My Bike: The Linguistic Anthropology of Gentrification

What is the meaning of an utterance? Who has power? And most importantly, what is gentrification? No seriously, what the hell is the referent of gentrification?

Not my bike
Gentrification?

Yesterday, exiting the YMCA I had a choice encounter that literally overwhelmed my little linguistic anthropological brain with potential answers to these questions. I did not record the encounter because that would make me a creep or a creep on a research grant. Here’s my best approximation of the relevant context and the transcript:


Coleman, a 29-year old White gentrifier, exits the Y, a historically black institution in a historical black neighborhood of Philadelphia with his gentrifying girlfriend. They are not in possession of small children covered in chlorine or strollers. He says goodbye to her and crosses the street to unlock his bike from a street sign in front the residential row homes facing the Y. Our transcript begins as he goes to unlock his bike when an older black women sitting on the stoop in front of the bike addresses him:

  1. Lady: I’d appreciate it if you didn’t park your bike here next time otherwise everyone else is gonna park their bike here. I mean what is even the point of having a bike rack over there?
  2. Coleman: Oh, well they were full.
  3. Lady: Well, I’d appreciate it because otherwise everyone else is gonna park their bike here
  4. Coleman: Well, I lived [up the street] for 2 years and I never had a problem locking it to a public pole
  5. Lady: Yeah, yeah but that was in front of your house, wasn’t it?
  6. Coleman: No but I guess I’ll try put it somewhere else next time if it bothers you getting in and out of the car
  7. Lady: Oh no no no no no.
  8. Coleman: What?
  9. Lady: I’m just saying also I’m worried about it here. The kids around here. I actually saw someone ride by and stop and look at your bike and then I came out and sat down and they left it alone. So I’m just saying, it’s not safe around here. These kids, you know. You park here and then one day it’s gone and you’ll be like “Hey, have you seen my bike” and everyone will be like “Oh, no I didn’t see a thing”
  10. Coleman: Well, I locked it up for two years and I never had problem but I guess if it’s a problem for you then I’ll try not to lock it here.
  11. Lady: I’d appreciate that.

This interaction left me chilled for the next twenty minutes on my bike ride home but let me try to get at at least two dynamics that I think it illuminates.

Power

This interaction has interesting implications for our understanding of power. Who has it in this encounter? In the end, the lady seems to get what she wants: I state reluctantly that I’ll try to not park my bike there. This seems at odds with an understanding of power that attributes it to particular social categories and positions such as White vs. Black, local vs. gentrifier, blue vs. white collar. I’d argue that this encounter demonstrates that individuals do not have power; it was presumably up for grabs in this interaction and my interlocutor strategically used resources at her disposal to influence me through interaction.

Doing so however cannot be done without calling upon models of behavior that she and others (including me) would probably not want to be seen perpetuated. Specifically, in line 9 she invokes the safety of my bike as a reason that I shouldn’t leave me bike there.

Lady: I’m just saying also I’m worried about it here. The kids around here. I actually saw someone ride by and stop and look at your bike and then I came out and sat down and they left it alone. So I’m just saying, it’s not safe around here. These kids, you know. You park here and then one day it’s gone and you’ll be like “Hey, have you seen my bike” and everyone will be like “Oh, no I didn’t see a thing”

Of course, she doesn’t actually threaten the safety of my bike herself. She just lets it be known that my bike may not in fact be safe where it is. This is accomplished by calling on circulating models of Black kids as dangerous as a means to influence me and get what she wants. Beautifully, her turn positions her as not actually threatening me but rather as concerned for my bike’s safety. Her preference for my bike not being there is now in fact a favor, per her utterance’s denotational content. Pragmatically though there is a sense that she might actually be threatening me. Would she let someone steal my bike next time? Would she recommend someone steal it or damage it? Of course, all of this is deniable and that is power in this interaction.

The meaning of not wanting my bike parked there?

What then is the meaning of line 1? Why doesn’t she want my bike parked there?

In line 6, I offer her the opportunity presumably to say that the bike is a literal inconvenience for her (for instance when exiting opening her car door) but there is no uptake. Indeed, she seems to state that it that is definitely NOT the issue.

Coleman: No but I guess I’ll try put it somewhere else next time if it bothers you getting in and out of the car

Lady: Oh no no no no no.

She eventually gets me to commit to maybe not parking my bike there through an invocation of safety etc but it leaves the meaning of her original utterance in line 1 and her distaste for my bike’s location’s meaning unclear. This requires drawing on the larger context to make sense of the utterance and demonstrates how any interaction is potentially infused with multiple dynamics that stretch far beyond the transcript or the interaction at hand.

I keep coming back to how the interaction was inherently informed by my relevant social position (I am a White 29 year old) that was particularly refined by my exiting the Y in gym clothes. My sense that our interaction had an inherent tension over gentrification is confirmed by the fact that she invoked my bike’s safety. The “kids” she refers to are clearly not the little White kids at the Y with their parents. She draws on the circulating societal model that Black kids (specifically, boys) are devious and dangerous and may be looking to harm or steal — especially from a clueless gentrifier like me that in her eyes wants cheap rent but is wary and not street savvy. But how does this illuminate the meaning of line 1? The neighborhood is changing; is policing the eyesore of locked up steel bikes (an object sign of white gentrification) tied not just to personal preference about the pole and the sidewalk but also to taking some sort of stand against the process of gentrification?

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2 thoughts on “My Bike: The Linguistic Anthropology of Gentrification

  1. Great post Coleman. I agree the referent of ‘gentrification’ is elusive, and I wonder to what extent the frame of reference of ‘gentrification’ helps, and to what extent it might obscure some dynamics of the interaction. I’m asking myself, would the lady also interpret the presence of your bike as “gentrification”? Would this mean that she views herself as a non-gentrifier, her space as un-gentrified? (What is the opposite of gentrified?…) I’m guessing there’d be other ways that she would define herself and her space, and the presence of your bike. But maybe not. Your repeated claim to longevity is interesting. Also, if that photo is your bike, it’s not a fixie, so you’re only a partial gentrifier (from my perpective).

    1. Haley: I too spent some time thinking about whether this bike was really Coleman’s bike or not.

      Coleman: This is a great post indeed– you’ve hit a great example of conversations in which participants don’t seem to coordinate about what is actually happening, or maybe there’s sort of this coordinated avoidance of the mutual stated recognition that the talk is about race and gentrification and the YMCA and Bikes with a capital B. Or maybe it’s just an example of how underdeveloped the vocabulary of conversations being “about” stuff is.

      “encounter that literally overwhelms my little linguistic anthropological brain with potential answers” = me at parties

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