Phthursday Musings: The Gentry Has Arrived
and, Give It a Day
Everything this week originates from an absurd article published by the Guardian this week: “The gentrification font: how a sleek typeface became a neighborhood omen.” You are encouraged to read the article right now, before embarking on the following journey, but you certainly don’t have to.
The very short version: A certain style of typeface called Neutraface is showing up in a lot of places, especially being used for house numbers, and is being identified as an indication that a neighborhood is actively being gentrified.
Indeed. And this leaves us here at META-SPIEL with no choice but to unpack all of this, in a manner that only META-SPIEL possibly could.
Warning, dear readers: For the first time, Substack is informing that I am “near email length limit”, so this whole thing might spill over beyond the bounds of a single email. Such is the burden of musing. Such is the burden of being amused.
My first known encounter with the gentry came circa 1985. There is an excellent chance that this was also your first encounter with the gentry:
Yes, on the left, rocking the bass guitar, #29, is Chicago Bears running back / wide receiver / kick returner Dennis Gentry, a member of the famed Bears Shufflin’ Crew. (That’s Calvin Thomas next to him on the alto saxophone.)
Unlike names which are only ever names like Payton or McMahon or Ditka, or names which are also very common words like Dent or Bortz, Dennis Gentry’s name is a real word, but especially by the standards of the mid-’80s, not an especially common word. Therefore growing up and starting to learn about concepts like the “landed gentry”, kids could easily get confused and imagine a bunch of 19th century Englishmen capable of returning punts 17 yards.
Dennis Gentry played his entire 12 year career with the Bears. Imagine, in any major sport today, someone who was a part-time wide receiver and kick return specialist playing that long for one team!
Gentrification is a complicated topic and I cannot possibly hope to make a whole lot of sense of it here. What’s interesting to me is how it’s a buzzword that’s been in prevalent usage for a couple of decades and so extremely common to many of us, but also a word which, I suspect, some META-SPIEL readers really have no idea what it means. This is in part because it doesn’t mean quite the same thing to everyone.
Wikipedia provides this simple definition: Gentrification is the process of changing the character of a neighborhood through the influx of more affluent residents and businesses. This tends to be more of a large urban center affair. Often there’s an earlier stage to gentrification, where it’s not necessarily more affluent people, but rather “bohemians” or “hipsters” moving into a neighborhood where rent is relatively cheap, and then businesses start popping up to serve the newer arrivals, and then other people want to be in on what’s hip and new, and that’s when rents go up and people with more money than the people who were there at the outset move in. It’s key to understand that “more affluent” doesn’t necessarily mean “rich”.
There are a lot of relevant examples across Chicago and other large American cities over the last several decades. In the ‘60s, Lincoln Park was a largely Puerto Rican neighborhood. More affluent people moved in, and Puerto Ricans moved west, into Wicker Park and Humboldt Park. In the ‘80s and especially early ‘90s, artsy types moved into Wicker Park, and older residents including Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and Poles moved out. (Note that if you were fortunate enough to have owned property in the first place, you might have been pushed out but also might have cashed out in the process, since your property values went up. Since people of color traditionally have had fewer paths to property ownership, such communities had fewer opportunities to cash out.)
When people are priced out of a neighborhood, they have go to somewhere, and often that has meant to places where there aren’t the same community institutions, where maybe the local municipal services aren’t as good, where there’s a lot less access to public transit and so it’s much harder to access employment, etc. The term “gentrification” has come to be a catch-all for describing a lot of these phenomena… even though sometimes the cause and effect isn’t always quite so cut and dry.
Governmental entities, in broad strokes, have liked gentrification, for multiple reasons, not the least of which being that increased property values can mean increased property tax revenue. And hey, if people move out of a municipality altogether, then it’s not like the city is gaining a problem somewhere else, right? Or so the limited thinking goes.
But I don’t want to get too deep into gentrification theory here. I just wanted to provide more of an explanation to people less likely to have read up on such things, so that, later on, what I’m going to say will make more sense!
If it so happens that you had an earlier encounter with the gentry than 1985, then there’s an excellent chance it’s because of a ubiquitous country crossover song from 1967:
Tyler Mahan Coe, in a first season episode of Cocaine & Rhinestones, cites “Ode to Billie Joe” as “directly influenc[ing] the future of every major musical genre in America.” That’s quite a statement!
Not that there wouldn’t have been a lot of other examples available, but I feel like post-success Bobbie Gentry sure seems like a template for Mad Men:
Bobbie Gentry’s story is completely told in the aforementioned episode of Cocaine & Rhinestones and as with so many others I heartily recommend that. Hers is a fascinating story of a woman doing things her own way at a time when that wasn’t exactly common.
