Part 2: On Language: #ActivateSJ is a Gaslighting Technique.

This is a the second of a two part piece that focuses on three aspects of gentrification in San Jose: transportation, language, and trauma.

Three Saturday’s ago, my partner and I were driving up Berryessa toward the east foothills.  A two-year stint in San Diego has made the veil of grey smog that now envelops the hills particularly noticeable.  Collateral damage from the tech industry and its many, daily driving commuters.  As we passed Penitencia Creek Park I was momentarily distracted by a pair of bright blue tents at the entrance of the park.  A cluster of folks huddled under the shade, all wearing the same blue-colored lanyard.  The parking lot was mostly empty save for a less than a handful of cars and some scattered Bird scooters.  As we got closer, I saw that the tents were next to a set of large, white and blue inflatable letters. Puffed up and facing the street, they spelled out #ActivateSJ.

Many current city and non-profit marketing materials are littered with the slogans like “activating place”, “innovating place”, and “placemaking”.  This language is an intentional attempt to sugarcoat development projects.  It is a way to reposition tech expansion and its consequences as both harmless, and ultimately benign, if not beneficial.  It is code for gentrification. San Jose does not need “activation.” This term implies that San Jose is somehow inactive.

The process of “activation” is the process of gentrification. 

“Activating place” is about reshaping an area in a way that makes it more attractive to outsiders with money, access to leisure time, and deeply classed interests and lifestyles.  There are non-profits, community leaders, and folks in these neighborhoods in support of these changes – but that doesn’t somehow not make them gentrification. Gentrification doesn’t just require newcomers with money, it needs foot soldiers on the “inside” too.  Because gentrification does not function with gentrifiers (outsiders) and community members (insiders) at complete odds with one another, folks within “the community” (non-profits, local government officials, arts and culture workers, etc.) can (and do) support and head development efforts that contribute to, and exacerbate, gentrification.  Even those who are at risk for displacement will support projects that will result in their displacement, in part, because the language of gentrification is enveloped in apolitical, appealing, and community-friendly terminology.  It’s hard to say no to bike lanes, closer bus stops, and once-a-month street markets in your neighborhood, but it’s important to ask: why now?

Advocates for development and revitalization projects often use the language of “activating place” as a way to sanitize and naturalize the process of gentrification. This is evident in terms like transit-oriented community (used within the context of BART and VTA development projects) and in slogans like “activating place”. This is an intentional tactic, and can and should be interpreted as a form of gaslighting. 

Gaslighting and the Language of Displacement

Gaslighting is a tactic used by a person or entity to make a survivor question their reality. A form of manipulation, gaslighting forces someone to question their memory and perception. It involves attempts to destabilize and disorient a survivor to invalidate their thoughts, experiences, and memories. Gaslighting occurs in situations of abuse and trauma as a way to absolve the person or entity who caused harm from consequences, blame, and/or guilt.  Gaslighting may seem like an overstated way to describe the work of slogans like “activating place”, however, I’m certainly not the first to make this claim:

Erick Lyle in a piece for Found SF explains:

“… those most responsible for the displacement work hard to hide their actions and naturalize the violence that they help inculcate. The narrative structure that developers, city planners, realtors and landlords use to talk about gentrification is like the denial tactics of abusers, and perpetrators’ narratives are very similar in instances of traumatic abuse and in gentrification. Each refuses their victims acknowledgement of their pain and instead obscures their own responsibility by coercing victims into accepting as truth a false and sinister dialectic: It never happened, but you deserved it….” 

Defining Trauma

Trauma is the body’s response to a deeply distressing event that overwhelms an individual’s capacity to cope. Responses to traumatic events vary a lot, and something that is traumatic to one person might not be traumatic to another. Some emotional results of trauma are sadness, anger, denial, fear, and shame. It also causes physical symptoms like; nausea, disrupted sleep, changes in appetite, and digestive problems. Some research also suggests that there is a link between childhood trauma (which is important because children are deeply affected by gentrification) and chronic illnesses. Survivors of childhood trauma are more likely to live with fibromyalgia, neurological, and autoimmune diseases. Childhood trauma is also connected to developing depression, anxiety, insomnia, or things like COPD, heart disease, and liver disease later in life. But it’s not solely children who are affected, displacement leads to stress and depression in adults as well. Displaced folks are 20% more likely to report depression than their peers, even up to two years following displacement from their community. 

The Looming Stress of Rapid Gentrification

Folks whose neighborhoods are rapidly gentrifying may live under the looming stress of not if they’ll be displaced, but when. Or, not if their neighborhood will be activated, but when. Residents may not feel like they can ask landlords for routine apartment fixes out of fear that their living situation will be scrutinized, and they will face eviction. Folks may live with bug or rodent infestations, mold, asbestos, leaking pipes, or other unsafe and deadly conditions. The string of apartment fires in San Francisco shows that landlords will go to drastic and deadly measures to get tenants out. Landlords also wrongfully evict tenants, illegally raise rent, lock tenants out, shut off utilities, refuse to make repairs, and install monitoring devices to track residents. Existing in chronically unsafe living conditions can cause ongoing and relentless stress. Even if these conditions don’t result in trauma, the constant stress makes one much more susceptible to trauma in general. This makes it much more difficult for folks to cope with other overwhelming or frightening experiences.

If folks are displaced, they lose access to social networks or resources. They can experience extreme and destabilizing disruptions in their regular routines, resource scarcity, and houselessness. Since most displaced communities are immigrant communities and communities of color, the increased presence of white people and police heightens these communities exposure to white supremacist violence. As wealthier and whiter residents move in (BBQ Becky), the freedom of movement for youth of color, and especially Black youth, is severely limited.  While this is particularly relevant in places like Oakland and San Francisco, San Jose has not gotten whiter as it’s gotten more expensive.  I don’t think we have a narrative or way to discuss the complexities of gentrification in San Jose because most of the tech folks who have moved here are folks of color. This is not a discussion I wish to brainstorm in this piece, but it’s something I’m trying to think through.

Gentrification as a Form of Root Shock

Author Mindy Fullilove refers to the trauma of gentrification and displacement as a kind of root shock. Taken from botany, root shock can be used to describe experiences that follow a natural disaster, gentrification, or war. Plants suffer from root shock when relocated from one place to another. The loss of the familiar soil, with its particular texture and balance of nutrients and the inevitable damage to the root system can cause the plant injury of even death. For humans, root shock increases the risk for stress-related illnesses and diminishes access to social, emotional, or financial resources:

“Root shock is the traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or part of one’s emotional ecosystem…The experience of root shock – like the aftermath of a severe burn does not end with emergency treatment, but will stay with the individual for a lifetime. In fact, the injury from root shock may be even more enduring than a burn, as it can affect generations and generations of people.”

Many folks in San Jose have experienced, or are currently susceptible to root shock. The soil is changing, and terms like “activating place” are being used to sanitize and naturalize it. Many of the future urban villages the city plans to create are within the bounds of the eastside. One of the most important cultural hubs of the city will be “activated” out of existence, making it unapologetically unrecognizable within the next two decades. 

OCTOBER MONTOYA is a mixed, queer and trans media artist from East San Jose. 

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