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How 'The Real World' Was Really the Story of Gentrification

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It's 1992 and gentrification has yet to become a household term, but MTV's The Real World, perhaps without realizing it, is already monetizing the trend. Even in the show's first season, which took place in a graffiti'd Soho loft, the production team strove for an "authenticity" that would become a bellwether for cultural shifts yet to come.

This year marks the 50th birthday of the term "gentrification," and so to mark the occasion, here's a look at the controversial concept as seen through the lens of The Real World, a pop culture menhir like no other, which has thus far banked no less than 30 seasons by injecting strangers into urban grit.

Patron saints of reality TV Bunim/Murray, the production company responsible for such later gems as Keeping Up With The Kadashians and Making The Band, teamed up with a coterie of set designers to manufacture a world that was real enough for The Real World—after all, castmates' former lives weren't really real until they were fairy godmother'd into MTV's bosom. Here's what MTV considered real: the deindustrialized city center, ripped jeans, food carts, a guard dog, exposed brick, and the looming adjacency of danger. It aligned perfectly with what viewers understood their lives were going to be: graduate college, fight with your parents, leave home, move to the big city, learn what a bodega is, find oneself—all the makings of gentrification.

Shot in Soho, the first season was actually the only to have a main character. Her name was Julie, she hailed from Alabama, she was a virgin, and she was awfully sweet. The cameras followed her around as she got lost in New York, charmed taxi drivers, made homemade dinners, learned generic life lessons, attempted to rap, and got into fights with her black cast members about race (spoiler: she lost). In the second episode a bumbling Julie becomes disoriented on the subway platform, and as another castmate says: "She's so not from New York."

In a brilliant 2010 piece for The Atlantic, writer Ben Schwartz, who describes present-day Soho as "an outdoor shopping mall," chronicles the neighborhood's vain search for authenticity. Nostalgic for New York's pre-1960's "realness," Soho performs a spellbinding dance for the tourists that visit it. Described as both faux bohemia and nouveau grime, this orchestrated neighborhood was "real" in exactly the same way Real World was—and the perfect place for Julie to get very safely lost.

The show's predilection for "edgy" neighborhoods—a graffiti-encrusted loft in Soho, an entire pier in Red Hook, a bohemian shack in Venice Beach—continued until the producers took a turn for the fantastical, opting for a string of destination-wedding-like locales in places like Hawaii, Paris, St. Thomas, and Vegas. The houses themselves, other than being solely responsible for the fish tank and hot tub trend of the late aughts, were also dazzling examples of adaptive reuse and historic preservation—the former Bucktown factory, the Gilded Age bank, a renovated plantation, the sausage factory, a warehouse in Austin, two piers, a 19th-century Greek Revival in New Orleans' garden district, and, possibly the best one, an abandoned billiards club.

In June 2000, Interior Design Magazine ran a piece called Real Work, wherein designers Monroe Kelly and Lee Ledbetter illuminate the process behind the show's notorious makeovers. Here's how it goes—a designer is given a few weeks to gut a historic [insert post-industrial venue here], open up the bathrooms, clear out the ceiling, place infinite cables and cameras into every nook, and then decorate it all with the most ridiculous objects known to mankind.

Described as "gutted down to the studs," the 19th-century New Orleans mansion was filled with objects from NOLA's "antique shops, art galleries, and thrift stores." Their design process included doing really annoying things like filling the hallway with "a collection of mismatched armoires," playing fast and loose with Mardi Gras masks, putting stuffed alligators in places they shouldn't be, designing a not not racist "Voodoo" themed room, and then also designing an actually not racist "Music" themed room. The sets weren't odes to the cities they lived in, they were parodies of them. The Brooklyn house was filed with logo'd cups from Juniors, the foyer of the Austin "warehouse" included an 18-foot tall neon cowboy sign named Big Tex, and—well, you get the idea. In an insatiable quest to commodify the authenticity of post industrial neighborhoods, the producers of The Real World consumed them, replicated them, and then souvenirized them.

Does that mean The Real World was about gentrification? No, The Real World was about Googling, "Can you catch genital diseases if you're in a hot tub?" and then clearing the browsing history. That being said, MTV producers did take a bunch of arguably dumb kids (OK, not Pedro), supply them with a never-ending goblet of Jagermeister, and place them in an already complicated urban fabric. An entire episode of the Denver season is dedicated to a roommate who refers to the up-and-coming neighborhood as "ghetto." In the 21st season of the show, the castmates openly admit that no one in Red Hook really likes them, while a member of the same cast drunkenly assaults a bodega owner for not speaking English. And that's just in the seasons that are available for free viewing on Hulu Plus.

And in 2001, everything came to a head. That year, a building in Wicker Park, Chicago, once a sweatshop and later an abandoned squat for the neighborhood's homeless, became the newest setting for the series. The neighborhood was rapidly upscaling, Chicago was having an affordable housing crisis, and Bunim/Murray decided to pay a visit. Here's the incident: while sitting motionless in a Burger King parking lot, a latino man was shot point blank in the head. Unharmed, the woman with him drove down the street for help. Instead of finding the cops, she found The Real World security.


Photo Courtesy of Spin Magazine

This became a watershed moment for a neighborhood that already hated The Real World. Some reactions were mundane, like bogus posters that said "Extras Needed! Attend A Party At The Real World House. Free Beer," and others were less subtle: a brick thrown through the window of the house, a red paint bomb splattered on the façade, and demonstrations that led to the arrest of 15 protesters.

A few protest slogans that capture the period: "We're real, you're not." "Agents of Viacom, we feel sorry for you. We want to liberate you from the agents of unreality." There were chalkings of "What is real? I'm not an actor in my neighborhood," and a sign plastered on a local bookstore that read "NO REAL WORLD FILMING HERE. GO BACK TO THE SUBURBS" perhaps best capture the moment. The group, who called themselves "Wicker Park Anti-Real World Consortium" even went on Fox to demand that The Real World decamp and the warehouse be made into affordable housing.

In a 2001 piece for the Chicago Reader, Ted Kleine wrote, "The Real World is a symptom of gentrification, not a cause." But, he's not completely right. The Real World didn't cause gentrification (the castmates were, after all, ephemeral members of the city) but, to high schoolers who watched MTV, it did make gentrification look really, really good.

· Mind-Boggling Former Real World House Asks $22M [Curbed NY]
· Real World Moving Forward With Plans To Film In West Loop [Curbed Chicago]
· All Reality TV posts [Curbed National]