This piece appears in the Fall 2017 edition of Shelterforce magazine. Subscribe here.
“On the west side of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, the neighborhood has been predominantly West Indian, but it’s changing. Maybe four [or] five years ago, there was an RIP mural that has been there for as long as I can remember, 15 to 20 years, and it was of a young black man who had gotten shot by a cop. And overnight, literally, overnight, some artist—I would presume someone new to the community—created a mural over that piece that was of a white girl catching a butterfly. The community—as you might imagine—was outraged, like, ‘we didn’t ask for this.’
It was a really bold statement, and it was interpreted as, ‘We’re here. We’re taking this place.’
All art is propaganda. It was a beautiful piece, and was executed really well, but was in such poor taste, and was a blatant disrespect to the community that folks—after graffiti-ing the shit out of it—painted over it. I think the painting over it could be interpreted as, ‘No you don’t. You don’t get to do that. We may not be able to control [when] the rents go up, or who landlords are allowing into their building, but you can’t start to now, literally, change the face of public art in this community.’”
—Patrick Dougher, Groundswell
In the past, in historically disenfranchised neighborhoods that were tapped for new development, artists who moved into neighborhoods were sometimes considered the “first wave” in the gentrification process. Their spaces, usually in the form of galleries, attracted newcomers of a different socioeconomic group than neighborhood residents, which encouraged more newcomers and subsequent residential and commercial development.
In some neighborhoods, those spaces included non-commercial, community art spaces; and whether intentionally or not, their presence has been, and continues to be used by real estate interests to brand neighborhoods and make them more attractive to potential buyers. Like the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1980s, or Bushwick, Brooklyn today, the presence of an artistic community has hastened the chain reaction of higher income in-movers “discovering” a neighborhood, higher-end (and uncharacteristic to the neighborhood) commercial spaces opening, increased rent costs, and the displacement that follows. Unsurprisingly, resident hackles have been raised and sensitized to the appearance of galleries and other art spaces out of fear that displacement is in their future.
The other side of this reality is that art and culture tend to be integral to helping communities self-identify, develop their identities, and organize around place-based issues. Revolutionary organizations like the Black Panther Party in Oakland, art movements like Black Mask/Up Against the Wall Motherfucker, and community organizations like El Puente in Williamsburg and Banana Kelly in the South Bronx have all in one way or another used art to address local issues.
Because of the market and socio-political realities in New York City today, a lot of local issues often come back to gentrification and displacement, as they might have come back to redlining and the withdrawal of public services in the 1960s and 70s. And because talking about the presence of community art organizations and their effect on gentrification in New York City is largely a moot chicken/egg discussion, the task in most neighborhoods today is on lessening its effect. In a panel hosted this spring by arts organization Flux Factory and organized and moderated by its Column Shifting fellow Oksana Mironova, four representatives of New York City organizations discussed, among other topics, their employment of art and artists to empower residents in the face of gentrification.
Defining the Problem
For Mei Lum of the W.O.W. Project in Manhattan’s Chinatown, gentrification in her neighborhood means a continuous force to push those with less privilege into more and more vulnerable positions. In New York City and Chinatowns around the country, shop owners tend to also be residents, and are pushed out simultaneously. In the case of Mom and Pop store owners, pressure and sometimes harassment from landlords is an often-discussed problem, but Lum stressed the need to acknowledge the role that the city and ever-increasing property taxes play.
Lum’s work has included an oral history project in which the tradition of elders giving younger people red, money-filled envelopes at Chinese New Year was flipped so that young community members presented envelopes with a note to them. The notes were often questions about their lives as young immigrants, and the project was designed to remind people of the neighborhood’s history and strengthen intergenerational bridges. As a fifth generation owner of the oldest shop in Chinatown, Lum founded the W.O.W. Project to bring concerns of Chinatown change to a place of dialogue, and uses the store space to bring community residents in to have conversations and create art.
“Gentrification is defined by the erasure of culture,” says Lum. “In the case of Chinatown, we don’t need other people to bring culture to the neighborhood.” Part of her organization’s activism was its participation in the Chinatown Is Not For Sale project last year, a series of town hall discussions about the proliferation of over 100 upscale art galleries in the neighborhood—60 percent of which had opened in the three years preceding the project—and how artists and gallery owners could show solidarity with residents.
Patrick Dougher is program director of Groundswell, a 20-year-old community mural organization based in Brooklyn that has helped to produce over 500 pieces of mural art throughout the city and especially in underserved communities. Also an artist and Brooklyn native, Dougher recalled growing up within walking distance of the Brooklyn Museum, but remembered feeling that it was not for him or for people who looked like him. “Part of what Groundswell does is teach kids that this is their city and they have a right to be here, to take part in its institutions, museums, and galleries, even if they are from disadvantaged communities.” Making young people aware of their own ability as artists, and showing them that art and artists exist in every part of the city is also part of Groundswell’s mission.
