Can Calling Attention to Gentrification Make Things Worse?

In early march, when Austin was enduring the annual South-by-Southwest festival, Facebook user Briana Smith stunned the world by announcing that the city of Austin was putting up signs designating local businesses as “exclusively for white people.” She posted a photo of stickers which bore the city logo under the phrase “maximum of 5 colored customers.” Smith concluded, “This just goes to show racism is very much alive today.”

While anyone reading the signs closely should have been able to tell that they were some kind of satirical art project, the initial reaction in the community took them at face value. The City of Austin felt compelled to issue a statement denying that they had anything to do with the stickers, which had been placed on the storefronts of six East Austin businesses, and State Representative Dawnna Dukes urged her constituents not to patronize the businesses until the stickers were “explained.”

This story provides a perfect case study in just how complex reactions to gentrification can be.
I wrote a previous post about how people sometimes talk as if any new investment in a neighborhood would cause gentrification, but investments that target the existing community won’t have the same impact as businesses or housing designed to appeal to higher income consumers.

Retailers and housing developers are generally very clear about who they are trying to serve. They make choices in the design of a store from the finishes and the artwork that they hang on the wall to the items that they sell that subtly signal who they want to shop there. These signals make the target customers feel like this business is FOR them. And the hard reality is that everything that makes one group feel more comfortable, makes another group feel less comfortable–makes someone else feel like the place is not for them. 

Once you start looking for these “signals” you see them everywhere.

Ironically, one of the most reliable ways that businesses and housing developments “signal” a desire to serve more upscale customers these days is through decidedly “downscale” design choices. They highlight recycled materials and reclaimed wood, they serve water in old mason jars. Where a restaurant targeting lower income residents might have matching aluminum chairs, a hipster café will have mismatched wooden chairs. New housing for working-class families will have wall to wall carpeting, while upscale lofts will feature concrete floors that are uneven and broken in places.

This reversal doesn’t confuse long-time neighborhood residents into thinking that the new businesses are there to serve them. Instead it seems to help the upscale customers feel more comfortable in places that would otherwise be outside their comfort zone. The irony (if you can call it that) of these choices serves as a kind of winking signal to the businesses' target customers.

If you look at gentrification as conflict over who a neighborhood is for, Austin’s sticker incident takes on a new meaning.

What at first seemed, at least to some, to be racist signs, were quite clearly meant to be anti-racist satire. But, step back and look at these stickers, not for what they say but who they say it to and a different picture emerges. East Austin’s African-American community and their elected state representative didn’t get the joke because it was not intended for them. The audience for this kind of winking sarcasm was clearly white hipsters–the very people who the stickers appear to be criticizing.

You really have to wonder what the purpose of this kind of “art” is. Unfortunately a series of YouTube rants posted by the white man who eventually took credit for these stickers sheds little light on their intended purpose.

One, presumably unintended, function that art like this might serve is making the neighborhood more comfortable for the a new group of residents. Because being a white person, even a white artist or social activist, living in a working-class community of color is uncomfortable–the neighborhood is not for you. But a neighborhood struggling with gentrification might actually feel more like home. By marking a neighborhood as a place of conflict, as a gentrifying place, this kind of “art” can serve as yet another force changing the character of the neighborhood away from its historical identity.

I recognize that this is a difficult line to draw. Surely there are plenty of examples of art that calls attention to the impact of gentrification and rallies people to action to resist displacement. My suggestion is that one way that we might think about the difference is to look closely at who the art work is attempting to speak to.

Can you think of great examples of art that more successfully and inclusively challenges gentrification?

(Photo credit: Flickr user NOIR, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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