As a design professional, I’m used to the concept that communities don’t like change. When I read that the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) was presenting an exhibit to examine how urban planning, eminent domain, and real estate development are affecting Brooklyn’s communities, I was admittedly hesitant about a topic that seems like old news. I’ve read about gentrification so many times in New York City real estate blogs and academic urban planning literature that it’s become the implied context of any discussion of any New York City neighborhood, and especially brownstone Brooklyn. More to the point, today it’s hard to imagine a New York City not in flux.
As a forum for twenty artists to comment on gentrification, the exhibition accommodates tones that run the gamut from nostalgia to hostility. As an amateur photographer myself, I wish I had the guts to visit the condemned buildings in Nathan Kensinger’s photographs, which inspire a nostalgic feeling for an old working class Brooklyn that’s being cleared away to create new canvasses for real estate developers. On the adjacent wall, Jess Levey photographs some of those new developments next to older residential buildings, and in one case satirically superimposes an image evoking Hitchcock’s The Birds on top as if to question whether the adjacent old and new are really as bad as we thought they’d be.
Neighborhood racial composition is, I think, a dicier topic. On one hand it’s hard not to recommend seeing Gabriel “Specter” Reese’s pissed off oeuvre that includes a sign, “Don’t move to Crown Heights,” and a video/still set connecting the political Buy Black movement to black displacement. On the other hand, some of the other artists who comment on race either don’t present a holistic picture, or depict a seemingly dated reaction. Josh Bricker altered several young children’s toys from multi-color, multi-shape, and multi-track at one end to an entirely all-white single-track single-shape version as his sculpture moves across the floor. While toys conjure young families as gentrifiers, I don’t think the color to colorless crescendo is a fair depiction since no New York City neighborhood is entirely homogeneous, and even if he’s making that argument as a trend it’s similarly unfair to brand the starting point as heterogeneous. Another intriguing media choice is Rosamond King’s pile of fortune tellers (the folded papers that children play with, which museum goers are encouraged to pick up and open) stashed in a corner of the room, like trash on a sidewalk. This made me think of the fortune tellers and tarot card reading storefronts on neighborhood retail streets in Brooklyn that are likely on the decline. But the text of her work, “Gentrification is…,” feels simplistic. Sure gentrification is artists and money and bike lanes and sour feelings about rich white people moving in, but in 2010, now that gentrification has been happening here for years, aren’t we having more complex or nuanced responses?
What I was hoping to see more of, which is in the minority among the artworks, is what artists think about gentrification as a force of active change now that it’s no longer a surprise. Sarah Nelson Wright presents an abstract multicolored set of lines that track the paths of gentrifiers and gentrifyees as they move over a map of Brooklyn that we can’t see. She confided that the area where most of the lines cross (that isn’t labeled) is Fort Greene. Her statement describes the lines as illustrating a poetry to their movement, that I, as a city planner, want to know more about.
But perhaps the best thing about the opening night to me was how packed the museum was, and the diverse composition of the crowd. That’s one of the things I like most about Fort Greene: there are still bars and museums and restaurants with unusually mixed crowds. Fort Greene is a gentrification “success story” in part because it has maintained a large black population, but less discussed is how that black population has become more middle class and also attracted itinerant young black professionals just like the more visible white ones, both of which contribute to make its retail corridors vibrant. This can’t be lost on a ten year old non-traditional African art museum that shares its floor with the local business improvement district. As New York City’s population continues to grow, responses to successive waves of gentrification will certainly be ripe for future artistic exploration.
Photos by Jesse Mintz-Roth. As with all review and opinion pieces posted on Urban Omnibus, the views expressed are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.
Jesse Mintz-Roth is a practicing city planner, originally from Berkeley, who now lives in Fort Greene.