New City, New Frontier: The Lower East Side as Wild, Wild West Essay

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Neil Smith’s article, “New City, New Frontier: The Lower East Side as Wild, Wild West” discusses the core of what may be characterized as the revitalization of the urban frontier in New York City, with a detailed and intricate exposition and emphasis on the very concepts of the frontier myth and the process of gentrification.

Smith’s take off point is the case of the Tompkins Square Park, New York City, the place noted for a police-incited riot which occurred on the 6th and 7th of August, 1988 which involves protesters particularly the homeless, the poor, the youth living wayward and deviant lifestyles who occupy the park as a sort of sanctuary. Local entrepreneurs and business owners opposed the aforementioned people’s settlement in the park and petitioned for their eviction resulting to violence.

What is the significance of the Tompkins Square Park riot to the concepts of frontier myth and gentrification? What is the relation between these two concepts? Smith explores the very idea and experience of homelessness, being evicted from one’s immediate social environment and his or her social and political milieu. In a real sense, this experience is degrading for the evicted families and individuals. This usually generates feelings of powerlessness, anxiety and oppression.

In American history for instance, gentrification is considered as a mechanism for the revitalization or rehabilitation of the casualties brought about by wars and conflicts both from the external and the internal threats. Examples of such destructive courses in history are World War I and II. Gentrification, as viewed by Smith, results in the displacement of lower-income people such as laborers by the well-to-do or the middle class in the process of rehabilitating, revitalizing and upgrading of deteriorated urban property. “The frontier myth makes the new city explicable in terms of old ideologies.

Insofar as gentrification obliterates working-class communities, displaces poor households and converts whole neighborhoods into bourgeois enclaves, the frontier ideology rationalizes social differentiation and exclusion as natural and inevitable. ” (Smith, 1992). Smith therefore, views both concepts [the frontier myth and gentrification] as closely related concepts. As may be inferred from the aforementioned quotation, Smith contends that the issues of the frontier myth and gentrification have certain ideological commitments attached at their very core.

The problem with the frontier myth and the process of gentrification therefore, poses serious threats on the very notion of a “shared history”. As the materially-driven real-estate industries and markets continue to flourish, the easier it displaces low-income people from their immediate social environment and social and political milieu, thus, endangering the very notion of a shared history. Let us now explain the changes we see in the Chicago area or cities in general based upon the conceptual guide that we developed from our construal of Smith’s views on the frontier myth and the process of gentrification.

Maxwell Street in Chicago, Illinois, noted as the place of origin of the Chicago Blues and where a large portion of the University of Illinois at Chicago is located is an example of the many streets that went through the process of gentrification. In an article written by Alan P. Mamoser entitled “Requiem for Maxwell Street”, he beautifully described the places, establishments and the daily affairs of its prior residents prior to the University of Illinois at Chicago’s gentrification.

Feeling nostalgic of his descriptions of Maxwell Street, he talks of the busy street, the bargain offers of garments at the sidewalk, the street tailors, Reverend John Johnson and his tapes and CDs of the blues, among many others. The administration of UIC is serious with its plan of gentrifying Maxwell Street, Harrison Street, Roosevelt Street and the market area and the justification that they provided is that the vicinity is in need of rehabilitation due to the increasing criminality and the old, dilapidated and poor conditions of buildings and infrastructures.

As a consequence, many settlements and business establishments were demolished as the university expands its territory. “It’s all an afterglow of what was here, and soon these last vestiges are going away. UIC is taking it all now. They’re scattering the old merchants and bringing in new ones, in new buildings, with a new set of pre-approved stores and restaurants. The great urban university is building a “24-hour community” at Maxwell and Halsted. ” (Mamoser, 2000).

The case of Maxwell Street then is no different in theory, from that of Tompkins Square Park in New York City, and perhaps to most cities undergoing gentrification. The issue of gentrification, as I reckon it, is not a simple matter that may be justified by an appeal “to have a spacious, state-of-the-art University at the expense of the whole gamut of individuals that may directly be affected by such course of actions”. In a sense, it can be said that a sensitive issue such as gentrification requires critical evaluation before it may be made operational.

This is due to the fact that it would involve the political, economic and social considerations of an entire community in question and their sense of what it means to be a community in the strict sense of the word. To belong to a community is to invoke a pool of shared understanding, shared experiences and a shared sense of identity. When Smith says that the very process of gentrification cancels out social history, that aspect which may be said to be essentially constitutive of our own humanity, I can but agree.

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