Gentrification: Is it still a dirty word?
Bad words and spaces
You know the drill. A new mall pops up in that field you used to play at as a teen. A new MRT station rises from the ground that was once a road. Somewhere in the north of Singapore, graves are exhumed — a fact that has even made international headlines: "No eternal rest for the dead in crowded Singapore", said an article in Reuters. Such click-bait material, but so true.
Space in Singapore is so hunted that it's long been endangered since her first days of urbanisation. Along with this, a seemingly bad word has steadily risen in notoriety: Gentrification. You've seen the word being thrown around in Singapore as neighbourhoods get glitzier and rent skyrockets, along with grumpy residents tut-tutting at the arrival of new tenants.
Pretty much, almost entirely, Singapore has been gentrified. But in the last few years, we're seeing not so much of an outward or literal manifestation of the word and what it means, but something a little more interesting. Simply put, "gentrification" is defined (by Dictionary.com) as such: "The buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper- or middle-income families or individuals, thus improving property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses."
Besides shaking up the face of retail and food and beverage options in these urban spaces, the advent of newcomers shake up a neighbourhood's identity and in turn, the residents' sense of belonging. Right now, our concepts of what these neighbourhoods have meant to us are rapidly being changed, whether we like it or not. It's not so much a problem about how spaces are rebooted, recycled or even rejuvenated — more than it is a problem with ourselves, and how we don't feel the change anymore.
Gentrifying ourselves: It's a thing
Due to the fact that this country has moved forward at a rapid pace in the last 50 years (something that the government has made a point to remind us every second they got last year — SG50 woes anybody?), I've observed that as we're catching up with our first world surroundings, we've come to be a tad culturally misplaced and awkward.
To cope with this, we have the uncanny ability to gentrify ourselves to most things. A sort of societal trauma-response perhaps — where Singaporeans are not connected to anything anymore because of how fast things have changed. Relationships with our environment aren't favourable, because surely my favourite bush or rain tree will make way for lift upgrading. Or my favourite mama shop will be gone because of the new MRT line, confirm one.
We gentrify our emotions, sense of belonging, cultural identities, talents et cetera by disconnecting from them, to make sure we are "cool" with change and development around us. Even if we aren't necessarily okay with it.
Cries of "sure cannot!", and "really meh?! sure fail lah!" outline the chords of local dialogue on anything new that's about to be done. Especially when you tell someone that you're going to hold a mini-music festival for local music on the rooftop of People's Park Complex, one of the oldest and most dilapidated in Chinatown (think: Getai Electronica).
It's almost as though we've developed a defence mechanism towards anything new — whether it's good or bad — even when it comes to the novelty in finding out who we are and where we came from. Ironic.
So today, when spaces are being rejuvenated and recycled with art, music and any semblance of culture, we distrust it. It makes me laugh thinking about this. It's ridiculous. And that's why I'm rethinking the negative connotations that the word "gentrify" pulls along with it.
The value in gentrification
Let's start with the positives. With gentrification comes population migration and an influx of all things new and shiny due to the perceived "increased value" of the place. If gentrification can also add value, then it doesn't become that bad a word anymore, does it? It's simply a process to something greater — whether it's looking towards the future or looking back on the past. Ultimately, it's how we gentrify a space that will define the connotations of the word.
This also leads to what we perceive to have value in society today. What if the space becomes something more than it was before? Or in the case of spaces that were "gentrified" into soulless, moneymaking establishments, what if being re-gentrified meant restoring it to its former glory?
It seems the Singaporean psyche is reaching the critical point of disconnect and will soon turn to purge its yearning for meaning and identity. The arts are resurging. The youth are finding ways to make a living with their passions. Not many people are willing to keep their heads down and get on the long conveyor belts with no end and little return. I'm excited to see younger Singaporeans asserting their yearning for a connection to who they are. These assertions will come from the choices they make, the things they find their muses in and in how they develop their identities and express it in the spaces around them.
Gentrification's new dawn
I've always been the more hopeful sort, though cautious and skeptical. But I hardly take the words "it can't be done" seriously. I've experienced old spaces in their full glory where rejuvenation, renovation or even gentrification doesn't mean surgically extracting a place's soul, but rather celebrating its story. Stories make spaces. Sometimes conserving a buidling's integrity means more than maximizing its potential. Sometimes the two are one and the same.
Gentrification's a bad word not because of what it does to the spaces around us but more because of how it has changed us. Spaces are an extension of who we are and to move hard and fast without being in touch with our identity seems to be exactly what is going on with the changes around us. We are not sure. We follow the wind. We go with the trends and are too impatient to find out what we like or don't like.
What if we used the concept of gentrification to our benefit? What if we gentrified the disconnect within us? What if we replaced it with more valuable things for our souls, like connecting with why we feel like s**t sometimes? Or take onus for our shortcomings and in turn, embracing them?
What if we gentrified the need to always be excellent and replace it with the more valuable need to just be human? What if we really thought about what had real, lasting value to us and express that in the buildings and landscapes around us? Would gentrification be that bad a word then?
Imagine adding value to the spaces around you by giving it more potential to add value to the soul. Imagine doing that to all the spaces you frequent: Your home, school or office. In buses, trains, malls and along alleys and pavements. Imagine if we added soul-value to it — and called that gentrification.
Tim De Cotta is part of Getail Soul 2016, which will bring together soul music and food on the first half of the year. For more information, click here.