Thursday, December 01, 2005

What's In A Word?

So what's in a word? Depends on what you mean; and sometimes whether a word exists or not can delineate what you mean.

As an example on what words mean and how they frame debates, here's an example of three words that basically mean the same thing but lead to different interpretations of what's going on:

1) Urban Renewal
A term which has fallen on hard times for good reason: This term for rebuilding of blighted areas has the idea of misguided urbanism which overlooks the locals for the mirage of a bejeweled downtown that nobody uses. This term was big in the sixties and seventies, but has seen little use sense then. It also has the connotation of government action, which today connotes a scarlet letter more damning than anything Hester Prynne ever wore.

2) Yuppification
This negative term means the rebuilding of blighted areas, but with it carries the negative connotation of latecomers taking over an interesting neighborhood and making it lame, overbuilt, overtrafficed and overpriced for anything but poseurs with more money than sense. A bit off, but it remembers the folks who would have appreciated what came along with the yuppies (good food, fashionable good art and the finer things in life) but were forced out by the people profiting off those latecomers who'll pay too much for a shadow of what the neighborhood supposedly had beforehand.

Needless to say, you almost never hear this term uttered by the media. Instead, they bless what happens with this term:

3) Gentrification
Again, we're talking about the rebuilding of blighted areas. But now the term has positive connotations -- after all, why not have a neighborhood that feels safe? What's wrong with tearing down old, decayed buildings to build new, updated buildings with spaces for cars? What's wrong with tearing down dark, winding firetraps for brightly lit, spacious firesafe buildilngs?

This term, while used to remind of the poor being displaced without anything being built for them, has no reference to said folks. It also doesn't refer to the fact that there's less public space left by these houses (by dint of their sheer size and the fact that they tend to act like fortresses rather than housing). It just refers to Gentlemen (which is the root word for gentrification) and harkens to an ideal of people living safe in their houses.

And that's why you constantly hear that term used disparingly and yet everything is done to accelerate it. That's why you see the Circle Line promoted over the Mid-City Transitway (serves a mix of people, including undesirables) and the Gray Line (Undesirables up and down the line), and why the Mid-City Transitway is dead and the Gray Line is merely the idea of "some crank living in a dumpy area." That's why poetry gigs have been in a severe decline in the Chicago area for the past five years.

I live for the day when the Media is forced to use the word "Yuppification." I long for another term coming up, one which damns those who profit off the pushing aside of the poor and the segregating of all the city services to the rich and beautiful. A term that reminds people that EVERY ONE -- rich and poor, black white and hispanic, officeworker and shopworker -- shoud have access to everything that makes for good cities. A term that reminds people that pushing them off to a bunch of newly-impovershed suburban dukedoms is not the way for anyone.

You know, the proper term for what's been happening inside Chicago (and all other major cities not dying like Detroit or Flint), instead of the term used to make it look good.

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