Sunday, October 4, 2015

Can Millennials, Gentrification, and Urbanism Ever Coexist?

In a recent Salary Shark blog, Keller Armstrong would like you to know why you should be afraid of the "Rising Millennial Workforce," at least that's what the title would imply. But if you bother to read her manifesto, particularly her lengthy list of things Millennials "don't," "refuse," and "hate," Why You Should Be Terrified of the Rising Millennial Workforce takes on an unintended meaning. 

It's hard to know where to start; with the oxymoronic phrase "rising Millennial workforce" or her cavalier use of the BuzzFeed buzzword "terrified?" Her article is clearly directed at those she believes should fear Millennials, presumably those of us in our late 30s and early 40s, but by the end of her rant she ends up proving Generation X's security in the workplace.  

What's most unfortunate about Armstrong's article is that she plays up the unfair stereotype of her generation, a stigma the media hasn't been shy about exploiting, and more than a few in the "selfie generation" are eager to embrace. Yet in the end, Armstrong doesn't offer anything uniquely Millennial, she only rehashes the mantra of any post-collegiate 20-something since the Baby Boomers began graduating. 

Between her assertions that those in her camp don't take life too seriously, prefer t-shirts to suits, and a collective disdain for cubicles, the only thing distinctly Millennial about Armstrong's article is a fifty point listicle, as if anyone under 30 can't comprehend journalism that doesn't culminate in a "definitive" or "ultimate" "list to end all lists."  

Whether or not Armstrong's poor form and recycled anti-corporate idealism speaks for her audience, her blind rhetoric isn't entirely embraced by her generation. 

In Holly Otterbein's recent article, The Death of Gentrification Guilt, she puts together a manifesto of her own, one that speaks to a different camp of Millennials. The headline may be a bit misleading. Otterbein in no way suggest that gentrification is excused from guilt. Otterbein turns the tables on the selfishness of her own "me generation" and exposes the hypocrisy and unfettered disregard of those Armstrong claims should be feared, perhaps even spelling out more accurately exactly why we should be terrified of Millennials, at least those in Armstrong's camp.

In a poignant, balanced, and most importantly, necessary article, Otterbein takes us to gentrification's Ground Zero, at least 2015's. The defunct Edward W. Bok Technical School and its pop-up summer spectacle, Le Bok Fin, has managed to drum up more polarized anxiety than a hipster on a unicycle in New Kensington. 

The South Philadelphia venue with sweeping views of the skyline has become this summer's anti-gentrification cause du jour, but through no fault of Philadelphians new or old, it exists. Bok Technical was shuttered several years ago due to state budget cuts, something the city has been struggling with for decades. But smartly, Otterbein doesn't criticize Le Bok Fin. Like anyone who experienced the view, she reveled in it. But to anyone who's known Philadelphia for more than a decade, she met Le Bok Fin with a familiar sense of unease. As she put it, the New Philadelphians atop the Bok Technical School "were fiddling while Rome burned."

Le Bok Fin is just another in a long line of gentrification gestures, a poster child that represents what's right to this city to some, and what's wrong with it to others. But it's also a chrysalis, and like Newbold or the Divine Lorraine, we're not yet sure that the butterfly won't turn out to be a moth. 

Otterbein's fiddling analogy is apt, and not just for Le Bok Fin or the evolution of South Philadelphia, but also for many in her generation. The press can't get enough of Millennials, but what comes from the source is often found on Reddit, Tumblr, and buried in YouTube comments. This anonymous voice has left us unfairly suspect of an entire generation, even if the anonymity should be expected of a generation raised online. Armstrong and Otterbein both share a uniquely earnest insight into their people, and their opposing positions demonstrate a rift between those who deplore their superficiality and those who embrace it. 

