As New York City has become a dystopian wasteland of drug stores and bank branches, there is a politically fashionable way to flee the hellscape: Moving to the “red states.” The New York Times told its readers in October of last year to “Go Midwest, Young Hipster.” And Slate, the next month, echoed that sentiment; more artistically minded publications told artists it was the only way. Move to Detroit, they say. Move to the Rust Belt. It's surprisingly charming! You can start again somewhere fresh. Your vote will matter again if you happen to land in a swing state. You'll not only be saving about $1,000 in rent every month, you'll be rescuing our great nation, using your influence to swing the right-wing states back to the left.
For liberals, moving to a red state seems an almost heroic act. Michigan went for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election by a 47.5 to 47.27 percent split. If the hipster brigade all piled into a Volkswagen and went to Detroit — a city that has tantalizingly emptied out since its bankruptcy in 2013 — they could solidly turn that state blue, saving a red state from itself.
I am a longtime red stater, having spent most of my life in Texas and Kansas, and now living in Missouri. To those thinking of starting a new life in the center of the country, I beg of you: Please do not move to the red states. You all broke New York. Your job is to stay there and fix it.
This idea that we can leave a ruined place for a fresh start in some great, empty expanse is in our national DNA. If we are feeling persecuted, crowded out, or simply bored, there is always somewhere else to go and something else to profit from. The original pilgrim settlers came to America for economic opportunity more so than religious freedom; the push westward under the banner of Manifest Destiny was economically fueled by the genocide of indigenous populations and stripping natural resources of timber, minerals, and animals, and even now our mega-rich are talking about leaving our dying Earth to colonize Mars.
Americans make gentrification and displacement possible by seeing any place that doesn't have what we like or want as being somehow “empty,” dismissing and erasing whole peoples, stories, and landscapes. It's what allowed Americans for centuries to slaughter an entire continent's worth of people and then portray them in history textbooks as savages in teepees whose only contribution to the world is to use “every part of the buffalo” rather than being people who built sophisticated societal structures and a distinct culture. It's also what allows us to ignore what might be best about all of the other planets in the universe — that we shitty humans are not on them — and think, “You know what would be great out there? People like us.”
This is, of course, what ruined New York too. It's easy to blame greedy developers and tyrannical mayors for the fall of New York City, but that is an abdication of responsibility. A certain type of person was attracted to the city starting in the ‘80s and ‘90s and used the greedy developers and tyrannical mayors to help create the city they wanted to live in: a city that was so expensive it would drive out the poor, a city of racially and economically homogeneous neighborhoods, a city with services that could be navigated with apps rather than direct human contact, and a city that protected its well educated, financially secure citizenry at the expense of all others.
The historian Sarah Schulman tracked the population influx of suburbanites — the children of the white-flight generation — back into New York City in her 2013 book Gentrification of the Mind. But rather than embracing the diversity and urban adventures their parents had fled, they arrived with suburban values and expectations intact. She wrote, “This new crew, the professionalized children of the suburbs, were different. They came not to blend in or to learn and evolve, but to homogenize. They brought the values of the gated community and a willingness to trade freedom for security.”
One can slowly erode a city's character through the small, daily decisions that make up a life. The distribution of capital through the choice of bodega, coffee shop, restaurant you frequent. The choice to speak to or not speak to your neighbors, thereby increasing or decreasing the likelihood you might call the (armed and racist) police when one of them behaves seemingly erratically. Not to mention the choice to behave, dress, speak, eat, and think the way one always has, despite a new environment and exposure to new possibilities.
The shift from the city being a place where one reinvents themselves to a place where one simply has more options as a consumer is an idea echoed in Penny Arcade's recent off-Broadway show Longing Lasts Longer. Her generation of New York City newcomers were “inspired and intoxicated by the palpable sense of freedom in the streets. Now, people come to New York and they want New York to be like where they're from, the suburbs. They don't feel the need to reinvent themselves. They just think that they need to make a lot of money.”
Please do not move to the red states. You all broke New York. Your job is to stay there and fix it.
Roberta's, the gourmet pizza restaurant that became a Michelin-star winner, a glossy cookbook, and inevitably a frozen-pizza line available at Whole Foods, was one of the first gentrifying outposts in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. In the restaurant’s cookbook, co-written by chef Carlo Mariachi and owners Brandon Hoy and Chris Parachini, they refer to the neighborhood, which had previously been occupied by generations of Puerto Rican and Dominican families, as “blank.” To them, Bushwick was like the “Wild West” which, of course, was also a land already occupied when all the cowboys and prospectors rode in. (Even the Times, in a piece on the development of Roberta’s brand, described the neighborhood as an “apocalyptic” place.)
Naturally, some residents of these under-served neighborhoods would like services, and sometimes the services they want include good, fresh produce and delicious pizza. But if you want to pinpoint the difference in perspective between the gentrifier and the developer, it is this ability to look at a populated space and see blankness, to look at vulnerability and suffering and see economic opportunity.
