February 28, 2014

Know your place

Identity of students is predicated on privilege.

I love Wicker Park. I love the high-end thrift stores and the hot chocolate bars, the three-story Walgreens with a fat-free yogurt bar (and, no joke, a concierge stand). I love the hipsters with their septum piercings, the trendy vegan yuppies, and the tourists whose profile pictures all feature the same edgy mural. It’s a truly beautiful place.

But Wicker Park is beautiful at a huge cost: It’s a symbol of gentrification in Chicago. A Google search reveals dozens of magazine articles, blog posts, and academic papers on the neighborhood’s transformation from a low-income, predominantly Hispanic immigrant community to the urban developer’s wet dream that it is today.

In theory, the story of Wicker Park’s development is everything that I am against. Structural inequalities and institutional racism have resulted in entire groups of people being pushed out of their homes as property values increase beyond their budget and developers care more about beautiful buildings than the people in them.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to an urban developer, and I asked him the very loaded question of his stance on gentrification. He told me that groups of people are always moving and places always changing. People, he said, will always get angry about these changes, but a group can never completely claim a place.

It’s true that Wicker Park was originally settled by Europeans before it became a neighborhood of Mexican and Puerto Rican immigrants. But its newer transformation isn’t entirely coincidental, and I didn’t really buy the urban developer’s justification. However, it did bring up the question: Who has legitimate claims to a place?

While Chicago is a fundamental part of my life and experiences, as a student I am only a transient resident. As such, I’m not sure I can really claim to be a resident of the city. When we, as students, leave campus—oftentimes only once or twice during the weekend in order to seek food or entertainment—we enter territory that we don’t really know or truly belong to the way we do at the C-Shop. Even though we are students in Hyde Park, we act like tourists in the rest of the city, often relying on Google Maps to guide us to each entertainment source.

But when we view ourselves as merely UChicago students instead of residents of the South Side of Chicago, we create an insular “us vs. them” mentality; we separate ourselves from those who live a few blocks north or south of us, and we have no reason to engage with “real” Chicagoans, or their problems. Since we are only here for four years, it’s pretty realistic to overlook the consequences and implications of actions—whether they are our own, or the city’s.

This ability to remain mobile makes us similar to the hipsters who now live in Wicker Park—we are both able to construct our identities separately from other social, economic, or geographic factors, unlike many “real” Chicago residents. Hipsterdom is an identity predicated on privilege, a culture established through the ability to live where you want and only engage with equally cool people. Similarly, because I will most likely be in Chicago for only four years, there’s no need for me to put down roots or engage with anyone besides the people in my immediate University community. It’s easy to never leave Hyde Park except to go to the South Loop via the weekend Roosevelt shuttle. And, like that of a hipster, my experience is enabled through my privileged position.

When it comes down to it, these nicely constructed and partitioned identities are problematic because not everyone is able to choose with whom they interact; nor can everyone afford the vinyl records and real estate that signal coolness, or just leave after four years. True, not every transient student is economically privileged. In fact, many UChicago students depend on loans and scholarships to pay for their education. But this does not lessen the potential UChicago students have for isolation from the rest of Chicago or the privilege that comes with the school’s resources and name. It is a privilege to be able to construct identity in that way. In my mind, gentrification is an issue of mobility and agency: The residents who got pushed out of Wicker Park because of increased property prices didn’t have a choice. The privilege of choice in identity construction, which includes where someone lives, is unfortunately just that—a privilege that isn’t yet universal.

I know this kind of privilege talk can seem a little soap box-y; I’m not here to make anyone feel guilty (and guilt doesn’t lessen the marginalization of others). No hipster goes into a neighborhood as an intentional gentrifier. They want to live near cool art galleries and vegan burritos. And many students coming to Chicago aren’t aware of its incredibly racially charged history and don’t realize how significant it is to be a student at this great research university in the middle of the South Side.

This question of place and who “deserves” it matters. It matters that we think critically of ourselves as students, and perhaps expand our identities to include Chicagoan—maybe talk to a few people whose lives don’t revolve around the quad. It isn’t enough to just acknowledge privilege and its consequences. Because we are given the choice over our identities, it is our responsibility to expand them. While I honestly do not (and probably never will) have the answer to gentrification, I do believe that we have a role to play in ensuring that these beautiful places don’t come at a huge cost to others.

Zelda Mayer is a second-year in the College majoring in public policy.