The term gentrification originated with British sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964. I think it’s instructive that the term came out of London. The original gentry in England were wealthy landowners who weren’t necessarily of noble lineage, therefore not technically aristocracy. The key there, I think, is to understand that the gentry in England has traditionally been defined in contrast to the nobility.
This painting by Francis Sartorius, John Corbet, Sir Robert Leighton and John Kynaston with their Horses and Hounds, seems a perfectly good example of what we may think of as the traditional gentry:
In colonial and post-independence America, there was no aristocracy, but there was absolutely an equivalent social class to the gentry. We usually call these people Founding Fathers. Think here of men with broad landholdings like, oh, Thomas Jefferson. The American mythos is such though that because the Revolution was posited in republican terms, that class - the class just below the nobility - was posited as a republican class. Keep in mind that originally suffrage was limited not just to white men, but to property owning white men.
When we try to apply the concept of gentrification to 21st century America, then, we must ostensibly be referring to the concept o a gentry, right? But unlike in England where the term was used to distinguish a class of people from the class above them, in America we have adopted the term broadly to distinguish gentrifiers from the class below them. This makes sense: through much of the 18th century, nobody especially cared about the lower classes. It was in the 19th century that scholars like Marx started referring to the bourgeoisie and proletariat. I’m oversimplifying a great deal, but the word used to refer to 18th century English landowners - and which can perhaps best be understood in American history as referring to 18th and 19th century Southern plantation owners - has essentially become morphed over time to refer to, well, the American middle class. And I think if you kind of understand this transition, you can also understand how the concept of gentrification at a high level can be something everyone understands as problematic, but then addressing gentrification becomes problematic in other ways, because we’re essentially referring to the American middle class as something akin to an occupying force in urban pockets.
A certain philosopher is known to have said - and yes, I am quoting this correctly:
A woman has got to learn not to get between a man and his fonts.
There is a possibility that both Bobbie Gentry and Dennis Gentry were before your time, that you are not into urban planning, and that you’ve very closely followed basketball for the last twenty or so years. Then your gentrification experience may be very different indeed:
Alvin Gentry has been head coach (or interim head coach) of the Heat, Pistons, Clippers, Suns, Pelicans, and Kings. And I know why: because he is excellent at what you see above: wearing a sharp suit, standing with hands on hips, looking various shades of displeased. This is the #1 skill required of NBA head coaches.
His longest tenure was in New Orleans, where he was head coach when the Pelicans won the draft lottery the year that the consensus #1 draft pick was Zion Williamson. Unfortunately for both men, Gentry’s obvious talents weren’t effective at preventing Williamson from hurting his foot, or at preventing Williamson from hurting his knee, or at preventing Williamson from hurting his hamstring, or at encouraging Williamson to demonstrate an excellent work ethic when recovering from hurting his foot or hurting his knee or hurting his hamstring.
Today, Alvin Gentry is Vice President of Basketball Engagement in Sacramento, which I suspect means that he stands with his hands on his hips glaring at electricians to make sure that when that button is pressed, that beam gets lit.
By the end of 1995, I was a huuuuge Pavement fan. Wowee Zowee had come out that year and it was all sorts of wonderful and I managed to see them twice, once at a club show in Milwaukee, and then at Lollapalooza in, of all places, Camden, New Jersey.
There was no file sharing back then, and although there were 7” singles around, the CD was absolutely ascendant, and bands like Pavement had a tendency to release weird CD singles that were surprisingly difficult to find. It was an exciting time to be a fan of a band like that, because every few months, there’d be some kind of new release, even if it was just a couple of songs.
Stephen Malkmus has never been especially well known for having easy to understand lyrics. His ability to generate nonsense from the high-falutin greatly appealed to me then. To this day I still find the comedic intersection of the high brow and low brow, or the high brow and outright absurd, to be wonderful.
Out of nowhere, the Pacific Trim EP dropped in January 1996. The back story goes that Malkmus, Steve West, and Bob Nastanovich were scheduled to record a new Silver Jews album with David Berman, and Berman essentially no-showed, but the studio time was still booked, so it all turned into ad hoc sessions to record songs to be released to coincide with a Pacific tour. The 7” inexplicably included a song the CD did not - “I Love Perth” - which, to this day, has convinced me that Perth must be an absolutely magical place.
The lead song and I suppose the ostensible single from Pacific Trim was “Give It a Day”. I don’t actually believe the song is about anything coherent, but it begins by referencing early Puritan clergymen Cotton Mather and Increase Mather, two men we learned about in high school because yeah that’s really the information that high school kids need to thrive in this world today.
“Give It a Day” is the first song I can remember where the singer was, for some reason, singing about the gentry.
The crowd’s attempt to sing along with the chorus here just adds to the low key comedy of the song. Ahh, but if they had played this when I saw this tour, I’d have been part of the gentry as well.