It was no great surprise when photo essays of “ruined” Detroit became so popular a few years back. Focused on the crumbling buildings being retaken over by plant life and empty lots and boarded-up houses rather than the people that were still there living their lives, Detroit started to look like the Wild West of the gentrifier’s imagination: whoever was foolhardy enough to remain there didn’t matter. People started talking about Detroit like it was the next Bushwick.
Patti Smith was one of the earlier champions of this idea, repeatedly mentioning in interviews and at events that artists should leave New York and move to Detroit. Many have apparently taken Smith’s advice. The Galapagos Art Space performance center left its home in Brooklyn for Corktown, one of Detroit's oldest neighborhoods, in 2015. Included in its artistic mission statement and reasoning for the move was an eerily businesspeak-ish admission of monetary motivation: “This project seeks to reposition and stabilize the cultural business model by linking its success to the increased real estate value that the presence of artists and cultural organizations catalyzes again and again.” Evidently, artists often sparked rising real estate rates but rarely were able to profit from them, however the rock bottom property prices of a Detroit ravaged by banks, mortgage companies, and predatory out-of-state investors were finally giving artists this opportunity to use the market to their advantage.
Rarely, when someone is asked why they are moving somewhere, does one reply with with a baldfaced “to gentrify the fuck out of it,” but that is basically what we have here. Frustrated by being priced out of New York City, Galapagos looked to do the same to other people in a place they did not belong. And indeed, the art scene's role in gentrifying Detroit neighborhoods and in stealing attention and resources from local artists to celebrate the newcomers has been well documented in publications like Hyperallergic and Infinite Mile. For a while, there was seemingly a whole new genre of personal essay, mostly written by white men and women who bought houses in Detroit for a few hundred or thousand bucks and wanted to document what life in hard times was like. Some, like an advertising executive named Toby Barlow, pontificated in the Times on how buying a cheap house in ruined Detroit was just a new version of the old American dream: to pretend you built something out of nothing. These essays, championed by liberal outlets, well outpaced and outshined the stories of people who had lived there all along and were struggling to get by under difficult circumstances.
The red states are often portrayed as disposable areas, or the origin point of all racism and bigotry and misogyny in this country.
Of course, it's not just a sense of blindness that allows someone to build over what's already there — contempt works, too. When Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in late August, causing more than $150 billion in damage and killing at least 80 people, liberals — who typically boast that they have more empathy and compassion than judgmental, austere conservatives — cheered on the destruction of the evil red state Texas, calling it karmic retribution (in the way some conservatives used to blame gays and feminists for natural disasters) and arguing against rescue and rehabilitation funds. Everyone from probable Russian trolls to blue-check verified commentators to celebrities like Bette Midler joined in this cynical chorus. A common argument against this grim refrain was that Houston itself voted for Hillary Clinton in the election, therefore the city's voting habits made the citizens worth saving. Being vulnerable human beings was not enough.
The red states are often portrayed as disposable areas, or the origin point of all racism and bigotry and misogyny in this country. In the movie Bushwick, which came out this summer, a Texas militia invades the Brooklyn borough for reasons that remain unclear, and their mindless violence and vague aims turn them into any other Hollywood-style terrorists. Meanwhile, the good-girl protagonist, played by Brittany Snow, is a pretty white thing and her manly savior is also white, while all of the looters, rapists, and murderers are men of color. And while critics rightly called the plot thin and the characters flat, few took the time to point out the dehumanization of the red staters on display.
Again, there is precedent for this, like Britain's argument for not intervening in the 1940s famine in Bengal, part of the British Empire at the time. Indians, Churchill argued, brought this on themselves, as they “breed like rabbits and must pay the price of their own improvidence.” Or the way native tribes in South America were discussed by Christian missionaries in the late 19th and early 20th century, who also had a financial interest in the rubber found on the natives' land. They were of course backwards, savage, violent, illiterate heathens, and there was nothing of value in their culture or their lives. So much the easier, then, to take what was theirs.
Problems are never solved by invasion. Storming into a place because you think you know more than its inhabitants about how things should be is ignorant and dangerous. If you want to make a difference in the way this country is run, maybe start with where you are. Start by seeing that the income inequality of New York City is as bad a cultural issue as the perceived homophobia and misguided voting patterns of the Midwest, and you’ll start to see how you have just as much opportunity to effect change where you are.
And besides, the red states are not empty and red state culture — yes, it exists — is not devoid of value. I shudder to think of the Brooklyn expat-culture homogenization coming here, in the way that it has ruined entire neighborhoods in Berlin, Prague, Philadelphia, and Austin. I like, and always have liked, my shitty gas-station coffee and rodeos and state fairs where some preteen girl presents the pig she has been raising since she was just a wee thing and the hunters who share their venison at the bar and the ham and bean feeds held at the local parish hall and unironic hair metal on the jukebox and waitresses who call me sweetie. The red states of course have their problems, and that's why I'm here.