Gentrification: problem or progress?

Musings from Montevideo

by Ricky Toledano

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Ciudad Vieja refers to the old city that had lied within a fortress, the walls of which have long since been torn down to extend the street lines from the port like a spider’s web. I was walking past the warm smiles of the locals towards the city’s starting point on the peninsula, almost to the end of Calle Sarandí, where I could have turned right to go to Montevideo’s famous market, the Mercado del Puerto, but then I saw the glimmer of the waterfront in cool autumn light of the city. Walking straight ahead to the Rio de la Plata, I passed abandoned buildings interspersed with bars and restaurants, both trendy and nostalgic, on my walk that led me through a Montevideo that is more aged than it is old.

I heard some different accents, including many from the newest wave of migrants from Cuba and Venezuela – as well as their wonderful music. Often barbequing on the street in front of their homes in what seemed a crumbly yet vibrant neighborhood, the residents occupied the commons of the street intimately, laughing and shouting at one another from the other side. Young boys walked dogs they did not clean up after. On the lawn in front of the great river was a group of Muslim men dressed in white, sitting cross-legged in a tight circle to recite the Koran. The walls of the old city were littered with graffiti and many hauntingly beautiful street paintings. Surprisingly and completely unlike my home of Rio de Janeiro, however, what I had perceived as a scenario of urban decay did not activate my spider sense for danger. Uruguay is an astoundingly safe place in the midst of a very violent Latin America, and I was completely at ease to conduct my practice of observing the beauty of old buildings on my walk that was less of an exercise in nostalgia than it was an aesthetic experience to observe their crafted doors and windows, carved from a time when portals were given frames like paintings. I assessed them for signs of the makeshift solutions of ageing, such as aluminum windows replacing original woodwork. I didn’t notice any, but I also could not pay too much attention upward, because the streets of older sections of Montevideo are broadly mined by the residents’ dogs – which, like the absence of aluminum, could be a sign of something good or bad.

After an about-face from the Rambla Sur in Plaza Guruyú to re-enter the spider’s web, I was struck by an alarming red street painting. It read: “Don’t let gentrification catch you by surprise”. It also defined gentrification as “a process of transformation with the negative effects of increasing prices, expulsion of neighbors and loss of identity”.

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That limited definition to an ambiguous problem immediately incited reflection inside an urban creature from Chicago, who has enough gray hair and good fortune to have accompanied the process of urbanization in places as disparate as the US, Brazil, India and Mexico. I must confess that I have always enjoyed the urban resuscitation of gentrification-as-progress: the way it revitalizes historic neighborhoods, makes them safer, and redirects urban sprawl with the creation of brownfield opportunities as opposed to greenfield.

Naturally, this issue requires more understanding than a spider sense can afford with just the quick glance of a layman. Nevertheless, the term gentrification often totes a bad connotation, as expressed in red by the warning sign presenting gentrification-as-problem by those immediately threatened by it – namely renters – those especially endangered by displacement as their neighborhood becomes increasingly expensive, pushing our long-time residents who often go unrewarded for their efforts to improve a community.

Considering the cities I know well, I cannot help but to imagine applying certain solutions. What I can say from experience of the urban challenge of Chicago, the urban mess of Rio de Janeiro and the urban chaos of Delhi, however, is that making a priority of transportation over housing might hit (not necessarily kill) two birds with one stone as other areas of the city are naturally integrated, thereby distributing the possibilities of progress. What might even be a more immediate and curative solution for endangered residents would be a tax on the value of land, as opposed to the property inhabiting it, potentially returning value to residents for their community efforts, and not to investors. It would also avoid to misuse of space, as in Montevideo, where abandoned and unoccupied property stands to the detriment of residents.

My fascination with gentrification lies in much more than the economic debate over cycles of investment and development. I clearly see that there is an ethical debate that emerges when choosing a priority between competition and cooperation, the interests of property and those of livelihood. And I also see that if all life seeks security and comfort, pleasure cannot lie far behind in the choice of where to live – if it is indeed a choice. That means there is an obvious measure of taste involved in not only selecting old buildings to refurbish, but in choosing a street that pleases. It involves the human search for beauty, which, I believe, is hard to find in the soulless streets of contemporary, utilitarian architecture that is devoid of filligree in recent history.

