To Preserve Is to Kill, or: a Probably-Obtuse Discussion of Gentrification

I once said something that seemed insightful, and whomever I said it to reacted in such a way that I started to really think maybe it was insightful, and it has stuck with me ever since. I’m certain it came in the context of a conversation about gentrification, because as a frequent gentrifier that’s a conversation I often have*. At any rate it definitely came in the context of a conversation about cultural preservation, because this is what I said:

To preserve is to kill. Once you start talking about “preservation” as such, that thing that you wish to preserve — as an organic product of the culture in question — is already gone.

My reasoning for that (intentionally controversial) statement is rooted in food, as most of my most important thoughts are. Think about preservation as a cooking method. When you eat a cucumber, it is pretty much the same vegetable it was when it was a living, growing thing on the vine. You pull it off the vine, you slice it up, you have a cucumber. But as an organic thing, that cucumber exists only on the vine, and for a short period after being removed. So what do you do if you love that cucumber and want to have it with you for months to come? You preserve it, by pickling.

But then it’s not a cucumber. It’s a pickle, reminiscent of the cucumber it was on the vine, but no longer the same thing.

The same thought experiment works for berries, preserved as, well, preserves. Or red meat, which when you cook it properly is bloody like the red-blooded mammal it came from, but which when preserved becomes jerky. You’re able to keep the food product with you, protect it from the ravages of spoilage and waste. You’re being respectful to the resources that were used to feed and water the plant or animal. But you’re changing its nature, definitively.

When you’re talking about historic preservation, of historic homes or battlegrounds or whatever, this is assumed, and it’s not a negative thing. It’s actually good. That home is no longer the residence of whichever rich and/or famous person once lived there, so it’s lost the vibrant, organic presence it had when it was in use, but still we want to preserve that for future generations to observe. Or the battleground, upon which battle is no longer taking place, is preserved for future generations to see and learn from. This is not a bad thing.

This applies to other cultural relics too, like, say, music or clothing from a bygone era. Because relics are, by definition, remainders of yesteryear**. Preserving them is less like pickling a cucumber or making blackberry preserves, and more like petrified wood. But petrified wood you made. (I don’t know, my simile is getting a little muddled. Like berries in a blackberry mojito. Oh lord, similes upon similes. Somebody save me.)

But when you start talking about preserving neighborhoods, protecting them from change, that’s when preservation, to me, becomes nonsense. Once you start talking about preservation, you’ve already lost. Because cultures are dynamic, organic things, constantly changing and evolving and progressing and regressing. Neighborhoods, as the buzzing physical embodiments of culture, necessarily change and evolve and progress and regress, too. Preservation implies you’re stopping that change, retaining what exists now and removing it from its context for good.

I’m venturing into Privilege Town here, I know. It’s easy for me to sit here and listen to music made by white guys appropriating other cultures and ramble about how we shouldn’t try to preserve neighborhoods or other cultural institutions. But I don’t mean to say that, instead, let’s just gentrify and displace and destroy, without any care for the people whose cultures we’re destroying. That’s like digging up the cucumber vine and leaving all the vegetables to rot, and is sort of like what often happens now anyway. Right before some well-intentioned but tone-deaf white twentysomethings say, hey, before you finish that let’s grab a couple of those veggies and preserve ’em.

My point is that we should be more proactive. We need to start caring about people and neighborhoods and cultures and everything else, before we get to the point of talking about “preservation.” Let them change and evolve and improve, but let it happen naturally. Once you start talking about preservation, you’ve already lost it.

*As a committed urbanite I’m not super-psyched about living in the lily white suburbs at the moment, but I guess one benefit is that this is the first time in the last 10 years I haven’t stressed about my role in broader patterns of social inequality and displacement. (Which is one of the purposes of the suburbs, probably: to not notice the broader patterns of social inequality.)

** Sincere apologies for using both “a bygone era” and “yesteryear” in a single paragraph. Every editor and employer I’ve ever had would slap me over the head for that.


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