explicitly or not about gentrification you can almost, but not quite, catch a glimpse of this present force. Often alluded to, or called by other names. A somewhat ominus prediction in the New York Times piece on Miami galleries transition from Wynwood to Little Haiti, “It’s going to happen here.” Often in opposition or as a divisive measure. Have you ever met someone who identifies as a gentrifier?
I recently encountered a strikingly thoughtful wheatpaste image on the street. A drawing of an older woman in a rocker with a thought bubble that said something like, “que raro mis vecinos son,” or, “How strange my neighbors are.” Not a specific condemnation, but an ambiguous expression of the present moment perceptible to a select group.
She understands as much as I do. It’s complicated.
What does it look like when Janus of Gentrification touches down in Miami?
Opa Locka? Little Haiti? Little Havana?
Can you compare to Chicago? Which Chicago? Pilsen, Garfield Park, Hyde Park?
The invincible Chinatown?
In Gary, Indiana? In Miller Beach?
We convene for Common Field as gentrifiers ourselves. Don’t be sorry, it just is, and you just are. The Convenings location at the Little Haiti Cultural Center could not be more fitting. The mix of Haitian markets and botanicas with Churchill’s British Pub (“Miami’s CBGBs”) and the vegan marshmallows of Sweat Records should signal to us that Janus is present. How far does the future face see? Can you accelerate the process just by asking, just by acknowledgement?
How long until the displacer is displaced? Can you count it in years? Generations?
Janus is the god of beginnings but also of endings. Gentrification, the artist’s very own ouroboros. No matter which face, it just is.
This essay was originally commissioned by The Miami Rail as part of Field Perspectives- a co-publishing initiative with Miami Rail, Temporary Art Review and Common Field for the 2016 Common Field Convening.