Thoughts on American Gentrification, from the Absurd Location of Hanoi

Hipster girls make me say “awwwww’

So I’ve been thinking a lot about gentrification. American-style gentrification. Which is absurd, right? I’m living in friggin Vietnam, a developing country, and “developing” is not at all the same thing as “gentrifying.”

But, just as Paris was where David Sedaris moved to write about America, it seems as though SE Asia is where I moved to think and write about Oakland, about growing up in Oakland and getting sober in Oakland, in a time when Oakland and the Bay Area as a whole were gentrifying like crazy—the Dot Com Boom and Bust, when my brother and I got dinner in SF one night when I was 18, were walking down Market to the Church Street Station, down sidewalks lined with cute little shops and tons of white yuppies, and we turned to look at each other and exchanged this moment of “What the fuck has happened to SF?”

Of course it was different in Oakland. Oakland’s gentrification is kinda a fascinating beast (covered well here) cause it’s taken so long to happen, given Oakland’s geographic proximity to SF, but more because despite all the chi-chi restaurants (one of which I used to work at) and trendities (one which I used to be) and despite the rising rents and how clean and nice and urban-chic certain parts of town are, two of the biggest upshots of gentrification haven’t come yet: the public schools are still abysmal and the crime rate is, while better, still un-fucking-real.

You can blame a lot of this on the incompetent/corrupt city government. At least I do. There’s probably a whole slew of factors I’m not aware of, can’t be aware of cause I’m too close to it, have always been too close to it—how I stood on 40th and Telegraph every day during high school, waiting for my bus transfer, and watched the neighborhood change like a time-lapse photography project: first the junkies, then the punks, then the indies, then the yuppies, then the cafes that catered to the yuppies.

So. Some book came out. It’s called The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, and it’s by Robert Anasi, and I probably won’t read it. Not because I don’t care or don’t want to, not even because it’s not on Kindle (cause I just checked and it is) but because I have to be mad choosy about what I buy on Kindle—cause $10 still ain’t cheap and my Kindle account is linked to my US bank account, which is damn hard to get money into, cause it’s damn hard to get money out of Vietnam, cause all those $25/hr teaching gigs only pay in cash. #luxuryproblems

But it didn’t stop me from reading reviews of the book, this one more scathing than that one, and this one only tangentially a review. But it’s enough for me to decide that I’ll save my Kindle pennies for Bolano or Bissel or OMG will they ever get O’Conner or old Didion??

But the fact that I haven’t read the actual book hasn’t stopped me from having plenty of thoughts and opinions, perhaps not about the book, but about the questions raised in the reviews and commentary: the role of the gentrifier in relation to his (cause it’s mostly dudes who ended up writing about this shit) context. Or more specifically the gentrifier in relation the “natives.” I thought the more scathing Book Forum review addressed this pretty well, while the Salon review danced around the issue, mentioning it only at the end:

This sort of description, however, throws into relief the awkward relationship that such bohemian enclaves have with the destitute neighborhoods they nestle into — ebullient painters with their Jacuzzis who celebrate the surrounding grit and decay living side-by-side with people who probably don’t find the rubble so endearing.

I guess this is heart of it for me, since I straddled the line, had one foot in both worlds—always did, really, as I suppose you could say my family was pre-1st-wave gentrification, arriving in Oakland about 20 years too early. Or maybe that doesn’t count. The thing is, I looked like all the gentifriers: I had the tattoos and the skinny pants; I liked the expensive coffee (fuck it’s good); I went to the rock shows; I worked in one of the fucking flagship restaurants (great place, btw). It was the way I’d always looked like an outsider, mostly because of my race but also because I was prissy little white girl who, it turned out, really loved Nirvana and Johnny Cash. I was okay with that, cause I had to be—with the way other Oakland natives would be surprised at the fact that I was an Oakland native, and not one from the hills either.

Some of my best friends were gentrifiers. #winkwink Gentrifying doesn’t necessarily make you a shitty person, the same way that gentrification isn’t solely a bad thing—hell, look at the lakeside by my parents’ house these days. But there’s this way some people would talk about the neighborhoods, talk about Oakland or Williamsburg—this possessive, anti-yuppy way that in and of itself smacks of a certain starry-eyed colonialism. Like, most of the people arrested in the Oscar Grant riots weren’t from Oakland—had come to Oakland specifically to riot and break the windows of small, independent stores, had even spray painted “Oakland is our amusement park tonight,” which had summed up everything. Cause it wasn’t just that night; for a certain breed, Oakland was their playground every night. Oakland was a game they played at and that they could leave whenever they wanted. It wasn’t their home; they weren’t invested; they hadn’t grown up with the gun shots and crackheads and street violence; they didn’t love Oakland. Oakland was an affectation.

