Some thoughts that have been fomenting somewhere in the back of my dome have been coming to the fore as my trip winds down to a close here in Bogotá, and I’ve had some more time to contemplate the bigger picture. One item that I’ve been considering is the changing perceptions I have of the concept of ‘gentrification’. I’ve always been critical of the influence of big money on people’s lives and communities. I’m especially critical of the bland and complacent lifestyles of the well-to-do, the ‘yuppies’, the SUVS, the suburban sprawl, the homogenous franchises, and so on. But my experience here in Colombia has driven me to question some of the aspects of gentrification that before I immediately and completely rejected. This has been due to the fact that when you’re traveling on a budget here, you’re inevitably staying in some neighborhoods that aren’t exactly high-end. And as a traveler coming from somewhere else, it makes you all the more conscious of the presence of poverty, wealth, and the types of commerce going on around you. And when you are looking simply for a bite to eat, or a place to get a good juice or coffee at, you are looking for some kind of welcome, however tentative that may be. At the very least, simply the product you desire, preferably sanitary and with a smile. But in some places, these basic expectations have been hard to come by, for the very simple reason that many businesses here are run by families or individuals that cater solely to a small local market, and have little interest in growing or developing their operation. They will close for weeks on end for the holiday season, they will not provide customer service aside from plopping down your plate and taking your money, and there’s often a sense that they could really care less for your business.
In such circumstances, I have discovered a sudden appreciation for the Juan Valdez Café chain. Yes, it is a franchise, but there are a few things that you can count on when you enter into one of these ‘yuppie’ establishments: 1) friendly, efficient service; 2) clean facilities, with a bathoom; 3) an atmosphere conducive to sitting, relaxing, chatting, and reading. These are aspects, as Americans, that I think we often take for granted in our businesses. We expect—and demand—adequate customer service, clean facilities, and proper delivery of the product. We live in the land of franchise.
Now let me be clear about something: I despise franchises, both as a concept and in their usual effect on local communities. However, when else has failed, and all I’ve wanted is somewhere to sit and read and drink coffee, Juan Valdez has been there. This isn’t to say that I haven’t discovered some great local cafés and what not. I will happily circumvent Juan Valdez whenever and wherever I can. But there have been times when there just haven’t been any other places open, or air-conditioned, or quiet or spacious enough to read in.
Here in Colombia, they don’t have the knee-jerk allergic reaction to franchises that many of us idealistic Americans have developed. They love their Coca-Cola and Postobon, they love their Juan Valdez, and while there are certainly Colombians who question capitalism and its accompanying imposition of materialistic values, as well as the influence of foreign investment, overall, Colombians seem quite happy with name-brands and familiar franchises. And that may have had a subtle influence on my experience here as well. When everyone drinks Coca-Cola all the time, it makes you more apt to grab one and sip it along with your fried chicken, patacones, and french fries.
But I’m getting off on a tangent. What I was getting at in bringing up the subject of Juan Valdez cafés is that there can be a positive effect from the influx of outside money and businesses. As a traveler and tourist, for example, I am bringing in money from outside into the country, and this is good for their economy. I understand when people speak disparagingly of gringos, and I have never been one to welcome tourists into my own community with open arms. Tourists are, in general, annoying, demanding, and most of their money goes to big business. That said, however, in the big picture, I believe tourism is a good thing for a country as a whole, especially if the tourism is encouraged to developed concurrently with local environmental and social concerns.
And so I’ve been extending that thought into the more general concept of the influx of outside money into any local community. I think that gentrification is easy to criticize and despise, but I think that what also needs to be considered is that inevitably, a community needs outside input in order grow. Before gentrification, a community is generally mired in poverty, and there is little potential for growth and expansion. Gentrification, in fact, could be seen as an inevitable aspect of growth and development.
I’m going to ignore for the moment the myriad negative effects that gentrification can incur on the local community (such as simply driving out all the prior, poor inhabitants), which I am fully aware of, and rather move onto the parable of hip-hop. The growth and development of this music mirrors quite well the growth and development of any community when it encounters a sudden influx of outside wealth. Hip-hop started, of course, in the restrictive hard-knock life of the streets. It was a revolution in articulation. Suddenly, disenfranchised youth found a creative and positive outlet for their passion, desire, anger, and thought. Much like graffiti, it empowered them in a way that, at first, seemed unprofitable to the outside world. It began simply as a method for those who had been unseen and unheard to express themselves. And as hip-hop developed and expanded into other communities, and eventually across the globe, it inevitably became commercialized and diverged into the mainstream, and glitz and glitter and glamour now are the name of the industry game. It seems to be dominated by a rich and famous elite, who proclaim at every chance they can their extravagant wealth. While this aspect of hip-hop can and will be lamented by those who love it for its roots in self-expression and rebellion, at the same time, it can also be seen as an inevitable outgrowth of the expansion and development of the music as a whole. This is analogous to the development of any artist who is “discovered” and inducted into the mainstream. Sometimes, and oftentimes, this sudden influx of outside money and influence results in pathologies and the destruction of an artist’s original intent and purpose. But other times, it simply extends the power, creativity, and influence of the individual to a broader audience, which is a good thing, if they are doing anything original and inspiring. And they develop their style in accordance with this extension (sometimes, of course, losing some of their original fans in the process).
But such is the process of evolution and growth. Communities, like individuals, are not steady-state bubbles. They are influenced necessarily by external factors, and they must utilize and embrace these factors if they are to grow. They can, of course, choose to withdraw inward and fight off all externalities, but inevitably, they either must collapse or expand.
So to get back to my original idea: I am beginning to think that external inputs of wealth are not completely undesirable. The problem, of course, is that most of the time, none of this wealth ends up in the pockets of the original inhabitants of a community, and they are either driven out, or they are left to fester in small controlled pockets within the newer developing community. So the problem I think that must be addressed, therefore, is not that of “gentrification” per se: the problem that must be addressed is: how can a community expand and develop its wealth locally, while at the same time accepting, encouraging, and embracing external inputs of wealth?
I’m going to get into some ideas and approaches to that question in another post, as this one is getting rather long. I wanted to first lay down the foundation for it, however, as for me these ideas are a new direction in thought. I’m beginning, basically, to look more at such issues in an integral fashion, rather than simply separating the negative from the positive and looking only at one side. I’m recognizing that the idea of money and wealth is not so simple as rejecting the entire concept of monetary gain. Rather, the idea is to unite the principle of natural wealth with that of manufactured wealth.