Chinatown, Los Angeles, in the mid-1960s. My mother, her hair elaborately piled atop her head, buys tofu at a corner grocery on Sunset Boulevard in Chinatown. Around the corner on Spring Street, my father restocks the shelves at his uncle’s wholesale store, dawdling to read Descartes essays from behind horn-rimmed glasses; she has yet to stumble across the store. (A few years later, the fictional Evelyn Mulwray would slump onto her pink Packard’s horn in front of the store.)
Forty years before this moment, the corner store sold tomato paste and cream to an Italian neighborhood. Forty years after this moment, that block of Spring is a parking lot and weekend Vietnamese garment market in the shadow of Gold Line trains ferrying revelers from downtown LA to Pasadena (not the other way ’round); the corner store puts guavas out onto the sidewalk of César Chavez Avenue; statuesque models, chattering in German, spill out from gallery openings and into the alley behind Chung King Road.
My parents have settled in behind a fragrant magnolia in Southern suburbia, and I in a deeply contested neighborhood — at times predominantly German, Polish, Puerto Rican, crime-ridden, bohemian, hip, and now yuppie, all within living memory and all still very much in evidence. Sure, the usual narrative of neighborhood change is written from a middle-class point of view, with its capitalist, WASPy, and heteronormative biases. But cities and societies change, and all of us, even those of us trusted with little power by said society, are complicit in this process.
Sure, we might ultimately want a fairer, more democratic, and more visionary process guiding said change, but apathy seems to get the better of most of us. The few who do act often default to obstructionism — an ultimately untenable stance, since I think we can all agree that the status quo is, well, unsustainable. Very few dare to dream about the future; even though government has a vested interest in looking ahead (to meet its obligations to provide for future generations), it typically does little to stimulate such discussions. Far easier for elected officials to look no further than the next election, of course.
Before my mother followed the dreams of ’60s America and drove out to California, she lived in Boston’s Chinatown, which, like the Italian North End, gained some sense of seclusion in the shadows of the Central Artery. (Before that, and I still struggle to wrap my head around the thought — but she has the boxes of tiny paper umbrellas to prove it — she slung tiki drinks and moo shoo pork for taciturn Yankees from behind a bar in Plymouth.) Now that the wraps are finally coming off the latest massive investment in downtown Boston, the easiest to reclaim edges — notably the reaches closest to the Common, now occupied by the likes of the Ritz-Carlton — have launched the neighborhood’s inevitable annexation to the hungry central business district. Chinatown in New York is famously durable (mostly because of an unstoppable flow of migration from the most populous nation in history), but the “East End” and Gallery Place have subsumed Washington’s postage-stamp Chinatown underneath huge entertainment venues for Washingtonians long starved of any real urban experiences. Meanwhile, I recently caught myself looking longingly at a row of lovely new modern rowhouses in Chinatown — what a view! what a price! and so close to up and coming Pilsen!
Colson Whitehead reminds us that none of us really “owns” the neighborhood or the city; we just rent from the next generation.
Listen to me, with my “back in the day” and “can’t throw a rock without hitting a bistro.” As if putting in eleven years in this borough makes me an old hand. The longtime residents—longer-time residents—know I’m just another one of the displaced Manhattan chumps. Everybody is someone’s newcomer, someone else’s gentrifier. I gave somebody the boot out of an apartment in Brooklyn a while back, and recently someone else gave me the boot. What do I know about Brooklyn? I know it’s part of New York City, and that means that every inch of it is constantly screaming, “Move, get out the way!” Bike messenger, delivery truck, sports stadium coming through. Honk honk. It’s a white neighborhood, it’s a black neighborhood, it’s an immigrant neighborhood, it’s a subplot on a sitcom about yuppies. It’s a working-class neighborhood, then it’s not. It’s changing so fast you shouldn’t bother unpacking, and you might as well blame water for being wet.
In the end, the same energy that draws us here, binds us to this place, is alternately creative and destructive, razing here, renovating there, and it’s all we can do to adapt.
Neighborhoods change; their changes reflect the way our societies change. That’s neither bad nor good, happy nor sad; it just is. The best we can do is to go along for the ride, make sure everyone prospers, and create great neighborhoods for everyone — both today and tomorrow.