Batman the Gentrifier

For Batman fans, this past week was a big one. In addition to the release of Arkham City – the sequel to Arkham Asylum, the world’s greatest Batman simulator – DC released its animated adaptation of Batman: Year One, the Frank Miller-penned story that would define Batman for the next two decades, and form the basis for Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of the character. Here’s a trailer:

I watched Year One with friends a few nights ago, and one thing that stood out was the sheer whiteness of Gotham City. From mobsters to orphaned children, most Gothamites were white. People of color were present, but they were a distinct minority in most parts of Frank Miller’s Gotham. Of course, this makes Gotham extremely unusual as a major industrial city in the early 1980s, which is when Year One takes place. By this point in American history, most cities had been hollowed out by successive waves of white flight, as middle and working-class whites left the cities for surrounding suburbs. In real life, a public servant like Jim Gordon – whose home is located in a particularly crime-ridden area of Gotham – would have moved to a white suburb in the surrounding county.

It’s a safe bet that the real life Gotham would look something like the industrial cities of the Midwest, with a demographic composition that skewed heavily toward African Americans (as a result of past migrations from the South), and a growing Latino population. Gotham would be the fictional analog to cities like Chicago and Detroit, where minorities are the solid majority of city residents.

This presents an uncomfortable problem for Bruce Wayne/Batman. In a Gotham that experienced white flight, Batman – wealthy white scion of a powerful family – would spend most of his time beating up on poor blacks and Latinos in the name of “law and order”. And if the terrible racial politics of this weren’t bad enough, Batman’s success in reducing crime would spur migration into the city, as middle and high-income people begin to take advantage of the declining crime rates and cheaper real estate. At first, a real life and successful Batman would improve conditions for existing residents, but absent any other action – loan assistance from Wayne Enterprises, for example – he would necessarily become a force for gentrification, as his actions raised property values in formerly low-income neighborhoods, spurred the creation of new businesses, heralded the return of upper-income whites, and forced lower-income residents to move elsewhere.

In other words, far from being the universally revered figure he is in the current continuity, you could easily imagine this Batman as a hero to the white community of Gotham, and a villain to everyone else.

As for the Year One movie itself, I’d stay away. Somehow, DC Animated Studios managed to suck the excitement out of the graphic novel, leaving us with a listless adaptation marred by poor voicework and mediocre animation.