Capitalism and the Spirit of Place

My home for 13 years

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]

About Rhyd Wildermuth

An intractable tea-swilling leftist-punk bard, Rhyd Wildermuth has left bits of his heart(h) everywhere—in a satyr’s den in Berlin, hanging from an elder tree over a holy well in Bretagne, scattered in back alleys of Seattle, and lost somewhere in the bottom of his rucksack. He’s devoted to Welsh gods, breathes words, makes candles, plays recorder, fumbles with tech, and refuses ever to learn to drive. He also writes at paganarch.com.

  • Alison Leigh Lilly

    Very intriguing. I wonder if drawing from the study of ecology and natural systems might be helpful in thinking about this, too. In ecology, there’s a process known as “succession,” which is when one type of habitat changes into another type of habitat (a meadow becomes a forest, f’ex) as communities of species move into an area and create new environmental conditions that then support new communities and species in turn. In ecology, this is generally considered a good thing, since succession is an ecosystem’s way of healing itself in the wake of disturbance or destruction. F’ex, if a forest fire sweeps through an area and leaves nothing but scorched earth behind it, “pioneer species” like hardy grasses and shrubs move in first, preventing erosion and breaking down (reintegrating) the remains of the old and the dead. They’re followed by tree species like birch and alder which thrive in relatively nutrient-deficient earth and help fix nitrogen and other needed nutrients into the soil… Eventually these early tree species have restored the soil enough that the land can support other trees, and those species then replace the sun-loving pioneer species in their turn. If left unchecked, succession will naturally lead to what ecologists call a steady-state or “climax community,” which are usually stable ecosystems of a wide diversity of plants and animals.

    As the wikipedia article so eloquently puts it: “A consequence of living is the sometimes subtle and sometimes overt alteration of one’s own environment.”

    It seems to me that gentrification is capitalism’s bastardized version of this natural and healthy process. In healthy ecosystems, climax communities support thriving biodiversity and are good for everyone (including pioneer species, of which there are always a few around, acting sort of like the white blood cells in your body — ready to rush in and restore balance when needed). This creates a community of dynamic balance that can respond to disturbance without the entire system collapsing. In a capitalist system, however, the wounds to the living community are caused by capitalism itself — poverty, inequality, crime, pollution, dangerous or unhealthy infrastructure — and when the artists, weirdos and hipsters act as pioneer species moving in to restore balance, their efforts towards greater diversity and interconnected community are eventually usurped and brought into the service of the same unhealthy capitalist processes that led to the wound in the first place.

    In other words, it’s not the change to the community that is unhealthy, but the nature of that change — away from diversity and balance, and towards increasing inequality and imbalance.

    I wonder if shifting our understanding of this process occurring in our cities would give new insights into how to deal with the problem of gentrification.

    • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

      Ah!

      Therein is precisely how both the spirit of place intersects with the biological and ecological understands of systems. One of the reasons I enjoy your writing so much is because you show how an ecological perspective comes to the same conclusions as more “arcane” understandings, that they are both getting at the same thing from different directions.

      The external engine of change is definitely the issue, a sort of disassociated agency unrooted in the communities/ecosystems they influence. Even migratory species don’t do this to areas they pass through (in fact, I’ve been utterly fascinated by the buffalo’s effects when they migrate through an area, actually aerating soil rather than compacting it). “Developers” have no actual stake in the neighborhoods they develop, are not dependent on the ecology of the community, and extract resources rather than contribute.

      There’s also a Marxist/sociological way of looking at this, too, with the concept of “productive identities.” Because we find ourselves compelled to move where we can find work, we take on worker-identities when moving into a place, and it takes a lot of time to get rooted in a community. Thus, when the jobs disappear in a small midwestern town, there is a sudden loss of self-understanding particularly because everyone shared only a productive identity (miners, factory workers, etc.).

      In my original essay I wrote more about how change is actually wonderful, creating new life and ideas. The “forced” change, though, is the difficulty.

      Thanks for your fascinating insights!

  • M.A.

    Timely post: just yesterday I saw a sign on the fence across the street announcing the planned construction of a multi-storied apartment building, which will take the place of the vacant lot filled with grass and trees, and will play hob with my lovely view of sunsets over the bay. I’m sad. I’ve lived here for over 20 years; guess it’s time to move on.

    • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

      I am very sorry for your loss. : (

  • K. Armand

    This is a great post and I’m so grateful that the animist storytellers are stepping up to frame the narrative that we’re currently living in. I honor you. My only concern is that, as we frame this narrative, we try to avoid old ways of narrating that remain Eurocentric in the telling, as in the history of the Americas not beginning until Europeans arrived. The run-down poor neighborhoods you mention are only considered “revitalized” by “freaks and outcasts” because those freaks and outcasts are white. The minority neighborhoods they move into all have vibrant arts and culture as part of the fabric of the community, but it isn’t until low-income progressive and artistic white folks move in that “the Capitalists notice.” “Revitalization” is a tricky word that I have seen thrown around municipal and corporate Brooklyn for years as a way to encourage gentrification by those who would have no stake in the communities as they are (minority + progressive & low-income young white populations) when those who are already there (and their predecessors) have constantly tried to revitalize their communities in the face of consistent resistance and outright sabotage. Def kudos to you, brother, and I look forward to more of your posts!

    • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

      So much needs to be said about this issue!

      Across the street from the place I rented was a man and his grandmother. We’d give each other our bus transfers when we were done with them, sometimes hang out on the sidewalk and talk. All this time I’d known him, I’d only been partially aware of the predatory real-estate agents who’d significantly destroyed what had been a traditionally mixed neighborhood.

      I remember asking him one summer evening, sharing a beer, whether or not his grandmother (she was in her late 90′s) had been hit up by the predatory lenders/agents. He looked at me in shock, and said, “are you kidding? Every week someone comes by trying to buy my grandmother’s house.”

      They were a black family in an up-and-coming white, “eclectic” neighborhood. The entire time I’d known him there’d been vultures circling his (sadly senilie) grandmother, hoping to get her to sell the house that she’d lived in since she was born so it could be flipped to a (likely liberal, likely “tolerant” tech-enriched white family).

      It is SUCH a mess.

      One ray of hope, particularly in Seattle, is that many of the Occupy activists began starting community gardens to teach low-income, mostly minority families in the traditionally black neighborhood in Seattle how to grow their own food as a way of countering the “food deserts” and building bridges between anti-capitalists and oppressed peoples. But against such massive tides of development, I don’t know how long that neighborhood will last, either.

      Sigh.

      Thanks for your comment. More people (particularly Pagans) should be talking about this.

  • Y. A. Warren

    I have been displaced so many times that I have come to carry my spirits inside of me. They eventually come out to me in the new places, sometimes with new people.


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