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Archive for August, 2015|Monthly archive page

The Alienation of Postmodern Geographies: Reflections on Southern Californian Suburbia

In Decolonization, Geography/ Spatial Justice, Latin@ Politics, Philosophical Musings, Racial Politics on August 31, 2015 at 12:10 AM

When I made the decision to leave New York, I wanted to test a hypothesis: does geography play a role in one’s happiness?

If I had to describe it in a few words, I’d say that the motivation to leave Gotham was based on a multi-layered amalgam of ambivalent feelings, much of which was deeply embedded in urban alienation.

Like many New Yorkers, I had a bipolar love-hate relationship with the place: it never felt like a unitary totality that could ever be home in a traditional sense. A city in constant metamorphosis, it can be home one day and someone else’s turf the next.

In my case, my impetus to leave Gotham was driven in large part by a need to un-jade myself—that is, to keep myself from falling further along this precipitous decline I felt myself on, one that felt like a free fall towards the inevitable end of the “jaded old queen.”

Another reason was existential. I developed my roots in Brooklyn, and as much as I came to love my cosmopolitan, working-class immigrant neighborhood, I also had a profound sense of what it meant to live in a truly fragmented and atomized neoliberal playground–one where the constant battle for space and time lent itself to a paradoxical sense of loneliness amid human congestion. My ties to family and home were both strange and estranged.

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Mural in Sunset Park, Brooklyn


I can’t think of my years of experience in New York now without recalling sociologist Georg Simmel’s classic essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903), in which he links the overstimulation of the built environment with the “blasé attitude” of the metropolitan human.

Similarly, I conjure up the characterizations of heartache and existential turmoil that afflicted the black protagonists of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, both of whom wrote beautifully at length about structural oppression and alienation in the big city of late capitalism.

As the queer, bookish son of two, working-class immigrant parents, witnessing the enigmatic health complications of my brothers, and personally living through the nightmarish consequences of autoimmunity and the cold indifference of the biomedical industrial complex, the urban terrain acquired a distinct set of meanings for me.

While I had numerous positive coming-of-age experiences in Brooklyn, it almost feels redundant to say that painful memories became etched into the physical environment as well.

A multidimensional mental map of the city is littered as much with tokens of joyful, ecstatic and almost-sublime experiences as it is with recollections of the solitary long walks, the spells of disappointment and wistful yearnings.

A quarter century of existence is legible in landmarks and streets: The overshadowed, gray-and-yellow playground under the Gowanus Expressway; the sooty, humid 59th St Subway Station in south Brooklyn; the silver, razor-like currents of the Hudson from a Battery Park City bench; the giant, moveable black cube on Astor Place near an old workplace; the striking emptiness of the Christopher St. Pier on a very cold, winter morning.


Two memories jump out at me as I think of my motivations for considering leaving.

The first was seemingly rather innocuous: a date with a friend to “catch up.” My friend invited me to a fundraiser for an organization that we both had ties with, an organization with unique, well-articulated politics that engaged queer youth of color around issues like gentrification.

As it turned out, the fundraiser was directed at alumni (such as myself) and our social networks, and it was taking place at a rooftop bar in downtown Brooklyn I had never heard of.

Unexpectedly, this time with my friend ended up sparking unease as I found myself surrounded by a conspicuously, upwardly-mobile coterie of queer men of color and white “allies.” The surrealness of the experience was highlighted by the fact that I was at a rooftop bar—something unheard of during my many years in Brooklyn—and my sickliness that evening in the gay meat market showroom.

More alienating than that, however, was the larger environment that surrounded us: a 360° panoramic view of downtown Brooklyn.To be sure, all those years of living here had never given me this level of access–the opportunity to see my home turf from an eagle-eye vantage point.

All around me were reminders of the changing topography of an early twenty-first century neoliberal city—an ever-emergent, postmodern cityscape. An insidiously spatial warzone.

Having spent my freshman year of high school near downtown Brooklyn, the micro-level changes were all-too-dramatic: a spate of new high-rises (including the development of Brooklyn’s then-tallest building, the Brooklyner), the mammoth Barclay’s Center, countless ritzy restaurants and bars, and in the distance, the multi-million-dollar Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Brownstones in my old neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn. How has the brownstone come to represent a certain urban lifestyle? And who has access to it?

Brownstones in my old neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn. How has the brownstone come to represent a certain urban lifestyle? And who has access to it?

The second memory is rooted in a more sweeping experience of the city at the ground level.

It was the archetypal overcast, gray, late fall day, and an unhappy line-up of medical, personal, and work-related appointments forced me to make pit stops in four boroughs (and Long Island) within a short time period.

Driving around the traffic-clogged Belt Parkway became stressful not because I was running late all day, but because sitting for hours in a mobile, metal capsule forced me to marinate in melancholic memories.

