The last time I saw Penny Arcade perform she was regurgitating raw eggs on stage after recounting painful experiences from her youth, including a stint in reform school.
Like many American youngsters of the 1960s, Susana Carmen Ventura fled home for the big city to reinvent herself and enjoy the freedoms her working-class-white-ethnic-religious-suburban background would never permit. After an acid trip in the Big Apple, Susana became ‘Penny Arcade’ and the rest is history.
Except not quite. Penny is back in the UK with her show Longing Lasts Longer which triumphed at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. It looks at the drastic changes in her beloved city with a deeply critical and satirical eye. The reason the New York dream is over? Gentrification. ‘This is not cabaret. This is not performance art. This is you and me in a post-gentrified landscape,’ reads the call to arms for the show. Yuppies, hipsters and cupcake shops get it in the neck, but Penny’s mission is powered by genuine sorrow that New York is no longer the place where lost souls can find exciting new versions of themselves. A yearning to preserve memories of her rapidly changing neighbourhood has also led Penny to co-found the Lower East Side Biography Project – its mission is to ‘stem the tide of cultural amnesia’.
In conversation with writer-activist Sarah Schulman at London’s Soho Theatre, the New York veterans spoke of the demise of the imagination that accompanies the blandification of cities, where chain stores replace mom and pop outlets and rents verge on the uncontrollable. Rising prices force people from homes and businesses, which diminishes the kind of cross-class, cross-race contact – what Schulman calls “the reality of difference” – that diversifies and characterises our vision of a great metropolis, be that New York, London, or, one day, Manchester.
Schulman’s book on the subject, The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, notes the coining of ‘gentrification’ in 1964 by British sociologist Ruth Glass to describe those areas of London, such as Islington, that had evolved from predominantly working-class to predominantly middle-class. The date of hither observation is perhaps a surprise to those who might locate the gentrification of that North London suburb to somewhere near Tony Blair’s residency there in the 90s – but gentrification, and gentrifiers, rarely look too far backwards.
A couple of years ago, an acquaintance of mine complained about ‘newcomers’ to his neighbourhood in the Old Street/Hackney Road/Kingsland Road triangle of East London, where he’d been resident a decade. If we accept the uncomplicated equation of ‘young creatives + cheap rents = cool postcode = gentrification’, the current Shoreditch transformation probably commenced with artists moving into abandoned industrial units in the late 1980s, followed perhaps by curator Joshua Compston’s imagining of a carnivalesque art community in Hoxton Square in the early 90s, or, at the latest, the installation of Rachel Whiteread’s House in 1993. I had to stifle a smile at the notion of Shoreditch ‘newcomers’ from a Shoreditch newcomer but, as with the ubiquitous urban hipster, everyone imagines gentrifiers to be someone else, even as we collectively blow the steam off our flat whites.
Schulman’s book quotes Penny Arcade’s frequent work on gentrification, and dissects her own experience in Manhattan in relation to the AIDS crisis, of which she is an historian. The concentrated abandonment of thousands of New York apartments as gay men died in desirable neighbourhoods in the 80s and 90s became a measurable catalyst of gentrification, with traditional gay enclaves like Chelsea and the West Village providing the most acute examples of the phenomenon. In fact, gay men seem to be implicated in various models of gentrification, either as bohemian vanguard, entrepreneurial second-wave, or simply by dying too quickly in large numbers.
Schulman writes: ‘It was normal to hear that someone we knew had died, with their belongings thrown out on the street. I remember once seeing the cartons of a lifetime collection of playbills in a dumpster in front of a tenement. I knew it meant that another gay man had died of AIDS, his belongings dumped in the gutter.’
For decades though, all types of gay men, including city natives, workers and artists, lived in New York without causing gentrification. Often they were refugees of homophobia, glad to live in a medley of world cultures, happy to live in apartments without elevators, and without closets –metaphorically, or in the case of tenement walk-ups, literally. Crucially, they took their neighbourhoods as they found them. Schulman quotes Penny Arcade again, stating: “We moved into slums without ever having the need or desire to open a cute café or boutique. We lived among our neighbours.”
The good news is both Penny Arcade and Schulman that feel gentrification can be resisted, and must be. To the witness though, it feels irreversible, and represents only part of a conundrum in which most of the world’s population are destined to be city dwellers, with little control over the nature of those cities. Other elements of this picture we are already too familiar with: identikit high streets, reduced licensing for music and drinking, impossibly high property prices, lengthening commutes, lights-out-London, homelessness.
If your own will needs bolstering in the fight against gentrification, you could do a lot worse than catch Penny’s invigorating show at Contact this month. It’s just you and me in a post-gentrified landscape.
By Greg Thorpe
Longing Lasts Longer comes to Contact Theatre, Manchester on May 26, 2016