But again, I straddled the worlds. There was this punk house I used to go to shows at on Apgar Street. It was in my dad’s old district, before he retired from the Oakland Fire Department. We were having dinner one night and he was complaining about a run he’d gone on, “some entitled fucking kids” in “some filthy old Victorian” who’d been having a party in the backyard, burning shit and making a ruckus. When his crew had arrived at the house, the kids had been hostile. “‘Look, man, we’re not bothering anyone,'” my dad had related. “‘Well, actually you are,’ I told him, ’cause someone called in a disturbance. We sure as hell didn’t feel like getting out of bed to come down here and deal with you.'”

But it’s that kind of attitude, right?—the no-one-cares, we-can-do-whatever-we-want attitude. The reviews of the book are right: it does create a sort of freedom. You can look at the art happening now in Detroit, or at one of my all-time favorite bands, Hickey, who grew out of the 90s Mission District. But fuck, there’s gotta be a line, right? A line between using the cheap rents and lack of police control to explore and create and do cool new shit, and using it as a venue for self-serving debauchery.

I suppose it’s not so different from all the Gap-Year backpackers tubing in Vang Vieng. Or from the way certain travelers will moan about a place being “touristy,” forgetting they themselves are tourists—they way they’ll talk about how fucking cool and real it used to be. As though they owned it. As though there weren’t some weird capital in having been there first, having seen this shit when it real.

Like this

Cause the truth is, sometimes “real” sucks. Sometimes “real” is walking past malnourished ten-year-olds huffing out of plastic bags in Phnom Penh. Sometimes “real” is the smell of the dead fish floating in the lake near your apartment in Hanoi, cause the lack of environmental laws means there’s arsenic and god-knows-what-else in the lake that’s literally killing the fish, and despite that fact the OG residents are still fishing outta the lake and eating those fish cause it’s free and what they’ve always done. Sometimes “real” is not being able to sleep at night when you’re a kid cause your alcoholic neighbors, whose apartment balcony is next to your bedroom window, are having another one of those screaming 3am fights where they throw furniture and break windows and it takes the cops till dawn to arrive cause they’ve been busy at some homicides a few blocks away.

Which of course, still happens in Oakland. But maybe doesn’t happen in Williamsburg anymore, which might be what everyone is so bummed about. “Everyone” being those with a mouthpiece: the privileged crusaders nostalgic for a by-gone grit that most of them only had a surface relationship with, didn’t have the deep-rooted conflicted relationship you have with a place you grew up in, that you love and that’s also robbed half of your friends at gunpoint.

Which is a totally shitty assumption to make, especially considering I haven’t read the book and am on the other side of the planet, in my bathrobe with the lights dim and the AC blowing, hiding out from another torturously hot Hanoian day, made slightly more torturous by the fact that it’s a holiday and the air is thick with the burning of offerings. #real And all of this might be an expat version of Mansplaining, since all I can really do is read free essays online and sit around and mouth off like I know what I’m talking about; since I’m surrounded by other expats who do the same thing, and who may or may not know if I’m full of shit or not.

Which I might not even know either.

11 Responses to “Thoughts on American Gentrification, from the Absurd Location of Hanoi”

  1. 1 robyneckhardt September 2, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    I like this post, and it resonates, from the POV of someone who has invested (literally, by buying a house) in a changing — yes, gentrifying, I guess — urban locale (George Town, Penang). I esp like this: “Or from the way certain travelers will moan about a place being “touristy,” about how fucking cool and real it used to be. As though they owned it.” Because that is what a lot of backpackers (sorry, hate to generalize, but should I say ‘lower-budget travelers’ instead?) say about how George Town is changing, has changed since it was listed by Unesco in mid-2008. They see the new paint, and the boutique hotels, and the cafes serving good European-style coffee, and they moan about how the place is getting all cute. But they don’t live there, and they don’t bother really talking to any locals who have lived there, or known the place, for years … about how half the buildings were vacant and the crime was bad and the open drains smelled and no one in Penang who didn’t live in George Town would ever go there to eat or shop or play if they didn’t have to and how the only travelers who stayed in town rather than going straight to the beach were low-budget travelers like themselves who didn’t spend much money, certainly not enough to benefit locals other than those who owned the hostels they stayed in — and half of those folks weren’t locals anyway. “Gentrification” is such a dirty word in most quarters, it’s always said with a sneer. Heck, I used to say it with a sneer. And there are aspects of it that are not good — when rents rise and people who want to stay get pushed out, for instance. Maybe it works differently in Asian settings like Penang than it does in Oakland or Williamsburg.
    Anyway, great post. Got me thinking. Glad Hanoi is working out for you.

