The Aesthetics of Decay: The Dangers of Fetishizing Faux-Poverty While Hiding Real Poverty
By Kristin Iversen
Lately, everything seems to be distressed. From clothes to furniture to Instagram filters, the prevailing aesthetic is one which has the sensibility of something old, something used. And even when things aren’t purposely made to look old or worn, there’s been an embrace of an almost reductive approach to fashion, most notably seen in the normcore trend (or faux-trend, depending on with whom you speak), which is, at best, an attempt to extinguish external signifiers of wealth, but is, at worst, a disdain-fueled jaunt into a less fashionably (and financially) privileged world. In effect, those who can most afford to dress—and live—any way they want are consciously emulating those who lack that freedom, while those who lack real economic freedom find themselves stuck in a situation wherein they are both the models for and the unwilling participants of a new aesthetic.
The aesthetics of decay aren’t a new thing, of course (does anyone else remember John Galliano’s “haute homeless” collection? no? good), but with the continuing gentrification of Brooklyn, there is a new frontier in the embrace of the distressed look, namely, that of the once-poor-now-gentrified neighborhood. Parts of Brooklyn that were once thought of as being rundown are now hailed (especially by realtors) for their charm; neighborhoods full of abandoned factories are touted as having industrial allure. In a recent article for Al Jazeera on “the perils of hipster economics,” Sarah Kendzior writes about an Amtrak- (and thus government-) funded project that aims to “fight urban blight with art” by hiding poverty-stricken parts of north Philadelphia from the view of passengers looking out the window. Kendzior sees this as a part of a larger problem in our society, namely, that rather than confronting poverty head-on, we tend to either “remodel or romanticize it,” a process she calls “hipster economics.”
“Hipster economics” is also visible, Kendzior claims, in the gentrification of neighborhoods like Fort Greene, wherein “gentrifiers can then bask in ‘urban life’—the storied history, the selective nostalgia, the carefully sprinkled grit,” succeeding not only in staking a claim for themselves in some of Brooklyn’s most “authentic” neighborhoods, but also in pushing out those who made those areas attractive to gentrifiers to begin with. Kendzior has a dismal (and accurate) view of what happens to the displaced populations, noting that as cities have become wealthier, the surrounding suburbs have become little more than holding pens for low-income people, and because those areas lack the historic and cultural value of city neighborhoods, there is no hope for renewal—even in the form of gentrification—and thus the poor who live there are effectively hidden from view and marginalized even further.
Further complicating the issue is the fact that, once gentrified, neighborhoods that lacked amenities (like prompt garbage pickup and well-stocked grocery stores) are suddenly graced with those same things—and more. This issue (famously brought up recently by none other than Spike Lee) is also addressed by Kendzior, who notes, “gentrification spreads the myth of native incompetence,” and “a sign of a neighborhood’s ‘success’ is the removal of its poorest residents.” This is clearly evident in much of Brooklyn, which has seen some of the fastest gentrification-fueled turnaround in terms of things like improvements in local public schools or rehabilitation of local parks in those areas that have begun to experience or have already undergone gentrification. The thing is, though, that the former lack of amenities in these now-gentrified areas is actually emblematic of the bigger issue of how we’ve always treated low-income and predominantly minority-filled areas, namely, we’ve marginalized these communities by making it difficult for the existing populations to be involved with their own economic resurgence. This is a problem that didn’t start with gentrification, and it won’t end with it, but is rather indicative of a larger attitude that is dismissive of whole groups of people, labeling them as impotent and ineffective, while simultaneously tying their hands tightly behind their backs.
So where does this leave us exactly? Have we reached a place of no return? Are places like East New York and Brownsville soon to be gentrified and vinyl-sided homes thought to be the epitome of hipster chic? (Hey, if it could happen in Bushwick, it could happen anywhere.) Will gentrification prove unstoppable, leaving us with a cityscape that is nothing more than a deceptively humble facade for extreme wealth? At the risk of sounding disingenuously optimistic, I want to—I have to—say no. The most powerful tools for fighting back against things like displacement and gentrification is awareness and organization, and recently community groups have been banding together to fight things like shady buyouts, and there has been much greater attention paid to businesses moving into neighborhoods that are now starting to attract new ventures and activists have agitated for these businesses to hire locally and support the existing communities. It’s not too late to work with existing communities in order to strengthen their positions within their own neighborhoods, and organically improve their school systems and public amenities in the same manner that gentrifiers would. Low income neighborhoods do not need to be ignored until they are deemed desirable. The trend of embracing the aesthetics of decay is bound to be as fleeting as any other fashion, which makes it all the more imperative to refuse to ignore poverty as it exists now, and rather work to improve the conditions of those living in it in any way possible. It’s the only way to change the conversation, and to save the integrity of this city.