Gentrification and Generosity

brownstonesWhen I was a young inside sales coordinator at the Gerrity Company millwork location in Boston, one of the outside reps we supported, let’s call him Finn to avoid defamation, possessed all the confidence and mostly inoffensive hubris of someone raised to privilege in an exclusive suburb like Sherborn, Dover, Hingham or Manchester by the Sea. Not that Finn had amassed a fortune, yet, just that he expected to, was born to it, was entitled to it.  He was funny, likable, irreverent, and disparaging about his customers when they weren’t in earshot.

Bespectacled and bright, Finn was seen seldom without a coffee cup the size of a beer stein. Well caffeinated, Finn would burn through the office from time to time and light up the phone lines with incessant emergencies because the details, while not beyond him intellectually, were not worth his time or planning until they became a crisis of six carpenters idling a jobsite without the correct materials to do their jobs.  The crisis was predictably visited upon the staff of the lumberyard or door shop to remedy – the fabricators, load pullers, dispatchers and truck drivers.  Finn would assure his customers that the dim lights of his support would get it right next time because he would set them straight.

He once went on vacation and put his home phone on call forwarding for his customers – to a Dial-a-Prayer recording, where the desperate, out of stock customer would be driven into frenzy with a daily pseudo spiritual bromide. They were not amused, and neither was the unfortunate inside sales coordinator who caught the next call the customer made.  Meanwhile Finn could entertain himself and his cocktail guests on the fantail recounting his cleverness.

Finn did eventually make his fortune, hard wired as he was into the realty and construction community. He bought cheap, renovated cheap and sold dearly the old brownstones and triple deckers in neighborhoods like South Boston, hitting the wave of gentrification before it crested and broke over the heads of late comers.  The mechanics, warehouse workers and city maintenance worker children of multi generation Southie families soon found it impossible to buy near the homes of their parents and grandparents.  They wound up renting in places like Mattapan or Dorchester until they too were discovered by developers, house flippers and those enamored of newly fashionable places to live.

Finn retired in his late forties, as was his self assigned due, and sailed off to Tahiti and other exotic climes for a three or four year tour.

“Living in this gentrification environment is much more difficult for residents. Actually, what they’re doing is killing the indigenous culture.” Finn Kwong, The New Chinatown, 1987

Not all gentrification is exploitation and displacement. When the artistic community moves into garret apartments with good light in old warehouses, establishing a beachhead among crack houses, discount prostitution, steel curtained convenience stores with a weekly robbery, boarded up apartments, gang tag graffiti on every vertical surface, and nightly drive by shootings, it’s not all bad.  Celebrity and youthful trendy enterprises follow; attracting fashionable small restaurants with good wine lists, art galleries and six dollar lattes, then like the first class sleepers at the end of the train comes seven figure roof top garden penthouses with views of distant harbors.  The downside is thereafter the artists can’t afford the neighborhood or the ambiance.

The city planners are elated to rid themselves of a crime infested, blighted section generating ugly headlines, raise the property values and collect more taxes to fund the profligacy of their bleeding budgets, which leads somewhat circuitously to the point.

Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created. This is especially true of the good things that come to us as collective assets: peace, freedom, law, civility, public spirit, the security of property and family life, in all of which we depend on the cooperation of others while having no means singlehandedly to obtain it. In respect of such things, the work of destruction is quick, easy and exhilarating; the work of creation is slow, laborious and dull.”  Roger Scruton, How to Be a Conservative, 2014 (quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Notable and Quotable)

Standard progressive rhetoric is that they hold the moral high ground, especially regarding the poor and disadvantaged, however the specifics give the lie to the jargon. The progressive is conditioned to the government solving the problems, curing the cultural ills and buffering direct exposure to the unwashed through public funding.  Not all progressives, to be sure, the best work in the trenches, but in my experience, the comfortable, guilt ridden majority would prefer the state to provide the remedies.  Decrying the lack of resources for the poor, the panacea is to hire the well paid experts, pay for them through the “leaky conduit” of government bureaucracy and hike taxes to cover it all.

The majority of conservatives are neither wealthy nor real estate developers; they are hands on, work hard and create economic growth. They are also generous with those upon whom fortune has not shown as brightly.  In a recent study by “The Chronicle of Philanthropy” [i]some clear trends are shown:  progressive state residents give less to charitable organizations as a percentage of their gross income, conservative states give more.  Similarly there is a strong correlation of generosity in states with a high percentage of religious voters.  The truly wealthy give less than they used to (as a percentage), and the middle class and working class have stepped up their much more painful giving.  The middle class gives until it hurts and drives older cars, cuts coupons and shares of their more meager resources.  The rich buy neighborhoods to flip, hobby ranches, million dollar urban pied-à-terres and Ferraris. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer and those closest to the poor on the income spectrum are more ready to help.

Of the top seventeen states whose residents give the highest percentage of their income to charity, all voted for Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.[ii] Utah, Mississippi and Alabama lead the way; the lowest seven on the list are all Obama blue states: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire.  Utah residents give 6.56% on average of their gross income; Connecticut tops the bottom dwellers at 2.34%, and the others range down to a miserly 1.74%.  The progressive will be happy to fund the social state and wax proudly about the social contract, but pulls up lame by the numbers when it comes to hands on giving.

“In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need. I can do all things in him who strengthens me. Still, it was kind of you to share in my distress.” St. Paul’s letter to the church at Phillipi

[i] See “How America Gives”

[ii] See the table from the article:

1 Comment

Filed under Culture views, Personal and family life

One response to “Gentrification and Generosity

  1. Greg Parquette

    Interesting story relating to your friend “Finn”, I know a few myself, although retiring in your late forties and sailing to Tahiti sounds ok. I guess we all give to the less fortunate as we see fit, I can’t tell you that I am proud to be from Massachusetts these days. It puts me in company to which I wish not to be aligned.

    Maybe it’s time I moved to a state more closely in line with my personal priorities. Also that a few more people support a true presidential candidate and fewer idiots show up to vote for an Obama follow up.


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