Thirteen years ago, after a short stint of homelessness, I moved into a house which was to become my home for most of my adult life.
I have stories of the place, for a place is not just a background or setting for a story, but it is a story in itself. Sun-soaked evenings upon a porch overlooking a lake and the mountains, clinging to the edge of the most interesting and living neighborhood in Seattle. Strangers would stop and stare, take photos and wave, sometimes look longingly, sometimes shake in frenzied prayer at the abode before them. I lived in a hundred-year old house with (Viking, pirate, prayer and upside-down American) flags waving in breezes which spun storms of dancing sun-motes reflected from an ancient disco ball. Salvaged plants and bells adorned the crumbling banister over which I’d look, sipping tea, sometimes unclothed, at the strange, adorable urban world into which I’d rooted.
But I, like many others, had to leave. Everything had changed around us, including the Spirit of the Place.
Gentrification and Displacement
Anyone who has lived in a city knows the story of gentrification. A run-down, poor neighborhood becomes revitalized by freaks and outcasts of all sorts who see the beauty in what is there, what has been ignored, and also see a way to live outside of the brutal march of Capitalist expansion. Cheap rent means you don’t have to work 40+ hours a week just to have a place to live. Cheap rent means less work, which means more time to create, to think, to exist. More time to build gardens in abandoned spaces, to build community, to dream.
“Undesirables” flock to these places almost as if by magic, living alongside the people who were already there, typically without conflict. Anarchists, hippies, pagans, queers, artists living alongside old minority families in contentment, co-creating a world.
After awhile, though, the Capitalists notice. People with money start opening businesses, developers identify profit potential. Areas which were utterly terrifying to the upper classes are suddenly interesting, desirable, “hip” and “eclectic.” The thriving culture and life created by the refugees of Capitalism is suddenly a commodity, something that can be bought rather than built. Suddenly, the people who built a beautiful world have to leave, displaced by those with money.
Buildings go up, buildings are torn down. Streets are widened, narrowed. Faces change, faces flee. Conversations between strangers diminish, conversations into wireless devices increase. Familiar bars and cafes disappear. New ones arrive, different, sometimes adequate, sometimes less so. But things are different, and we often lack the words to describe precisely what has happened, what has changed.
When we decide to move from one place to another, to leave a city for a new one, or a suburb, or the countryside, we individually weigh multiple factors. Amongst those are economic and aesthetic concerns. Where jobs can be found is often the most important, but so, equally, is where a good and interesting life can be lived. We each experience this as a set of decisions based on free-will, but there is an external engine that affects these internal decisions.
In most of history, when there are large-scale migrations of whole groups of people, it is usually due to war, famine or natural disaster. But in Capitalism, in the forced-march of Progress, this is the every-day. Economists refer to it as “mobility:” we move for “opportunity” and flee “cost.” We re-locate for cheaper housing, or livelier neighborhoods, or to avoid poverty.
Improvement is one of the imperatives of Capitalism, for, to compete with others, one must constantly be producing more, or better, or more efficiently. This imperative became quickly the very ethic of Capitalism, its command: improve or die. An economy must grow every year or it is dying, one must make at least a little more each year than the next, charge a little more rent each year, etc. And one of the ways to do this is to destroy what was before, which cost less, and replace it with something that generates more money. An old apartment building housing only 30 people for which those tenants would only ever pay $600 a month gets torn down and replaced by 60 units at twice the price. This is “improvement,” and is the engine of displacement.
Worlding with the Spirits of Place
Modern materialism and secular scientific explanations give us few ways of describing what happens when neighborhoods change.. We can point to the sadness we feel when the familiar goes away, we can talk of our fear or frustration. We can use terms like “gentrification” or “character” to describe the processes of our loss, but it all falls ultimately flat.
Understanding the external forces of this changes helps somewhat. But even still, it fails to describe that certain specific thing we collectively experience when everything changes around us, the cause of the shared trauma. And it’s compounded, too, by our shared legacy of colonization if we’re North American, as the land the vast majority of us are living on is not ancestrally ours and was taken from people experiencing even more significant trauma (and death) from the coming of whites. But it is a trauma nevertheless, experienced on a numb level which leaves us full of words which never quite describe our rage and loss.
The particular spirit of place is not something many people can speak of without getting blank stares. It can be defined in multiple ways, cannot be scientifically measured, and is therefore not quantifiable and does not enter into conversations about the displacement of people. But it is something that is felt, anecdotally, by those who stay in a place long enough to become part of it. Live somewhere long enough and you will know it. Participate in its growth, open yourself up to its personality, and you will know it well.
Pagans have an extra insight into the life of a neighborhood or community because of our recognition of the Genius Loci, the actual spirits which exist in a community or neighborhood. Beings who exist alongside humans, who grow and are shaped by our actions and attentions, who guard and bless and shape the character of an area, who become a collective recognition amongst people with otherwise competing desires–the spirits of place breathe life upon our communities, whether or not we world them into our existence.
Worlding the gods and spirits into our lives has more benefits than merely personal enlightenment. Acknowledging our mutual relationships to them and the places they inhabit gives us a new (and yet very ancient) language with which to understand our relationship to place and community. When we stopped worlding the Other into the earth, we lost more than just magic. We lost our ability to comprehend whole realms of experience.
But this is easy to change.
[A version of this essay, written for a non-pagan readership, originally appeared as Progress and the Spirit of Place on my blog]