By Richey Piiparinen
With change comes conflict. That’s life. The “life” of a city is no different.
Community conflict often arises with migration, particularly with an influx of newcomers. Wariness toward the arriving outsider is as old as time. The nomadic gypsy has been cast into the communal underground. “Okie get out” was a common refrain in 1940’s California. Even migratory Buckeyes have drawn the local’s ire.
“Ohioans have invaded the Lowcountry…and some folks wish they would leave,” reads the title of a 2010 piece in the Charleston City Paper.
Today, San Francisco is one of the flashpoints for such community conflict. The growth of the tech sector has brought a swarm of geek types to the Bay, igniting a culture clash between the “old San Francisco” of activism and bohemianism—think Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s independent bookstore City Lights—against the cash-infused “tech is god” lifestyle that is permeating out from the start-up culture of Silicon Valley.
Writer Rebecca Solnit identifies what is unfolding as “a crisis of space and housing”, in which long-time residents are being pushed out by the young, wealthy digerati.
“We’re becoming akin to a mining boomtown,” Solnit laments in a recent Guernica piece called “Resisting Monoculture”, “a place overwhelmed by an influx of mostly young, mostly male people from elsewhere who are not committed to this place and don’t know it well and are transforming its culture to suit themselves.”
No doubt, the issues that Solnit describes, particularly the class repercussions that occur when wealth is introduced into a city, are real. Policies are needed to protect against the wholesale unraveling of communities at the hands of what can be pretty brutal market forces.
Still, economic displacement, or gentrification, is only part of the story in San Francisco and places like it. Just as centrally, the conflict is about the “right” to space. It is a right that gets its high ground from the belief that the best communities are the most “rooted” communities. Here, the “self” is deep-seated in a geographic context called “home”.
Yet this right of localization is increasingly being rubbed the wrong way by the reality of globalization. For instance, internationally, the migration of newcomers has raised an “existential issue” among the English, with former British Ambassador Charles Crawford openly wondering if the country is “entitled” to maintain its identity.
Crawford references Japan as one culture determined to maintaining a static sense of “Japaneseness”. The country is crafting policy to deal with its ageing population and declining demographic base through its “energetic work with robots” so it doesn’t have to import “large numbers of foreigners whose presence will undermine Japan’s highly specific cultural integrity.”
Intense. But are such measures worth it? Or is there a more optimal give and take in which some uprooting is needed, if not ultimately beneficial?
I think when it comes to the Rust Belt we would have to say so.
Now, I am from the Rust Belt. To me, flannels are not ironic, but it is what you wear when it is cold. Same with boots and stocking caps. And when I see a metal bridge, a factory, an old church, or that thickness that is the regional aesthetic, it is something I recognize. It is something that is in me like the taste of grits is in the southerner. I also feel kinship with the Rust Belt psychogeography, or that stew of feeling and thought that is tied to the terroir of our land. It is a psychogeography of ruin that has a legacy of loss, but also one of resilience and pride, and of attachment and origin.
It is also a psychogeography that can tip to nativism and a resistance to change. This is partly due to the fact that Cleveland suffers from too little migration, battling a kind of migratory sclerosis. The solution is to often say screw it. Let’s shrink. But such solutions are littered with a backstory, call it “Rust Belt fatalism”. It is a regional self-flagellation that is fueled in part by the comfort that is knowing our decline, as opposed to the insecurity that arises with the prospect of change.
You could say, then, that Cleveland has a bit of an identity crisis as well. But it’s a conflict of irrelevancy that comes with being unwanted, as opposed to San Francisco’s plight of being wanted too much.
The evolution of any community is riding that continuum of migration to find a balance between knowing who you were, who you are, and who you can no longer be. The city, like the self, is constantly evolving, and the “right” to the city moves with it. The key, in part, is to find a balance between too much circulation and too little. Or between the chains of nostalgia and the airiness of having no sense of place.
To that end, maybe Slate writer Matt Yglesias was on to something when he wrote the piece “Move Silicon Valley to Cleveland”. The two cities could do well to balance each other out.
Richey Piiparinen is a Senior Writer for Belt.