    • 2 laurenquinn September 2, 2012 at 2:48 pm

      Interesting stuff, hadn’t known that about Penang. Maybe the real issue is why it takes money and investment and private developers for so many of these places to get basics like plumbing, or in the developed world, a reasonable crime rate and public services. At least in the States, the government should be providing these things, right? It shouldn’t take a profit-driven “commercial monoculture” as the Coffin Factory review put it, for basic human services to be provided. I mean, I can’t really speak for the less-developed world, but def for the States. I dunno—maybe if folks stopped moaning about hipsters and tourists we’d have the time to look at what’s really going on. Ooooooor maybe I was just raised by Marxists.

      Thanks for reading Robyn!

  2. 3 triciatierney September 2, 2012 at 6:53 pm

    I don’t think you are full of shit. I think you are spot on.

    Here’s a book I think is worth some of your pennies: by Katherine Boo (love that name – feel like I should put an exclamation point after it) Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Boo(!) so gracefully writes about one of the slums outside the airport in Mumbai — she is invisible, never interjecting herself. Amazing reportage/literature hybrid. It certainly illustrates how corruption is a major factor in paralyzing poverty.

    Reading your post reminded me of being an expat and longing for books (pre-ereaders) I couldn’t get my hands on. No wonder I came back and got a job in a bookstore!

    I love forward to more of your insights about here and there and everywhere.


  3. 5 expatlingo September 2, 2012 at 7:41 pm

    Nice, thoughtful post.

    A slightly different point, but in the same vein of “this used to be cool” is this skit from Portlandia: (more free entertainment for you!)

  4. 6 phillegitimate September 2, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    Nice post! Good to see someone else out there has gentrification on their mind. And I do think it’s a very valid connection – between the gentrifiers and tourists. Basically anyone who moves for the hell of it – just to see different things – could probably fall into that category, right? Anyone who wants to experience a culture not native to them? That might be too broad a blanket statement, but I do think you’re on to something. Hope there will be more musings soon.

  5. 7 Sam September 2, 2012 at 9:44 pm

    My partner summed up a lot of this in a quick comment after a near tragedy of one of her workmate’s children last year: it’s westerners that complain about footpaths being cleared by the police, but it’s Vietnamese who have to deal with their kids being run over because there’s no room to play on the sidewalk.

    Sometimes we westerns can’t help but put the word ’progress’ in inverted commas and roll our eyes. Yes, change always has victims, both sentimental and real. But I, for one, acknowledge that the stability, safety and boringness of my middle-class NZ suburb has a lot going for it. I can’t blame others when they move in that direction.

    • 8 girlinisaan September 17, 2012 at 9:37 am

      Agreed. The people here (I’m in a city in Isaan, NE Thailand (one of the poorer regions)) are very happy with their new lifestyle – new cars, ipods and ipads, new houses – and don’t want any idealistic westerners telling them to keep things the way they were for semtimental reasons. The people I know are very ‘average’ – not rich and not poor and all are much better off than the first time I came (about 8 years ago) and much happier. Of course these changes will come with problems but the Thais will deal with them in their own way and will make their own future. Who are we to tell people not to be materialistic!!

  6. 9 bani.amor September 3, 2012 at 2:48 am

    great post! of course i’m always thinking about gentrification, or i was, since i’m from brooklyn, and just left new york to live in a ‘developing’ nation, as i’ve done a bunch of times before.
    the link to the tourists is spot-on. the way people think they own anything, anyplace.
    so many travel articles are about thinking ‘like the locals’ or an encounter with ‘the natives’ or ‘the -insert location- you didn’t know’, places that are off ‘the tourist track’.
    it’s like people are always trying to take something that’s not theirs.

    some vague thoughts.

  7. 10 denisediscovers September 3, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    There is so much here that resonates with me. I live in an inner-city suburb which is very diverse in terms of social class, ethnicity, age and a whole lot of other factors. I really notice ways in which recent (and often not long-staying) residents remain apart from the place they claim to love and be a part of by applying the habits and standards of where they come from. For example, street people are drunk, abusive and smelly, but unfortunate so the city should do something about them. University students who are also drunk, abusive and smelly, are just having a good time, and the city should let them be. My experience is that the vomit both types deposit in my front yard is pretty indistinguishable.

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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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