Artists Tacking into the Superstructure

In New York City, mention the word “gentrification” and you’re likely to cause heated debates from all sides of the FOR RENT sign. The complex process of displacement under revitalization has seen an incredible boom in the last 50 years, with many of the recent developments festering throughout Brooklyn. Within a social context, the process displaces low-income, often of color communities, paving the way for a middleclass, increasingly Caucasian demographic. Artists are often seen as the first wave of gentrifiers, and as the neighborhood becomes safer and more “beautiful” (largely due to efforts by longtime residents which are expedited by creative newcomers), realtors and developers capitalize on this cultural shift along with a second wave of Middle-class “yuppie” outsiders. The question I pose here is: what is the role of the artist as potential gentrifier – not only as a factor of displacement, but also as a facilitator of dialogue? If artistic social practice is meant to make social structures visible, how are artists calling attention to a process which many of us are involved in? And is there a responsibility in art to engage with what is locally socially and politically relevant?

In all transparency, let me begin by saying that I am originally from the Southwest and currently live in Crown Heights, one of the fastest gentrifying neighborhoods in Brooklyn as of late. Regardless of the color of my skin or the size of my checkbook, this automatically makes me an outsider. That aside, I have lived in the Crown Heights neighborhood for over 4 years – the entirety of my inhabitation in Brooklyn. I have witnessed Franklin Avenue explode with new commercial developments, police patrollers pop up on every other block, and the racial makeup of citizens walking around the streets change considerably. I am Black, like many of the longtime residents, but I am a light skinned mixed female artist who originally moved into this neighborhood because it had good transportation and affordable housing (although the escalating rental prices grow increasingly outside of my budget). In asking these questions of the role of the artist, I do not mean to place blame or a strict demand for action, per se. Rather, I pose the question of process, as artists engaged in social practice reflect on levels of engagement, roles of responsibility, and methods of healing.

The fight for public space, affordable housing, and preservation of communities is nothing new to NYC, with the Lower East Side being one of the oldest and most prominent cases. The birthplace of many artist movements, the upper part of the Lower East Side saw a wave of artists, musicians, and hippies move in in the 1960s, followed by real estate brokers marketing it as the hip “East Village”. In the 1980s, when an economic boom brought another rampage in changing urban economy, artists and activists continued to protest local landlords and developers with rent strikes and demonstrations, leading to the 1988 Tompkins Square Park riots.

Group Material The People’s Choice (Arroz con Mango). 1981 (Source:

One example of an artistic response to this change in the LES is an exhibition by the artist collective Group Material in 1980. Aptly titled The People’s Choice (Arroz con Mango), the collective invited their mostly Latino neighbors to loan items from their own homes, compiling stories and context to be displayed with many of the objects. In many ways, this exhibition was a practice of organizing, reinterpreting the gallery space, and giving sentimentality and life to works of art from a very specific and present community (as opposed to an abstract exoticization of culture which makes up much of the colonizing history of everyday objects on display). By working with longtime residents on an exploration of home, space and meaning in art, Group Material called attention to their role in the process of displacement. As such, they have situated the artist as facilitator rather than sole producer, an incredibly important shift in the acknowledgement of social engagement in art.

Gabriel Resse Gentrification Billboard as part of MoCADA exhibition, 2010 (Source:

As for Brooklyn, in 2010 the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporic Art (MoCADA) launched a fabulous exhibition called The Gentrification of Brooklyn: The Pink Elephant Speaks. The exhibition, guest curated by Dexter Wimberly, looked at the ways urban planning, eminent domain, and real estate development affect Brooklyn’s community and how artists and displaced members are responding. A range of ethnicities and perspectives were represented – from artists to students to displaced residents. One exhibiting artist, Gabriel Reese, painted “Gentrification Billboards” around Brooklyn, which playfully poked fun at the gentrification process, in an effort to incite response (sometime offense). When speaking about the exhibition, both curator Wimberly and artist Reese seek, first and foremost, the opening up of dialogue around the process, regardless of position. Through such initiatives, they are skillfully using their positions as artist/curator to provoke out of apathy.

Greenpoint based artist Sarah Nelson Wright created an installation for the show called Locations and Dislocations mapping the relocations of 6 individuals through gentrifying neighborhoods of Brooklyn. The movements were reflected in a color-coded line drawing with cards poetically listing the many reasons for transiency. Artist initiative Housing is a Human Right exhibited an ongoing documentary portrait of the struggle for home through collected oral histories. These two works make concealed voices visible, highlighting personal stories in such poetic ways, in order to speak to the greater issue.

Sarah Nelson Wright, Installation views of Locations and Dislocations, MoCADA, 2010 (Source:

MoCADA founder Laurie Cumbo responded to heated comments about the exhibition, citing a need for basic communication and recognition of the older residents by the newcomers in gentrifying neighborhoods. In Crown Heights, older residents will tell you just how bad (read: high crime, racial tensions, abandoned establishments) the neighborhood was, much of it coming to a head in the 1991 Crown Heights riots, which many believe was a result of two communities, Black and Hasidic residents living side by side, but in complete isolation. Since then, hard crime has gone down, many thanks to the efforts of longtime community members, but the revitalization is pricing out citizens very quickly. A new large-scale commercial development project is under way at 1000 Dean Street (an old Studebaker factory). While the project is still under development, it will serve as a creative mixed-use space with plans for a food and beer hall in coordination with Brooklyn Flea, and space was just leased to the Bushwick-based art space 3rd Ward. The remaining units have yet to be divided, but looking to grow into artist studios, office spaces, and spaces for the Crown Heights community. Living only 1 block away myself, the big question on my mind is how this project will serve the community (claiming to service those within walking and biking distance, a mile radius) in relation to gentrification issues in the neighborhood, specifically when it comes to outreach and affordable rents.

As illustrated, many artists and collectives have explored ways of circumventing the artist’s participation in cultural displacement with poignant, personal, and collaborative work. Not only is this engagement important and culturally relative, but it is necessary for the socially engaged artist. While there are many complex systems in place that make gentrification a global economic concern, to ignore the giant hippopotamus lurking below the artist’s studio is to claim a hypocritical interconnectedness and to do a great disservice to the power of art to challenge complacency. I believe there are many ways for this engagement to occur (beyond those tackling it head on in their work), and we can start with a dialogue around developments like the one mentioned above, so the creative community can work with established residents rather than on top of.

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