Engels on Gentrification

August 11, 2011

In reality the bourgeoisie has only one method of solving the housing question after its fashion-that is to say, of solving it in such a way that the solution continually reproduces the question anew. This method is called “Haussmann.”

By the term “Haussmann” I do not mean merely the specifically Bonapartist manner of the Parisian Haussmann – breaking long, straight and broad streets through the closely-built workers’ quarters and erecting big luxurious buildings on both sides of them, the intention thereby, apart from the strategic aim of making barricade fighting more difficult, being also to develop a specifically Bonapartist building trades’ proletariat dependent on the government and to turn the city into a pure luxury city. By “Haussmann” I mean the practice which has now become general of making breaches in the working class quarters of our big towns, and particularly in those which are centrally situated, quite apart from whether this is done from considerations of public health and for beautifying the town, or owing to the demand for big centrally situated business premises, or owing to traffic requirements, such as the laying down of railways, streets, etc.

No matter how different the reasons may be, the result is everywhere the same: the scandalous alleys and lanes disappear to the accompaniment of lavish self-praise from the bourgeoisie on account of this tremendous success, but they appear again immediately somewhere else and often in the immediate neighborhood.

This is a striking example of how the bourgeoisie solves the housing question in practice. The breeding places of disease, the infamous holes and cellars in which the capitalist mode of production confines our workers night after night, are not abolished; they are merely shifted elsewhere!

–Engels, “The Housing Question” (1872)

More: Gentrification and The London Riot Clean-up

Adieu to the Funky Flea Market

May 28, 2011

This is the last weekend for the Funky (Fresh) Flea Market in its current location, the Florida Market, and today I made my last visit. The Florida Market, just a few minutes from my house, quickly became one of my favorite parts of DC when I moved here, a bewildering example of “multiculturalism from below” that brought together the DC area’s less wealthy immigrants to haggle over halal meat, overripe produce, cheap Obama merch, and designer knockoffs. Outside the crumbling DC Farmer’s Market building, men in makeshift kiosks blast go-go on amps that sound like they were blown twenty years ago, slinging go-go CDs, sneakers, and contraband cigarettes.

The Funky Flea Market supplemented this heady mixture with all sorts of amateur commerce, mostly of the “roving garage sale” type of dingy electronics equipment, old clothes, and DVDs of second-rate comedies. But you could also buy kompa CDs while listening to a debate over the philosophy of Marcus Garvey, check out hats emblazoned with the Eye of Horus in rhinestones, watch negotiations over tools conducted by people who don’t speak the same language, and pick up cut-rate cleaning supplies. Lately the food options at the market had ballooned: in addition to the half-smoke cart and the Cambodian soups and barbeque in the farmer’s market building, you could get actual lengua tacos (real Mexican food is a rarity in the District; more common are inferior Salvadorean facsimiles), homemade Jamaican curries, sweet bean pies sold by the Nation of Islam, and, inexplicably, Uighur food — greasy succulent kabobs and samsas, a kind of empanada stuffed with potatoes, all cooked on an electric grill.

Like any good flea market, there are records: the usual assortment of decaying Kool and the Gang LPs you’ve never heard of, and of course the occasional gem. Once I named my own price for some UK rave records from a Mexican guy selling mostly drills. Once I encountered a table full of books that must have once belonged to a hapless grad student: I picked up each volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality and Derrida’s Of Grammatology for a dollar a pop (I left the Pynchon). Today I bought some records from one of the shrewdest vendors, who inevitably stakes out the southwest corner of the lot. He speaks at least four languages of hustle, but prides himself on his customer service: he offered me a small stool to sit on while a pawed through boxes of records. His assortment today was mostly rap 12-inches from 2003-2008 in excellent condition; I almost pulled Young Gunz’s “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,” but I think I have that record somewhere. I did enlarge my collection of Lil Joe compilations of Miami bass music — the story of how a Jewish tax attorney from Long Island became the major purveyor of 2 Live Crew tracks is one that could only come from the music biz. I got three today: Pimps, Playaz, and Hustlaz, Booty Summer Party, and Dirty South Booty Freaknik, a “NON STOP CONTINUOUS GHETTO STYLE DJ’S PARTY MIX.” Highlights: Freak Nasty’s “Da Dip,” MC Shy D’s “Rapp Will Never Die,” and electro classics from Ade and Gigolo Tony.

The Funky Flea Market is more than a place for business, it’s a place for performance. Fortunes are not made here, but an average worker can realize the American Dream of being his own boss and presiding over his storefront, if only for a weekend, and maybe getting a little spending money for the evening. Customers hunt for bargains and audiences, opportunities to display their knowledge of tools they can’t afford, boast of a legendary deal they made or offer advice on how to strap a sofa on top of a conversion van. It’s a social space: you can’t buy something without having a conversation. I did an ethnographic project on the market, visited regularly, talked, and vended one day. I woke at 5 AM, paid my $30 for a space, and heard dozens of stories and fantasies spurred on by the attractive guitar I was selling. Today, proprietor and MC, Mr. Omowale, paid respects to Gil Scott-Heron over the loudspeaker. “He was an artist and social activist, and he faced struggles, just like we all do at some point,” he intoned, before putting on Phoebe Snow’s “Poetry Man.” The Funky Flea Market is about community as much as commerce.

