The Gentrification of the Mind: A Talk with Sarah Schulman at St. Mark’s Bookshop

1. Schulman telling us how very different the village was then from how it is now. 2. The crowd listening, rapt.

I came for the inspiration and stayed for the revelations. Sound like church? Yes indeed! An East Village kind of church: the St. Mark’s Bookshop.

The place was just as I remembered it from my childhood: full of fascinating books about REAL people, new avant-garde magazines, and the pervasive sense of safety. The safety, the coziness of St. Mark’s, is provided by its championing of the underground, leftist, bohemian village world of old — the last vestiges of which are disappearing day by day.

“A 7-Eleven has opened up on St. Marks Place,” said Sarah Schulman, opening up her talk. “That is what we are here to talk about today.”

It felt just like an organizing meeting, and indeed — Sarah Schulman’s new book walks hand-in-hand with activism. The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination brings to light the effects of one of New York’s deliberately ignored tragedies: the AIDS crisis.

3. Ittai and Hugh, loving the reading. 4. Sarah Schulman, signing.

Because the AIDS epidemic did indeed affect New York’s rapid gentrification of the ’80s and ’90s: from 1981 to 1996, 81,542 people died from AIDS in New York City; many had rent-stabilized apartments in the East and West Villages, Chelsea, the Lower East Side, and Harlem — the very neighborhoods that were to experience the greatest upheaval from gentrification. It’s no coincidence that the partners of those who died from AIDS were not able to inherit their property, or their apartments, resulting in the destabilization of the rent, removal of the partner or other roommates, and subsequent moving-in of the new class of tenant: the children of suburban America that could afford the exorbitant new rent.

The problem in this gentrification was not the race, class, or economic status of these new tenants, but rather that their coming — their replacement of the previous tenants — fomented the erasure of the people that used to live there. The new tenants had new values: comfortability over freedom, and consumerism over ideas — particularly political ideas.

“Facing difference, embracing uncomfortability, that’s what city life was about,” said Schulman, who spoke like an experienced organizer: compelling, and straight to the point — making every sentence count. “We’re all living together in front of each other, and out of that we create something new and beautiful.”

Amen.

It’s the old way artists once filled these now-gentrified neighborhoods. The call to do this once more was the inspiration of the reading/meeting.

The revelation came in beginning to realize what was lost with the death of the early AIDS victims: a whole generation was wiped out, erased, and their radical queer artistry was erased along with them. Unfortunately, the generation that replaced them did the furthest thing possible from taking up their mantle, by embracing the opposite ideology. Tellingly, there are no institutionalized remembrances of the AIDS victims as there are today for the victims of 9/11. One type of victim is considered important — the “right” kind of victim — while the other is not.

The turnout fit nicely between this cozy bookstore’s shelves, and was full of people asking Schulman what to do next, and what the current generation can expect in the current historical moment.

Altogether it was an energizing reading, an uplifting meeting.

The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination

by Sarah Schulman

Powells.com

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— Emma Rock is the director of the Brooklyn College Women’s Improv Group (WIG!). Their next performance is Friday, June 15th, 7pm at the Brooklyn College Student Center. Free to the public!

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