Which of These Was a Neighbor: Daredevil and Gentrification

Last night my husband and I stayed up past midnight finishing the first season of Marvel’s Daredevil. We’ve been rationing out the show for weeks, an episode here, an episode there, but last night we couldn’t stop, falling headfirst into the gritty world of Hell’s Kitchen.

There are a lot of things I could say about this show. It’s incredibly well made, good scripts, excellent acting, fantastic cinematography. I could talk about the phenomena of the Marvel Cinematic Universe coming to the small screen, or just the MCU itself. I could talk about it as a Netflix show, in the funny land of not having broadcast limitations (R-rated violence) but not having to deliver on the expectations of HBO shows (no sex or nudity). But none of those things have my head spinning this morning.

Daredevil is the story of two men: Wilson Fisk and Matthew Murdock. Both spent their childhoods in Hell’s Kitchen. Both were torn from their homes in the aftermath of their father’s deaths. Both couldn’t get this place out of their heads. Both return intending to improve their neighborhood. But improving can mean different things.

Fisk grew up in a terrible home situation with a father who wouldn’t stand to be embarrassed. In one scene, he beats up a teenager for making comments about his failed political ambitions. Fisk latches onto this baggage, molding himself into a person so sophisticated, he can’t be embarrassed. This is a man who makes himself chef-worthy omelets while wearing a silk kimono and listening to Bach’s cello suites. He wears custom suits and drinks fancy wines. This outer facade is supported by a criminal network. Fisk crawls his way to the top, a violent man beating and coercing and raging his way to a polished life that is outwardly above reproof. That’s what he means by improving his neighborhood. He wants to tear it apart and replace it with a sophisticated version that covers up a past of violence.

Matt grew up with a father who loved him sacrificially. He was a boxer who continually urges his son to stay in school, to think, to treat everyone with respect, even the opponents who beat up his father in the ring. He dies when he chooses not to throw a fight for a mobster. He cares that his son see him as a man of integrity. Matt grows up trying to honor his father. He studies hard, attending Columbia to study law, graduates summa cum laude, and receives an internship at a prestigious law firm. But Matt, disturbed by the firm’s iffy morality chooses to leave, starting his own practice in Hell’s Kitchen, to literally advocate for the people he grew up in. He wants to improve the lives of the people who live in this neighborhood, to give them the opportunity to change their community from the inside out. And, as Daredevil, the crime-fighting vigilante (this is a superhero show), he takes down the criminal structures that stop Hell’s Kitchen from improving itself.

Fisk lives in a fancy apartment high above the street where he can look over Hell’s Kitchen. He uses dirty money and coercion to buy the properties and obtain zoning rights so he can tear down old buildings and replace them with fancy condos and restaurants. Matt lives in Hell’s Kitchen among the people he wants to help. At one point he and his law partner Foggy agree to represent a woman who’s landlord is trying to coerce them out of their building. His partner goes to her home and even fixes her pipes.

In the last episode of the season, Fisk tells some FBI agents the story of the good Samaritan. He explains that he always thought he was the Samaritan, the man coming along to his neighbor (or neighborhood) to heal him. Instead, he’s realized that he’s the robber, coming to destroy. I’d go one step further. He didn’t want to help his neighbor. He wanted to take his neighbor’s stuff. While he’s telling about the Samaritan, the screen shows us images of Matt and Foggy at their small firm among the people. Matt wants to advocate for his neighbor to keep his kids. Foggy will literally take his neighbor to the hospital, while bleeding himself. Daredevil will walk into a nest of criminals to rescue a young boy.

The real conflict of this show isn’t wrong vs. right. It’s gentrification vs. incarnation.

The real Hell’s Kitchen is going through this struggle right now. New building projects are driving up rents in an area of Manhattan that has stubbornly stayed low income. Actually, this struggle is going on all over America as our culture opts to take our neighbor’s stuff and make it look cooler instead of tending our neighbor’s wounds. It’s hard to get up close and personal with brokenness.

So how do I, Lydia, a full-time writer living on the more affluent side of the highway, be incarnational? I don’t know yet. Maybe that’s why my head’s spinning. Sometimes being incarnational means taking a migrant worker’s kids shopping for clothes so they can go to school. Sometimes it means acknowledging the image of God in superficial, materialistic suburbanites. Sometimes the latter is just as hard as the former.

I don’t know. But at least I’m asking the question.