Gentrification and Refugee and Immigrant Experience in The Beautiful Things Heaven Bears

In US media coverage about gentrification and human displacement occurring in major cities across the country, refugee and immigrant voices or stories are rarely included. We know from statistical data that many refugees and immigrants reside in the areas that are the hardest hit by gentrification processes that lead to displacement, so why is it the case that their stories have been silenced in the mainstream media? My guess is because refugees and immigrants are two of the most marginalized groups in US society, often made to feel as though their point of view is irrelevant or extraneous to debates about public policy or civil rights. Moreover, many who speak out about societal injustice in this country may face the threat of deportation, arrest, or revocation of visas or political asylum. Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things Heaven Bears is a breakthrough text because it reveals the experience of what it is like to see a neighborhood become gentrified through the eyes of Stephanos, a man who has known what it means to be displaced through his own experiences in Ethiopia.

Throughout Stephanos’s life in Logan Circle, he has come to be a part of the African American community. In the novel, at the same time that Stephanos is trying to come to terms with both the loss of his father and his family in Ethiopia and of his move to D.C., he is also trying to make sense of the changes and loss of community in Logan Circle as the neighborhood becomes gentrified. Part of what makes Heaven such a unique book is the way that Mengestu incorporates Stephanos’s double-sense of reflection throughout the narrative. One example of this is the scene in which Stephanos follows the tourist couple through Logan Circle and into the surrounding neighborhoods. Stephanos blends the changes in the area with his own story of coming to the US when he describes the shut-down storefronts on 14th and P. Stephanos narrates, “Just a few months ago there was a liquor store and a Chinese carryout restaurant on the corner […] It was the first place I ate at alone in D.C. I walked in early in the evening and ordered a beef and broccoli that I ate while standing on the corner. I was nineteen and had been in America for less than forty-eight hours” (74-5). In this passage we can see that Stephanos connects his experiences as a new resident in the US with this particular restaurant. In this brief passage we come to understand that Stephanos’s first impressions of American life, as well as his memories of his early adulthood , will always be deeply connected to Logan Circle.

Later on in this scene, Stephanos describes more changes in the area, such as the new “town homes” and the “organic grocery store” and then recalls what the neighborhood was like in the old days: “In the morning and after school, children scoured the weed-filled grounds looking for money that might have fallen out of someone’s pocket. What they found they used to buy candy and chips from my store” (75). This reveals how Stephanos’s store, which provided his livelihood and allowed him to survive and make his home in the US, was an integral part of the Logan Circle community. Stephanos also adds that at the African American-owned bookstore Madame X “on Thursday nights you could sit in on an open-mike and share a plate of yam patties passed around the room” (76). This shows the Logan Circle community coming together as a family. This very important when thinking about Stephanos’s experience coming to the US, because in doing so we can see how having this community in D.C. might have provided a way to help Stephanos heal from the pain of losing his family and of leaving his home country of Ethiopia.

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1 Response to Gentrification and Refugee and Immigrant Experience in The Beautiful Things Heaven Bears

  1. Anne Gulick says:

    I like your point about this novel’s intervention being its portrayal of gentrification from the perspective of someone who’s on the losing end of that deal. I do wonder whether Stephanos is as representative of and embedded in the community as you suggest; it strikes me that perhaps *despite* and in contrast to his affection for the neighborhood, it’s important that he can’t claim membership within a local community (and, indeed, that the local community itself is pretty elusive).


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