That is why people seek the beauty of the past and why it is so highly coveted.

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The urban sprawl of Delhi

Seeing abandoned havelis in remote villages of Rajasthan, India that had survived centuries of sandstorms and monsoons, I immediately spied how crafted woodwork and other friezes and carvings had been pilfered, probably worked into furniture to be found on high-rise balconies in Delhi, New York, or even the Pocitos district of Montevideo, the contemporary and obviously upscale neighborhood I had found insipid while on my hike through the city. Its immaculate and motionless streets of cement and glass are part of a general aversion of mine.

Authentic comes to mind when observing not only how beauty emerges out of the quality of materials, craftsmanship and artistry of the art and architecture of the past, but out of the ensemble of people who maintain a community and call it home. Although I cannot imagine architecture two-hundred years in the future, I cannot see how the tasteless American pre-fab suburb or the towering cinderblock jungles of the developing world will ever be subject to gentrification the way Montevideo’s Palermo district, with its old homes on heavily tree-lined streets – adjacent to the Afro-Uruguayan cultural corridor of Isla de Flores and its local candombé music – is rapidly becoming another charming café and craft beer depot in the world.

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Despite a taste for the art of the past, I have none of the longing for the past that is nostalgia – an emotion I have called useless, and one that can quickly turn dangerous when it involves longing for a partial-pasts or those that had never even existed. Walking the old streets of this world is meditation in contemplating beauty in the present. It is an exercise that has made me realize how much we need art: beholding beauty holds us in the moment long enough to exercise presence, no matter how fleeting, before the clouds of the past and the future obfuscate the only truth there is.

And it was enjoying the present in a captivating neighborhood that I was easily led to agree with that red sign announcing the local effort against the loss of neighborhood, character and affordability. Looking inward and not outward, however, I quickly found that I was soiled by a little hypocrisy: I had just spent a leisurely hour enjoying gentrification-as-progress, sitting in a beautiful and expensively refurbished home-cum-bookstore, maybe as yet another one of the tourists aggravating the problem of local residents. Yet my mind found a much more fascinating and suspicious discrepancy: since I can only assume Ciudad Vieja had not always been the scene of urban decay or renewal, what happens when people cling to very relative ideas of the past and the future, either resisting or insisting on change?

Fear and anger take over — as I discovered, while leisurely reading while sipping specialty coffee in a bookstore. That is where the question hit me, just before my walk, sitting under the vaulted ceilings of an exquisitely renovated house of gorgeous woodwork, tile and stained glass in a historic and decayed district of the Palermo.
Despite sitting in such comfort, I was furious by an article that (tried to) expose a logic for why it was perfectly humane to mourn the loss of a building over the loss of lives, because all grief is human – especially when uniting people under a globalized and tech-charged value for civilization and beauty, therein represented by the Cathedral of Notre Dame, which had gone up in flames. According to the article, it seems, not caring so much about the loss of thousands of lives in Mozambique after the recent cyclone devastated the country – to say nothing of the plight of its survivors or any other of the many places of terror and destruction in this world – was to be considered perfectly understandable.

It isn’t. And the argument was unconvincing. Its apology stronger than its logic, the irony of the editorial was that it managed to deliver yet another example of the homely Eurocentric perspective it had proposed to refute by painting a picture of the global dissemination of civilization.

Civilization? Culture? thought the Dictator inside, after a sinister chuckle. They will watch me drag their mothers by their hair to Mozambique as I stick them in a treetop to survive for a week in flood while I torch their church! Then we will see those punks’ smart opinions about the value for civilization!

Don’t pretend to be shocked. Everybody wants to rule the world. It comes with the territory of having a mind that puts all objects encountered in this universe into one of three boxes: like, dislike and indifferent. And if that were not complicated enough, then there is the Dictator inside that wants to inspect other people’s boxes, frantically auditing the priorities revealed by the contents of those three boxes.

