Gentrification, Island Hipsters & Diaspora Communities

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BarrioIcon-Newsletter“If gentrification means that more artists are going to move here and make it a better place, then sign me up.”

The above quote has probably been said a million times over by global urban dwellers who have something to gain from the destruction of historic communities. Puerto Rico’s capital is no exception.

For over two decades, there’s been talk, incentives, and concrete projects to “revitalize” San Juan’s Santurce district. This included a heavy rail station connecting it to parts of the metropolitan area, a new art museum, and street festivals.

Today, the New York Times reported on one such “revitalizing” festival, Santurce Es Ley 5. This annual event seeks to restore the peninsula to its former glory through art, music, and murals. One problem however: the quote above was said by its organizer.

Whenever folks with money and influence talk about gentrification being so wonderful and great for everybody, especially when its connected to “universally loved” and allegedly neutral things like art, an eyebrow begins to raise. “Good for whom?” should be the question we’re asking, along with “who has the right to define what’s ‘good’ for a community?”

Its also very telling that this organizer was stated to have lived in New York for a time. Too often colonial governments and their insular middle-class seek to replicate the economic and urban structures of their metropoles – even at risk of their own traffic-filled, polluted, and consumption-obsessed demise.

That’s why my mother’s town prefers to have its lush tropical landscape annihilated for exclusive, gated neighborhoods and biotech factories. Who asked my cousins, aunts, and great-aunts if the land their familial tribe has lived on for generations could be occupied by Disney-esque subdivisions and contaminating industries? Where is the dialogue with longtime residents? Are their visions for their communities included in its development? Also, we should ask – and what’s the most controversial – is the racial and class experiences/ identities of those proposing and benefiting from gentrification. And I ask the same questions for those seeking to “revitalize” Santurce or any other community facing displacement.

In the case of Santurce, I assume its the light-skinned Boricua bourgeoisie who felt more comfortable in a gentrifying Williamsburg with white hipsters than their Nuyorican kin. These are the same minority who enjoy making comparisons between Santurce and Williamsburg without mention of displacement – its origins and implications.

It must also be stated that while all these initiatives have certainly sexied-up these places in the eyes of some, we must keep in mind that San Juan – and Puerto Rico – is a colonial entity. In other words, La Ciudad Capital is a city that cannot control mass emigration and economic collapse, among other things. So no matter how much debt the insular government goes into in order to fund grandeur projects, nothing is really going to change unless there is a process of decolonization. All this is not to say that the amplification of an artist presence and external economic investment doesn’t have positive results; there are folks who feel proud about what’s happening in Santurce. But let’s be more intentional about how – and by whom – its happening and to what ends.

In the end, its the most marginalized (socially, economically, and historically, etc.) who get left out of redefining their communities. In the context of the U.S., that means people of color – Black, Indigenous, Boricua, etc. In Puerto Rico, that means the historically poor in which the negra/o, mulata/o, and trigueña/o are overrepresented. We can’t ignore that. We need to talk about it. We need to acknowledge that there are folks and organizations resisting gentrification. And I comment on all of this not as a Santurce resident, but a Nuyorican exile who have been gentrified out of my home-place more than once, making me more than ready to challenge those who celebrate gentrification, even if they may deny me being a part of our/ their “imagined community.” That is an easy cop-out instead of actually confronting the hard questions and processes towards self-determination.

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