By William C. Shelton
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)
My last column, “Dear hipster,” seems to have hit some nerves. Readers posted sixty comments on our website, many of them passionate.
But many also indignantly responded to things that I neither said nor intended. I attribute this to a combination of my own failure to communicate and a lot of defensiveness around the topic of gentrification.
Posters who disagreed with me often raised issues that are worthy of further discussion. Continuing that discussion, I want to make a few points.
The Welcome mat is out. Most ‘Villens I know do not reflexively resent newcomers. What resentment does occur is usually earned.
I’ve written many columns highlighting substantial contributions that those who choose to give of themselves make to our community. We are richer for their participation.
I did say that people who can afford to live here enjoy some measure of privilege. That is because Somerville is an exceptional city, and many who made it so can no longer afford to live in it.
Somerville was exceptional. Several people who posted wrote about the city they grew up in, its strong fabric of community, viable neighborhoods, healthy commercial districts, rich and interweaving social networks, voluntary associations, neighborhood socializing, neighborly cooperation, engaged politicians, effective constituent services, and rich opportunities for kids to play and associate.
A majority of people who owned businesses here lived in the neighborhood. A substantial portion of workers had jobs within Somerville, strengthening the bonds of community.
The city’s low rents, unpretentious community strength, and ethnic enclaves drew artists and a new wave of immigrants here. They in turn contributed to the city’s distinctive character.
The pain is real. Many of the people who made this city exceptional are feeling like strangers in their own town. Old Somerville and immigrant families appreciate the fine new bars and restaurants, but often can’t afford to dine there. Increasingly, they can’t afford to live here either.
A majority of newcomers with whom I speak, including those who are committed to being good neighbors and citizens, seem sincerely unaware of the depth of pain experienced by those who watch their beloved community slipping away. It’s difficult to understand how much is lost if you’ve never had it to lose. And if your sense of self relies more heavily on what you do and what you buy than on the relationships that you have nurtured and the friends and family that you grew up with, a severing of those relationships is proportionately less devastating.
Working hard (or smart) is not enough. Some comments suggested that Somerville’s dispossessed have suffered their fate because they are less virtuous. One attributed his own ability to live here to his dogged determination to study, work hard, pass the bar exam, and get a good job. He observed that, “Some people just don’t want to work hard (and smart)—that’s not my problem.” He also acknowledged that he would prefer to live in Beacon Hill or Back Bay.
There are plenty of people who work to exhaustion, but can’t afford to remain in their own community. As a class, the children of Old Somerville are ready and willing to work, but many are still economically squeezed out.
As with the nation, Somerville’s working middle class is gradually contracting. Immigrants are still coming to Somerville. Two or more families often live in two-bedroom apartments while they work two or three jobs. But when they achieve sufficient economic stability, they must rent in Everett, Revere, or Malden if they are to have a place of their own, diminishing Somerville’s vaunted diversity.
Working smart is not enough either. I know plenty of professionals who are concerned that, despite their good jobs and incomes, they too will never be able to afford a Somerville home and will eventually be priced out.
Some people posting comments suggested that gentrification wouldn’t be going on if ‘Villens weren’t eager to sell out and make a killing. That’s certainly true in some cases. But in others, folks on fixed incomes can’t afford the rising property taxes and cost of living.
Citizenship brings obligations as well as rights. Two themes that intertwine throughout our nation’s political and cultural history are a celebration of rugged individualism and a yearning for the community that untrammeled individualism makes impossible.
By “individualism” I don’t mean individuality. Groups that enjoy strong community can tolerate a much higher level of individuality in their members than groups that don’t. Instead, I mean the notion that we live only to fulfill our individual ambitions and that freedom equals the absence of interference or obligation.
In my last column I suggested that those of us who can still afford to live in Somerville at a time when many who grew up here can’t, enjoy some measure of privilege, and with privilege comes responsibility. I asked them to assume certain responsibilities, making clear that I was, “speaking only for myself.”
This infuriated some. They seem deeply offended by the thought that they should ask not what their community can do for them, but what they can do for their community. One wrote that “integrating” yourself in the community is fine if that’s your thing, but if not, “just live your life as you choose.”
One of many objections that I have to this attitude is what public goods economists call the “free rider problem.” Newcomers are often drawn to Somerville because of its authenticity, strong community, arts, amenities, and other special qualities. What created those assets was more than citizens just obeying the law and paying their taxes. People invested themselves in making a special place. The free riders who benefit from that special place without contributing to it degrade it and, over time, discourage others. I make no apologies for what is a social fact across societies and historical moments.
Buying authenticity kills it in the long run. I chose to address my last column to hipsters for specific reasons. The holy grail of hipster subculture is “authenticity.” Hipsters are drawn to artisanal crafts, locally grown food, indie bands and films, and authentic communities. Their means of acquiring this authenticity is to make it a commodity—to buy the authentic crafts, food, recordings and occupancy. Status comes from doing so before anyone else does.
In community, the commodities you choose aren’t a proxy for your identity because people know your virtues, your faults, and appreciate you for the whole of who you are. But as affluent consumers increasingly outbid each other to live in the authentic community, the neighbors, workers, artists, and artisans who created the authenticity are forced out, taking the authenticity with them. This is not a new phenomenon. When it happens, the locale is no longer hip, and the dedicated hipsters move on or are themselves priced out.
Gentrification doesn’t just happen. A number of commenters dismissed ‘Villens grief. One wrote, “This is just a case of a salty long-time resident not being able to grasp the fact that things change. Get a clue….” Another wrote, “Life isn’t fair. Get used to it.”
No, life isn’t fair. But the freedom, opportunity and justice that we enjoy were created by people who worked to expand the domain of fairness—by the freedom riders, not the free riders.
We don’t have to be passive consumers who select among a multiple choice of proffered commodities. Whether we are old Somerville, immigrant, or newcomer, we can be producers—of strong and interweaving relationships, livable neighborhoods, effective schools, just policies and community. Participation is the price of admission.
Gentrification is often portrayed as an inevitable outcome of blind economic forces. It is also the product of political policy choices. Whether wittingly or not, our city government is choosing policies that promote gentrification. That is the subject of a future column.