It was one of my silent, well-disguised fits of rage, after having scrolled through the plight of orphan orangutans; the indigenous people of Brazil and their felled trees; the many refugees of Central America whose children are held captive; the whales starving to death because their bellies are filled with plastic garbage; Yemen in the hands of yet another vile American machination; all the villages across this world that are running out of water – not to mention that Mozambique was to suffer yet another imminent and lethal cyclone – and all the other much, much more pressing and emergency issues in this world that warranted such an immediate and resounding outpour of emotion on the monitor of my social media addiction that so easily stokes the conflagration of discord.

Yet I am a reasonable Dictator. I give people a chance before I burn them alive.

That is why I was initially patient as I saw the outpour of despair over Notre Dame. I, too, was shocked to see the flames shooting up into the sky. Since I am a great admirer of the architecture and the endeavors of times past, my immediate and sincere reaction was also that of concern: such loss of history and art is indeed immeasurable. But when I saw the beginning of what would only become an unending tidal wave of lamenting, I started tapping a finger on the table of that bookstore, as I cocked an eyebrow and sucked my teeth. Although I was hardly the first to be suspicious of the outpour of grief ladled over the fire of Notre Dame (and not over any of the many recent humanitarian calamities), I must confess that I did not join the resounding contempt for the billionaires showering great sums of money to restore the cathedral—and not Mozambique. How could I? At least those magnates had done something, while I had done nothing to help either cause. Besides, it was the collocation of resources emotional and not financial that I had found disturbing as I inspected people’s boxes to find things I did not like in an internal landscape, places – as you have seen – that can be so very ugly that you would rather not see them. And it is those internal landscape that we despots wish to conquer, controlling exactly what goes in and out of those three boxes.

Sound familiar?

If so, you may be one of few contemplative people in this world who watches how the mind organizes thoughts. Or, you might be another polite and smiling despot who would like to take over the world, annihilating dissenters as quickly as possible because, in the end, there can only be one narrative of the past and the future – one victor.

And few places know more about dictatorship and victory better than Uruguay.

The eternal struggle between the interests of property and those of livelihood clashed once again in this world in Uruguay in 1973. Only one opinion was permitted until 1985, when a brutal dictatorship ended, but not the memory of all those who had “disappeared” or had been tortured.

No visit to Montevideo would do without a visit to Estádio Centenário, home of the incredible story of Uruguayan football. It is the site of the very first World Cup in 1930 against archrival Argentina, and the beginning of one of the greatest mysteries of the Universe: How the hell can such a small country of some 3m people manage to take on the giants and win? It remained unanswered in the purest silence of all time, on July 16, 1950 in Rio de Janeiro’s Estádio do Maracanã, packed with an unprecedented 200,000 people. Brazil had only to tie the game. As anyone who knows anything about football can attest, no country could possibly know the delicious silence of victory more than Uruguay.

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Estádio Centenário and the Museo de Futból

Much like art, sport is just as powerful an exercise in holding the mind in the present. Not only can beauty be found in effort, there is the meditation of witnessing how actions may indeed be chosen, but the results of which are delivered beyond the control of even the best of intentions, preparation and execution. It is the beauty found in surrendering to a Universe that delivers the fruit of our action. For however much we might hate the penalty kicks in a football match, it is the law that one team must leave the field victorious and immediately – if only for the next fight to occur in a competition so large one cannot even see it.

And it is in that much larger picture that I have asked myself about the winners and losers of the urban world in which I live. Since I have never been able to conclude whether gentrification was something good or bad — whether reinforcing either the competition or the cooperation among people is the best way to accommodate the progress of society — I am certain that many battles will be fought, with one team or the other leaving the field victorious, but hardly winning the war. The war is an internal one to tame all the little dictators struggling to avoid the inevitable, refusing to accept change, while often demanding it from others. That is why I suspect that whomever can answer the question of whether gentrification is progress or problem shall answer all questions, because it shall inevitably revert to something happening not behind the façades of buildings, but something behind the faces of individuals trying to reconcile their tastes and aversions with those of a society at large, one that is getting more complex as it gets larger, and ever more covetous of the past and the future.

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A native of Chicago, Ricky Toledano has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for over twenty years as a writer, translator and teacher. [a]multipicity is multi-lingual collection of reflections through the humanities.

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