The odd nostalgia for poverty and grime never seems to fade. It is usually at the core of arguments made against gentrification: the idea that the poor and downtrodden are more interesting, more real and more alive than their wealthier brethren.
The irony is that such arguments are almost made by the well-off, who miss the romantic character of the neighborhoods they have remade (and never would have lived in). The latest example of this mindset is Thomas Chatterton Williams’s New York Times essay, “How Hipsters Ruined Paris.” It focuses on an area in the 9th arrondissement which he describes as “the original gay Paree,” a mixture of seediness and artistic creativity, “the Paris of Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Gustave Moreau and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.”
He writes: “But it’s disappearing. Today, the neighborhood has been rechristened ‘South Pigalle’ or, in a disheartening aping of New York, SoPi. Organic grocers, tasteful bistros and an influx of upscale American cocktail bars are quietly displacing the pharmacies, dry cleaners and scores of seedy bar à hôtesses that for decades have defined the neighborhood.
Everybody likes a good pharmacy or dry cleaner; their loss is a minor tragedy. But Williams saves his concern for the disappearing “hostess bars.” In 2005 there were 85 such brothels in the area, now there are 20.
He continues: “I have never quite gotten used to the transsexual hookers who traipse the Boulevard de Clichy outside the area’s various sex shops and with whom I must share the carnivalesque sidewalk on my way in and out of the post office. Frankly, they make me uncomfortable.
“But I’ve come to see that unease as a good thing the longer I stay in this corner of France, a country where the world’s oldest profession continues to enjoy a special patrimonial status and where, try as it might, the government can’t seem to un-sew that tawdry patch from the national quilt. “
Two things interest me about this. First is the balancing of interests in our victim society. As a good feminist, one could applaud France’s efforts to clamp down on a coercive and demeaning profession. But Williams ignores that point because he is defending a different victim of oppression: the gritty old French soul that is being destroyed by rich yuppies. Williams likes the hookers and others because they perform a different kind of service for the well-heeled (around whom all life revolves): “We should be grateful to be jolted from our anesthetized routines, confronted when we can be with surroundings and neighbors that are not injection-molded to the contours of our own bobo predilections. Too much of modern urban life revolves around never feeling less than fully at ease; about having even the minutest of experiences tailored to a set of increasingly demanding and homogeneous tastes — from the properly sourced coffee grounds that make the morning’s flat white to the laboriously considered iPod soundtracks we rely on to cancel the world’s noise. The logical extension is to ‘curate’ our urban spaces like style blogs or Pinterest boards representing a single, self-satisfied and extremely sheltered expression of middle- and upper-middle-class sensibility.”
This argument has been made a million times before, which doesn’t make it right or wrong. The problem is that Williams fails to confront the fact that people with money and means have decided – as an act of free will and self-determination – to curate their urban spaces. The smart, hip people who are more aware of the diversity on this planet than any generation before them, have decided to live what he considers a homogenous, self-satisfied existence. They know all about grittiness, seediness and bad coffee, and they have chosen something else.
To my mind Williams gives away the game in the last paragraph when he writes: “People say you had to be in … New York in the ’80s.”
Really? Who? I grew up in New York in the 70s and 80s – it was a rat hole. My upper west side neighborhood featured hookers in front of the Food City supermarket on 80th and Broadway and a thriving drug mart on 80th and Amsterdam. After crack arrived, homeless men positioned themselves on almost every block, demanding money. That was not a golden era. I don’t know anybody who misses that – or the blight that made the lower east side so colorful and dangerous.
Perhaps those neighborhoods are interesting today – they are certainly less filthy and menacing. Williams’ claim is especially strange given that one of the biggest fears in the New York mayoral race was that Bill de Blasio would return to the city to those bad old days. Far from a golden era, the 80s are remembered as a cautionary warning.
My old neighborhood – where my mom still lives – is less colorful than it used to be, but that’s not because of the flight not of hookers and drug dealers but of bookstores, movie houses and people who cared much more deeply about ideas. If it is suffering at all (I haven’t been there in years), the 9th arrondissement’s problems are more likely due to the disappearance of artists such as Dumas and Hugo than of hookers.