I asked my wife today if I’d ever allowed fonts to get between us, and she said yeah, all the time, on the highway.
She was of course referring to my now decades-long obsession with highway sign typeface, how Clearview was introduced, and then at some point Highway Gothic made a return, and inexplicably how in the last several months some strange fatter variation on Highway Gothic has been popping up on Interstate 294 near us.
Friends, this may be the only time I ever share an article with you from Car and Driver.
Also, I’m sure you’re wondering, where on earth could all of this possibly be headed? The answer is, it’s headed mere feet away from where I sit. You’ll find out soon enough.
There is actually an excellent chance that every single one of you was actually first gentrified, actually, without your knowledge, by this hit from 1965:
The song was originally recorded by the Avantis in 1963, but it was the Memphis-based Gentrys who turned it into a top 10 hit.
“Keep On Dancin’” has some competition though for the best-known song associated with a member of the Gentrys. Their lead singer Jimmy Hart would emerge years through that most famed of Memphis traditions: professional wrestling.
Yes, we’re talking about that Jimmy Hart, “The Mouth of the South”, who in addition to being a mainstay on WWF and WCW television for many years, also happened to be one of WWF’s chief songwriters and musicians. You name a wrestling star from the ‘80s, and at some point they entered the ring to a Jimmy Hart composition, the most famous of which is probably this one:
No, no, no, your payoff this week isn’t “Sexy Boy”. I mean, unless you want it to be.
Your actual payoff is this:
That’s right: that’s out front door. And that 9444 is in the Neutraface family.
And, oh yes, I put those numbers up.
Join me and breathe in the Neutraface:
This is what the numbers used to look like (I found this on Redfin… boy, if we want to actually talk gentrification…) The last time I saw any other numbers that looked like this, Dennis Gentry wasn’t yet a Bear, and I spent every weekday watching Sesame Street:
Perhaps a more predictable house number typeface is the one you can still find on the back of our garage:
Yes, the siding is filthy. It’s the back of the garage! What did you expect?
Changing out the front house numbers may have been the first improvement I made to our house, because they were ridiculous. Going with a modern look like what I chose made perfect sense: we bought a house at least somewhat in the mid-century modern style. It’s a ranch dating to the mid-’50s in a neighborhood filled more so with the likes of bungalows and four-squares.
If you’ve read the article you already know this, but if you didn’t, the reason it’s called Neutraface is because it’s inspired by the design aesthetic of the brilliant mid-century modernist architect Richard Neutra, whose designs are closely associated with southern California and in particular Palm Springs. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine Bobbie Gentry posing in front of the pool at a Neutra home.
All that said, the idea that by changing my house numbers I am part of some sort of broad-based gentrifying force is even more absurd than Stephen Malkmus singing about Increase Mather.
Three months ago, we were in Belvidere for a race, and I wrote a little bit about the community. What I saw was a lot of older housing stock that, for whatever reasons, was in a state of disrepair. And what occurred to me was that if, somehow, money could be pumped in to help fix up some of those homes, it could have the adverse impact of elevating property values to a point where people could easily get priced out. But areas like this legitimately need an influx of cash. People shouldn’t be living in homes which are crumbling. And it’s my opinion that the narrative of gentrification is absolutely leaving areas like this behind, because it’s presenting a series of false choices about what might be possible.
The idea that a typeface is sufficient to signify gentrification is overly reductionist. I understand the argument! There’s definitely a relation here with the HGTVization of housing. But the reality is that people are going to modernize homes. And it’s good if homes are being kept up instead of falling into disrepair. At some point we make the mistake of misidentifying outlying symptoms of a core problem as being the core problem itself. Replacing house numbers isn’t driving gentrification. Extreme income inequality is the core problem here. This doesn’t mean that we should ignore gentrification but we need to recognize this contextually to larger issues. The dire shortage of housing in this country today isn’t somehow a side effect of a freaking font. Quite the contrary: we should be building more smaller homes, building them well, and then adorning them with handsome house numbers!
Modern design can be a gentrifying force, to be sure. Often it is indirect. Richard Neutra, not unlike Frank Lloyd Wright before him, had a vision of affordability, a vision of something for the people. But it so happened that Neutra’s commissions often came from quite wealthy benefactors. So too with Wright.
My argument though is that this is the richest country in the history of the world, and people deserve to live in places which are well-kept, and deserve to have modern things, up to a certain point. I’m hardly saying to shower everyone in the latest iPhones, but come on, are we really incapable of replacing ancient lead-leaching water mains?
Alas, the email length limit, which probably means I’ve also detonated people’s capacity to absorb madness for an entire week. If so, too bad, there’s more coming sooner than next Thursday.
If however you want to read more META-SPIEL, I guess you’ll have to give it a day.
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