For Catherine Green of Arts East NY (AENY), gentrification is the bringing in of resources, but packaging them in a way that lets existing residents know that those resources are not for them. To lessen the systemic barriers that keep people from disinvested neighborhoods from coming in to institutions to experience culture, AENY, which Green founded in 2009, brings art and culture programming into neighborhoods with a goal of promoting community-led development.
Dougher says that in the face of gentrification, Groundswell’s art projects are often designed with the purpose of leaving a visual legacy. In asking participants what issues their community faces that could be addressed with public art, he says very recently it has been immigrant rights, but within the past two years, it has been gentrification. “Their neighborhoods are changing and they don’t feel control. We want to leave a visual legacy that we are here, we were here, and we are standing here, and that comes in the form of public art representing images of the people who have been there for decades.”
Outside vs. Community Artist
In hiring artists, everyone agreed that where the artist is from matters less than their knowledge of and sensitivity to the needs of the community; and no matter what, how that artist enters the community was tantamount to their success.
For any artist beginning a community project, “it’s important to meet people where they are. How are people [there] already making art? How are they engaging with one another?” asked Lum.
AENY keeps a local artist registry and funnels opportunities and resources to existing artists in East New York. When new artists are employed, they’re presented with a curriculum about the neighborhood history—from the presence of an African burial ground on the land to current day resident life—and the curriculum is presented to artists from within the community, as well. Green says the education provides a good foundation before they start, and sometimes alters what they’d planned to do.
Rosemary Reyes, who works with the Department of Cultural Affairs on the Building Community Capacity Initiative in Southeast Queens, presented the question of “what exactly defines ‘community’ today?”
“[Some] communities transcend neighborhoods. I am a queer person, and my community is queer people of color,” she said. As real-world disenfranchised communities transform, move, (and sometimes die), and online communities and the movements sometimes spark growth, it will be interesting to see how this continues to be defined and discussed as it pertains to art.
Organizing Through Art and Culture
As part of a coalition fighting rezoning, AENY described a recent project in which it worked with an artist to create a map of all the illegal “Quick Cash for Houses” signs in the neighborhood, then taking the signs to create an exhibit titled, East New York: Not the New Frontier in response to a commercially-funded mural that said “East New York Is the New Frontier.” Says Green, “Our goal is both healing and education. We need everyone to know what’s coming—from gentrification to available resources like legal services for tenants.”
The W.O.W. Project supports the Chinatown Art Brigade, an art collective that works with a tenant union in Chinatown to fight landlord harassment. “What is urgent and important now for tenants is going to meetings and connecting with people,” says Lum. Their group recently used a series of mobile projections to communicate themes of gentrification and displacement with a local New York City councilmember—a partnering of art and community development.
“All art is propaganda,” says Dougher, and especially for communities that have been historically voiceless. Groundswell worked on a project with public housing tenants associations. They were initially skeptical (“who needs public art when there are issues with police violence?”) but after many conversations, the group decided to use the murals to project a hopeful vision of the communities. “It’s important to allow communities to drive the process. Residents know what they want, but often don’t have the tools and resources to bring them to fruition,” he said.
Some Advice, and a Warning
Dougher noted that in a profit-frenzied climate like New York City’s, he’s not sure how one gets around the dilemma of beautifying a community for residents without attracting the attention of outsiders. That said, here are seven pieces of advice (and one warning) from the panelists to community arts organizations and artists working to engage and empower the communities they work in.
- Continue to debate the issue of whether artists cause gentrification or if they simply go to neighborhoods that are primed for gentrification, but do not discount the power of policy.
- Use ownership and the claiming of space (through public art or otherwise) as a way to disrupt gentrification and displacement, and engage with banking institutions, especially in formally redlined/subprime impacted neighborhoods.
- Think about alternatives to the nonprofit model, which can be limiting.
- Allow your spaces to be used as places to have community conversations. Open your space to community groups/members to use for their programming.
- Hire people of color and people from within the community.
- Community outreach must be intentional and conscious (remember that spaces like galleries can be intimidating and foreign).
- Look for opportunities to co-lead programming and share resources (including pooling grant funding).
- Developers will sometimes offer money to arts organizations to enter a community. It is up to you to draw lines about whose money you are willing to take.
Many thanks to Oksana Mironova for providing supporting notes and audio recording of the event.