To delve into the psychology of those Armstrong believes "have technology on (their) side," is to understand a sense of self that doesn't exist in the mirror, but in meticulously perfected selfies on Instagram hash-tagged "wokeuplikethis." Armstrong's arm of Millennials don't recognize their own face-value, they see what they want others to see through a filter. And through their conflicting need for both validation and anonymity, Otterbein shows just how tricky it is to shoehorn them into an urban environment and exactly why they're failing on anything positive gentrification had left. 

As seasoned urbanites roam the sidewalks with blinders, self-aware but without concern, New Philadelphians, particularly Millennials, struggle with the opposite, unaware and overly concerned. These are the antitheses of urbanism.

Showcasing the unique advantage of her generation, Otterbein didn't shy from citing the small blog of Kayla Conklin, Conkin's first post in fact. Rather than trudging through the virtual pages of, Otterbein went to the source, one that went viral on a local level. 

Conklin attemped to legitimize the woes of gentrification and the ills of its cohorts, but it backfired. To the New Philadelphians she was criticizing, her bad press was merely attention. And as insignificant as that attention was, her antagonists took to Twitter with near sociopathic levels.

Many of the reactions to Conklin's post demonstrated an unrivaled lack of empathy. Their exclusively reactionary agenda would almost sound like Republican rhetoric if those anonymously screaming from Twitter weren't arrogantly masturbating to every critical word Conklin had to say about them. 

Delving deeper into the skewed agenda of this faction of Millennials and New Philadelphians, Otterbein cites floods of 311 calls about faded bike lanes and blocked sidewalks, even one politician who admitted receiving more calls about beer gardens than schools. 

But for all that Otterbein exposes of her peers, she falls into the trappings of her own generation by referring to New Philadelphians as "urbanists, through and through." One thing all Millennials - and New Philadelphians - seem to agree on is that good urbanism is about beer gardens and bike lanes. 

Let's get one thing straight right now. Beer gardens and bike lanes are superficial tokens of urbanism. They are the nice-to-haves of a successful city, and it's not surprising that the selfie generation would confuse what looks like a successful city with a city that works

Cities are complex organisms made up of traffic jams, happy hours, homelessness, unemployment, poverty, excess, and above all, diversity. In even the best democratic cities in the world, beer gardens and bike lanes are kind of the Yoko Ono of urban planning. They're new, different, and distracting. And part of you wonders how long they'll last.

No city can be Babylon without dictator, which is why larger cities tend to wade through the discourse, indulge in corruption, and land somewhere around the status quo. With more than a million residents to appease, Philadelphia can never be one person's utopia. That's the harsh reality of urbanism, and diversity. 

Unless you were reared in a major American city, true urbanism is a tough pill to swallow. It took me a good twenty years to understand that Philadelphia - or any other major city I've lived in - will never be the Renaissance Paradise I see through my rosy glasses. 

But Millennials and New Philadelphians aren't there yet. When the papal visit left the streets of Center City a pedestrian's dream, many took to the pavement to enjoy the bizarre anomaly and have already begun petitioning the city to clear the streets again next summer. Like a lot of things Millennials, New Philadelphians, and gentrification advocates have brought to the table, it's a fun idea. And like other urban tokenisms, it ignores the harsh reality of urban diversity. 

Does such a disruption really benefit Philadelphians, or just those digitally vocal enough to sign an online petition? The selfishness of a generation and those who have yet understand a working city is apparent in a narcissism that echoes: "If I think it's a great idea, everyone else must." Online petitions become the, "I want it, I want it, I want it!" tantrums that make it all happen, and Millennials get their Babylon forgetting why the city fell.

True urbanism is about confronting the mucked up reality that our cities are an organized chaotic mess of ideals, microcosms of Americana, in which compromise is the only path to success. Despite the urban caricature, true urbanists are empathetic and compromising, even if we spend a lot of time complaining. Urbanism isn't sustained by two dimensional tokens that work in New Hope or Cape May or through selfish dictation on behalf of a vocal minority. It's in understanding that true urbanism doesn't strive for a utopia, but revels in the grit.

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