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Gentrified Memories

Benjamin Schwartz, The Atlantic Monthly’s polymath book editor, recently critiqued two books on gentrification in New York’s Greenwich Village for their romanticism and perhaps for bits of hypocrisy.

Many of the writerly class (guilty as charged) pine for a neighborhood that has just the right  “authentic” working-class flavor: mom-and-pop grocery stores (but organic veggies, please); cheap apartments (no roaches, thank you); old-timers gossiping on front stoops (but no thuggish teens), and so on. It should also have just enough amenities – say, good coffee, a book store, a few art galleries, and a couple of clubs – to make it fun. Richard Lloyd, who studied gentrification in Chicago, notes the attraction to “grit as glamor.”

Schwartz suggests that this balance of working-class grit and a cleaned-up bohemia was attained only in a few places – the Village most famously – and for just a brief moment before the neighborhoods tipped over into “inauthentic” yuppiedom. (In the Village, that moment came around 1960, just about when Bob Dylan showed up.) Schwartz is impatient with those who, in slamming gentrification, imagine that those thrilling moments could be preserved in “amber.”

The question of what ought to be preserved in amber — that is, what memories define the “authentic” moment of a neighborhood — is central to struggles over the future of many neighborhoods in major American cities.

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