Sunday, July 04, 2010

Gentrification: the second tier, as farce

Hipsters frequently play a vanguard role in gentrification. Sure, they seem harmless at first: the spiky-haired performance artist who just wants to deconstruct patriarchal settler colonialism, the quiet, intense bearded fellow who is obsessed with producing the finest artisanal small-batch sugared breakfast cereal, etc. But before you know it, the slightly run-down, funky neighborhood with cheap rents where they can follow their dream is filled up with trendy nightclubs, destination food spots and luxury condominiums.

This is what makes the "Old Market" neighborhood of Omaha, Nebraska seem so odd. In the big stretch of land between where we know people we can stay with (roughly, the part of the country east of the Mississippi, with an outposts just west of the river in eastern Iowa) and where H's family lives (the front range in Colorado), we needed to stop for the night in a hotel. We splurged on a semi-fancy hotel near downtown Omaha because, between long rides in the car, we wanted to stay someplace where we could get out and take a nice walk and find some good food, without having to get back in the car. I'm generally against gentrification of urban cores, but if you're travelling through a city where you don't know anyone, it does make for a more pleasant evening than staying in a hotel just off the interstate and driving across the mega-parking-lot to TGI Friday's for dinner.

We did find a decent place to eat — the Upstream Brewing Company, where I had a delicious saison seasoned with black and pink peppercorns, with a hit of ginger. And the food wasn't bad either: H and I split a 10-oz. steak with a perfectly tiny amount of a tasty crème fraîche sauce, and the kids' meals were very reasonably priced — something like five bucks for a burger, fries, juice and root-beer float for dessert.

But the walking-around-the-Old-Market part was just a little bizarre. It was like the city fathers of Omaha had decided to just import New-York- or San-Francisco-style gentrification and plunk it down on a place that was, well, empty. It was a Disneyland theme park version of urban gentrification. I mean, there was still the "Old Mattress Factory Bar and Grill," which was in a building which I have no reason to doubt used to be a mattress factory at one point, but it pretty much looked like it had transitioned directly from one to the other. There was an artists' cooperative gallery, but all the art was mediocre-to-mildly-interesting stuff clearly designed for people looking to decorate their "luxury downtown condominiums" which were, in fact, being advertised as "Downtown Living." There was no trace of hipsterdom, just a strange attempt to seem vaguely like the new face of the Mission district (in fact, I overheard a conversation in which a woman was describing how she had moved to Omaha from San Francisco, though she still "split her time" between the two cities).

There was even less trace of there having ever been any poor or working-class people living in the area. In fact, the powers that be seemed so completely sure of their domination of the place that they had clearly not even invested in the massive police state required for true urban gentrification. When I walked from the hotel to some "Downtown Food Market" in the morning to find something for breakfast, there was a homeless man sleeping in plain view on the side of one of the (otherwise empty) plazas.

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