This community is mostly black and brown, mostly poor and working class, with a large proportion of immigrants, a community in a city whose space for such people is dwindling. The sandwiched between the ersatz bohemia of H Street and the ravenous condo/office space bubble of NoMa (where they pay nonthreatening black people to greet yuppie neophytes when they exit the Metro), the neighborhood has changed from one that catered to the down-and-out to one that caters to the upwardly mobile, the newly propertied, the college-educated and gainfully employed. Something happens to people when they buy overpriced row houses — suddenly everything about a place becomes quantified, transmogrified from the opaqueness of everyday social life into the subtle calibrations of property values. Poor people, working people, or, to use the appropriate parlance, those who struggle or hustle, are unwelcome. Every violent crime, every syringe in an alley, every Central American day laborer passed out in front of a loading dock, threatens an investment. The sheltered suburbanite’s irrational racist and classist fears for safety become the rational profit-maximizing actions of the petty bourgeoisie with a mortgage. They hate the Flea Market, and the Florida Market in general, and they lie and speculate about it — it’s full of criminals, the merchandise is stolen, the people sell drugs — even as the more courageous will venture down for a local-blog-approved taco.

And they’ve won, as they so often do in DC. Condos again. Full of the transient upper middle class, faces whiter, younger, richer than the faces that populate the market now. Do condo buildings furnish memories, community, stories, urban sociality? Let’s leave that rhetorical for the moment. For now, we know the flea market’s space will be an empty parking lot, the Uighur food and computer parts will be sold on U Street, whose special flavor of gentrification seems more inclusive of black DC (though who’s to say?). Here on H Street, the gentrifiers smile and do what they’re supposed to in order to pretend like they aren’t constantly thinking about how to expunge what’s here so they can turn a tidy profit when they flip their houses in the next decade to the next generation of overpaid bureaucrats. This is the American city, where “improving the neighborhood” means getting rid of the people to fix up the housing stock.

I feel betrayed. But of course, without ownership I have no right to any of this. I just live here.

D.C. – Imperial Gateway to the Dirty Dirty

April 3, 2008

I finally made a pilgrimage to Our Nation’s Capital this past week, and yes, the air was thick with the ambitious scent of the ruling class. D.C. is an interesting place. Its architecture comes in three major flavors: Neoclassical imperial monumentality, reserved Cold War realpolitik constructions, and crumbling tract housing. Supreme Court BuildingU.S. State DepartmentD.C. homesWith all this WASPy workaholism in the air, it’s no surprise that there isn’t much local music going on. An exception, which oddly enough came to my attention through MTV Jams, is local hip hop artist Tabi Bonney, son of an afro-funk musician from Togo. Here’s what MTV (and myself) discovered about two years too late:It sounds like mid-90s headnodding, with scratching and everything, certainly something different from the current rap climate. Bonney holds TWO master’s degrees (Biology and Education), so this could be an example of the gentrification of hip hop, which, depending on how you count, started as early as 1979 with the first hip hop recordings. I’m thinking in these terms because I just plowed through Nik Cohn’s Tricksta, which I picked up at a shop in DC.  Inside, the aging diseased Irishman bemoans middle class blacks taking over his beloved New Orleans bounce sound while he participates in that very process of appropriation.


Cohn works as an quasi-A&R, scorning the suburban background and sloppy manners of Choppa (his first project), as well as attempting to jumpstart the careers of several other middle-aged work-a-day artists. Some of the most hilarious scenes consist of Cohn brandishing Algerian rai and Cambodian pop and Durrutti Column riffs in the faces of nonplussed N.O. producers happy to, you know, make the music they make. The savages never even recognize the gifts the white father brings to them, and Cohn’s book sounds not a little like old racist anthropological travelogues in these moments. Cohn fails to find success with Choppa (and his other prospects), although Choppa would eventually release a minor hit on No Limit:The book is strongest when Cohn describes the life and times of the late Soulja Slim while putting forth an analysis of New Orleans’ gangsta culture, but becomes exponentially less compelling as we follow Cohn on his abortive career as a rap impresario. And he never talks to anyone at Cash Money! I was reminded of my thesis work, in which I followed around long-aspiring local Detroit artists while the successful Databass label kept me at bay. Perhaps I should have written it as memoir instead of academic work. One useful tidbit was Cohn’s description of the rap industry mechanics in N.O., which no doubt plays out on rap labels across the country. Aspiring artists are wined and dined by wealthy label heads, sign with the label, record and perform, and never get paid. They get some spending cash and gifts of cars and jewelry, but never any royalties. If they quit and sue, the label settles out of court for a fraction of what they owe the artist. No wonder Lil Wayne just gives his music away these days — he can get paid cash up front for a mixtape, but he’ll never see the royalties from an actual album. His newest official single can’t quite match up to his refixes of “Top Down” or “Black Republicans,” though I like it — genuinely weird and garish. He’s supposedly working on an R&B album? Consider me excited.