Student blog post by International Master’s in Advanced Research in Criminology student Elise Maes (she/her)
I am a vegetarian dating a pig farmer
Growing up in a desolate village, I knew I would want to move to Ghent and never come back. Among others, being a vegetarian, but only having pig farmers in my dating pool; being a feminist, but having to fight the rape culture in masculine associations to maintain a social life; having concentration issues, but growing up in a catholic school that did not approve of psychiatric diagnosing, all contributed to that feeling. However, removing oneself from such an environment does not come without new challenges in a life of engagement. Establishing a life that I believe in, sometimes also implies tensions with people who do not hold such beliefs. In this blogpost, I discuss the ways in which political engagement with a city’s opportunities may enable a city to pursue its habits to exclude economically unwanted inhabitants, by the infamous process of gentrification. Gentrification can be defined as a process in which a city or neighborhood attracts inhabitants with a higher social, cultural or economical capital.
At first, living in Ghent was not so easy. I had actually gotten used to being special. Negative attention was also attention, and, in a way, sexually predatory thirty-year-old men liked politically assertive fifteen-year-old girls now and then, as long as it would not lead to any accusations. Less densely populated, rural life can be a lonely life, and this loneliness can lead to a child’s silence about what does not feel right in the nature of the contact with the type of company they get to receive.
Nevertheless, Ghent, as well as my study, grew on me, and having vegetarian foods and politically like-minded people available made my life a lot easier. Furthermore, when you pass your twenties, the above-mentioned predators lose interest, and you can finally live your life. Initially, I lived in Dampoort, which is also known as a neighborhood at the top of Ghent’s ‘to-be-gentrified-list’; if they ever had one. However, Dampoort is still at a beginning stage of this process. Currently, it is a neighborhood where mainly young families with migration backgrounds are to be found. As soon as I broke this news to my grandparents, they said: “Oh, how do you dare to come in those neighborhoods around Dampoort? I’ve heard it’s full of migrants, drug dealers and poor people, and you cannot walk on those streets at night alone. Last week I read in the newspaper that the police has to conduct 24/7 surveillance in that neighborhood. Do your colleagues research crime there? That would be interesting.” Before my father could prevent me from starting a political war with them, I snapped, and responded: “Well, what would actually be interesting, is why we connect migration and poverty to crime, whereas I find this small town the most scary place on earth, where thirty-year-olds try to intoxicate fifteen year-olds, so that they can get a bite of us, don’t you think that’s more worrisome grandpa?” Silence.
“Uhm,”, my grandpa said, “I am too old for this terminology”.
Accordingly, my grandparents’ worries were as I predicted: unnecessary and slightly hypocritical. Contrary to their stereotypes, Dampoort is a good place to live. It is cheaper than living in other neighborhoods and it thrives in the evenings or on warm summer days. I can eat vegetarian food without being questioned and my dating pool has widened to include non – pig farmers. In fact, I can work in a vegan coffee bar and go thrift shopping for clothes for five euros without contributing to child labor and the exploitation of the global working class. In short, I can gentrify the fuck out of my neighborhood. In fact, I can now date people with highly educated parents, that have the privilege to not undergo the pressure to pursue the business that has been in the family for decades. Moreover, I can finally count myself part of a group that obtains their self-worth from the place they were born in, while simultaneously mocking the people from outside the city.
I am a feminist gentrifying my neighborhood
I can gentrify my neighborhood. Am I elitist? I have come from far away, like socio-economically. Am I a gentrifier though? I am the first highly educated person in my family. I have been victimized enough for finally moving to Ghent in a financially accessible way to be political. Am I victimized? I am probably rich.
What about ‘big corporations’ buying all the buildings and housing, halfheartedly renovating it, filling it up with ugly designer’s stuff and tripling the initial price. I do not gentrify, they gentrify. My father worked his way up the social ladder, despite having no diploma at all. He started buying, renovating, and renting or selling houses to pay for my education, wherein I specialize in social marginalization, feminism, anti-ableism, anti-classism, queer studies, and anti-capitalism. We live in a society in which housing becomes less accessible everyday which pushes people to the margins of our society. My studies have been enabled by contributions to this process, although there has never been much choice for us. Am I a hypocrite?
I despise the ghosts of my rural past; however, my shift to urban life might have meant a shift to self-identification with a higher class. It is not that rape culture, or conservativeness in general is not an urban problem as well. Maybe this urban space offered me more ways to dissolve from the social groups I had grown into back home. The opportunities the city offered me are re-tracible to a culture that my rural counterparts would call ‘yuppie’. Young, urban professionals, defining fun by consumption, and self-identifying with this consumerist culture that symbolizes privilege.
I am a structuralist blaming capitalist individuals
If I am to support the political emancipation of the oppressed, I cannot identify with these ideals. Not if it involves the exclusion of others. However, I cannot be the only one resisting these mechanisms, because that would make me as isolated as during my teenage years. However, blaming ‘Big Corporations’ would deny my own position in replicating the culture that also those big corporations are part of.
Although a focus on these ‘big corporations’ would prioritize a structural analysis, the statement ‘The personal is political’ remains valid. My urge to step into the patterns of spatial exclusion is political too. I can try and justify my behavior by the vulnerabilities I have known as a teenager. However, I do not see how anything apart from age, maturity and assertiveness would have changed this situation. If I cannot justify this behavior, if I cannot blame myself, if I cannot blame ‘Big Corporations—which would include people like my dad—how do I solve gentrification? How do I solve my elitism? How do I escape this structure? How can I drink expensive coffees undisturbed? No, I mean, how do I stop drinking expensive coffee?