As I drove all around the city, I was bombarded with movie reel-like scenes for each passing landmark and place.

I tried to hold it in, to think positively of what was to come, but it jumped out from an invisible crevice inside of me: so many memories


Now that I’ve lived in “America’s Finest City” for a full year, I’ve been given a number of things to think about.

As one can guess, it is much more complicated than a “thumbs up, thumbs down” evaluation of San Diego. But my situation has forced me to pause and consider how multiple layers of alienation can operate socially and spatially.

There’s suburban alienation. Academic alienation. The geographic alienation of living far from community.

Being economically compelled to live in the cheap graduate housing that lies within the super-wealthy, super-white neighborhood in which UCSD is situated—La Jolla—my life is more than just physically situated in a borderlands space.

It is filled with stentorian, everyday reminders of where I am, a fact that was striking during my first month in which I felt I was experiencing in La Jolla a selectively orchestrated bundle of the worst, Hollywood-infused stereotypes of southern California: suburban cul-de-sacs with breathtaking ocean or canyon views; limitless, box-model shopping malls and plazas that house uniform chain stores, cafés, and restaurants; a hegemonic car culture that reproduces (sub)urban sprawl; and a prevailing cult of self-fixated bodily perfection centered around the “beach body.”

A different kind of geography: A typical La Jolla intersection.

A different kind of geography: A typical La Jolla intersection.

As I understand it, the concomitant, hyper-individualistic consumption ethos that is both cause and effect of this catastrophe is intimately intertwined with a long history of white supremacist dominion over colonized space—a fact that stands out more prominently in the U.S. Southwest in general, where a strong, spatially-segmented Red and Brown presence makes the artificiality of it all more ostensible.

I’m learning, through one of the most extreme examples possible, what it means to suffer through suburban alienation (something I see as linked to contemporary neoliberal gentrification for numerous reasons).

It is this notion of owning or occupying a private space of “your own,” the emphatic American ideal of home ownership, that marks what race scholar George Lipsitz calls the ‘possessive investment in whiteness.”

It is an investment that produces clear spatial consequences: gated communities on one end, criminalized black and brown communities on the other. As we see in cities around the world, these ‘othered’ urban spaces are increasingly targeted as domestic threats under national security policing.

The surrealness of having been transplanted from the Brooklyn barrio to this ultra-ritzy beachside suburbia is one that never escapes me, for I am constantly reminded of the ways in which I don’t belong.

For instance, my beat-up, used 2001 Honda Civic garners the attention of police in a neighborhood where new sports cars and militarized BMW’s are the norm. (To say nothing of my first six, car-less months, during which I experienced street harassment simply for waiting at a bus stop or walking on the sidewalk.)

In a similar vein, as a low-income graduate student paradoxically living in an affluent area, I frustratingly find that my nearest options for food and services (like haircuts) are incredibly overpriced.

The signs are both subtle and not-so-subtle. The environment makes it clear that I don’t belong here.


Whether we speak of suburban, academic, or neoliberal alienation, the same holds true with respect to geography: spaces can become alienating and confining, even carceral, in the absence of community and genuine social ties.

If there is something that my experience has foregrounded, it’s the nature of the way postmodern geographies can be alienating and surreal in numerous ways: whether it takes a cosmopolitan, suburban or exurban form, there are simply exponential ways in which one can feel excluded and distanced.

It is a reality that also brings me backs to my former ethical reflections on resistance vs. acceptance: Up to what point should we continue to fight to shape our local spaces, fight to build and sustain geographies of radical democracy and freedom (in a spirit similar to geographer Henri Lefebvre’s conception of the ‘right to the city’)?

On the other hand, at what point must the atomized self relinquish designs on radical reconstruction of space in order to seek out a path of radical acceptance? Or is the question of resisting/accepting alienating geographies merely reproducing a tautology of sorts?

Finally: Can one find home anywhere? If a homeland can’t be reclaimed in a physical geography, how useful and necessary is it to search for home internally (mentally, spiritually, psychically)?

To seek, in other words–in the tackiest of terms–a home at heart?

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What is Gentrification? Part I: the Rent Gap

In Uncategorized on August 13, 2015 at 8:07 PM

Our Streets, Our Stories

This article is the first in a two-part series explaining what gentrification is and how it works. This first part explains what the late urban geographer Neil Smith called the “rent gap,” an essential condition for gentrification to occur. Part 2 will discuss the multiple phases of the gentrification process from disinvestment to displacement.

Imagine a large working-class family, who’ve been renting a home for decades. Its a few rooms too small for them to live comfortably but they try to respect each other’s privacy. The parents work 40 hours a week, sometimes putting in a few hours of overtime, and still they struggle to live a respectable existence, capable of only making ends meet, trying to provide a good life for their children.

Now imagine a developer who is looking to make profit from the same community, a community that has been disinvested from and ignored for decades by landlords…

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