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  • Gentrification, Authenticity and White Middle-Class Identity in Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude
  • Matt Godbey (bio)

Late in Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude (2003), the protagonist, Dylan Ebdus, returns to his childhood home in Brooklyn to visit his father. The year is 1999 and, although it is Dylan's first time home after almost a decade spent living in California, the trip is hardly a triumphant return to the old neighborhood. Known as Gowanus when he lived there during the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, the neighborhood, Dylan discovers, has been renamed Boerum Hill and gentrified. Indeed, signs of the process are everywhere. He notes, for instance, that a formerly abandoned house was no longer abandoned, and that "all along the block . . . brownstone lintels and steps [had been] refreshed . . . [and] gatework repaired and reblacked . . . . Even the slate was straight and neat, repointed like the brick, where it hadn't been replaced by poured concrete" (433). As a result of such changes, only traces of the Gowanus he once knew remain "glinting under the veneer" of Boerum Hill (429). Despite what appears to be the neighborhood's revitalization, Dylan, Lethem writes, cannot bring himself to celebrate the change. Instead, he is unsettled by the uneasy mixture of old and new and the past and the present that he encounters while walking down the block he knew as a child. Balancing his memories of the old neighborhood and the few traces that remain with the reality of a gentrified present, Dylan "feel[s] the juxtaposition, the crush of time" (432). As he takes in Boerum Hill's growing gentrified [End Page 131] aesthetic he realizes gentrification has transformed it into a place that looks like "the set for an idealized movie" (433).

Dylan's return to Boerum Hill culminates a novel that began thirty years earlier when he was five, and he and his parents moved into an old brownstone in Gowanus, one of the first white families in a predominantly black and Puerto Rican neighborhood. Dylan's journey home is a significant moment in his life and in the novel's narrative because it highlights a central theme in Fortress—the constructed nature of gentrified landscapes and the way these constructions complicate the relationship between place and identity. When Dylan takes in the gentrified facade of his old neighborhood he begins to question Boerum Hill's authenticity and to consider how the process has problematized his return by replacing his memories with a shiny new replica. Although Dylan's response appears grounded in nostalgia for the good old days, Lethem writes that it goes much deeper than a simple preference for the way things used to be. Rather, we learn that Dylan, faced with what Lethem describes as gentrification's erasure of his childhood home, begins to mourn the passing of a place that remains integral to his identity even as an adult. More specifically, the loss of Gowanus forces Dylan to admit the neighborhood's central role in what has been his lifelong search for an authentic identity. Walking through a gentrified Boerum Hill and reflecting on his memories of his childhood in Gowanus, Dylan discovers that growing up in the neighborhood shaped his understanding of what is real in life and fueled what he calls a lifelong "rage for authenticity" (434).

I begin at the end of Fortress with Dylan's return to Dean Street and his realization about the neighborhood's role in his search for an authentic identity because authenticity is essential for understanding the complex relationship between gentrification, race, and middle-class white identity that is at the heart of Lethem's novel. Moreover, it is a relationship that is central not only to Fortress but to gentrification itself and the particular brand of urban renewal it signifies. Fortress is part of a body of works that I call the fiction of gentrification, a literary genre that has emerged from and in response to the redevelopment of United States cities since the late 1960s. A canon of contemporary works that include literature, movies, newspapers, magazines, and other popular culture mediums, it charts and critiques the growth of the neoliberal city in...


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pp. 131-151
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