“Gentrification in progress,” read the tape, its black type printed on yellow strips as all good warnings are. The tape was wrapped repeatedly around a group of trees in front of the Brooklyn Museum, forming a barrier that greeted anyone emerging from the Eastern Parkway subway stop. People clustered near the tape, holding signs similarly printed in black-on-yellow: “Housing for All,” “Foreclose on Developers Not People,” “Double Crossing Brooklyn.”
The last was a pun on the title of a recent Brooklyn Museum exhibition, Crossing Brooklyn: Art from Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Beyond. That show surveyed some of the socially engaged art being made across the borough — a premise that perhaps made today’s double-cross seem all the more egregious to the gathered protesters: the museum was playing host to the sixth annual Brooklyn Real Estate Summit. The conference for real estate developers cost $500 to attend and included panels addressing such burning questions as, “What is the next Atlantic Yards?” Listed at 3:30pm on the summit’s agenda was a “networking cocktail reception,” and so the protesters outside planned a reception of their own. “Our cocktail party is coinciding with their cocktail party,” said Tamara Zahaykevich of the Artist Studio Affordability Project (ASAP), the group that organized the event. “We wanted to make sure there was something around 4pm.”
It wasn’t the first protest of the day — the Brooklyn Anti-gentrification Network had begun demonstrating outside the museum at 7:30 in the morning and stayed past 1pm. But this was the more artistic — or at least more conceptual — of the day’s events, with an invitation that read like a press release, announcing the real estate summit as the Brooklyn Museum’s latest exhibition. And the focus was on mobilizing artists. “We’ve had such a hard time getting artists to show up for actions,” Zahaykevich said. “After two years of going to actions to support tenants … how the hell do we get artists out? We thought of maybe doing something that was more art-related. This is going to be a test to see if this is something that can draw people out.”
As such, the protest eschewed chants for a performance of sorts: around 4:30, a U-Haul truck pulled up on Eastern Parkway just west of the museum, near the entrance to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and a parade of volunteers began unloading furniture and other personal effects. They marched rugs and chairs and a disassembled couch over to the plaza in front of the museum, where they arrayed the items — symbols of a New Yorker’s life of constant moving — in front of a massive “Gentrification in Progress” banner.
Among the movers were a notable number of artists, including Chloë Bass, Jennifer Dalton, Jason Maas, and Dushko Petrovich. Guerrilla Girl Frida Kahlo hovered nearby, wearing her uniform of all black and a guerrilla mask, and holding a “Housing for All” sign.
“Increasingly, art is becoming an instrument of capitalism, and museums get sucked into that. The Brooklyn Museum was different. It was always more populist. This is heartbreaking,” she said.
I played devil’s advocate, venturing that GreenPearl, the organization responsible for the summit, was just renting the space for the day; the rental was not even arranged through museum staff, but rather through the institution’s catering service. “I would say they need to be more careful if they really want to be the people’s museum,” she countered. “To rent their space out to sectors of the economy that want to destroy diversity, that’s a problem. We have to be careful who we rent our things to. I wouldn’t rent this mask out to just anybody.” (In response to the protests, Brooklyn Museum Director Anne Pasternak has said the museum will review its “policies for hosting third-party events.”)
Kahlo also pointed out that the demonstration was in dialogue not only with Crossing Brooklyn, but more immediately with Agitprop!, an exhibition featuring artists who use their work “as a call to action to create political and social change.” The show is scheduled to open in December, and among its ranks are artists Dread Scott (currently featured in the lead image on the exhibition page) and the collective Not An Alternative. Both Scott and Not An Alternative’s Beka Economopoulos attended the protest.
In fact, Not An Alternative’s bright orange “Mili-tents” — printed with such slogans as “They say gentrify, we say occupy” — were spiked on stanchions in the plaza in front of the museum. When the moving performance had finished, the crowd of about 60 people gathered in front of them for a speak-out session. ASAP member Jenny Dubnau started things off energetically, proclaiming, “It’s time for cultural institutions to stop colluding with these developers.” Economopoulos took the megaphone next, giving a short, impassioned speech and explaining, of the tents: “We thought it made no sense for the Brooklyn Museum to host them inside without them being part of a living, breathing work of protest.” Huddled together against the cold, twilit evening, the crowd applauded.
But it wasn’t just about artists — both Petrovich and art critic Ben Davis made welcome, necessary comments about the importance of artists connecting and working with broader anti-gentrification efforts. “We should get together with other artists, but more importantly with other communities, who have been fighting longer and harder than we have managed to,” said Petrovich. “I hope that people will look at this as a coalition that’s in formation. Artists have loud voices, but they are few,” Davis said. “They have to fight for and earn that trust and solidarity” with other community groups.
After some six or seven people had spoken, the whizzing cars on Eastern Parkway sometimes drowning out their words, the group assembled for a photo. Protesters with small signs stood between the larger one and the splayed furniture, while a row of people added a new message in glowing letters on top: “BK NOT 4 SALE.” Cars began honking more frequently in support as they drove by, and Karen G., a Queens resident who’d stumbled upon the protest after work, stood next to me and snapped a photo. “Stuff like this is interesting,” she said. “Will it help? Hopefully it does.”
The night wound down with a visit from activist/performer Reverend Billy, who wore a green coat over his usual black-and-white attire. Taking the megaphone, he launched into a fervent, improvised sermon. “Years ago in the East Village, when it wasn’t luxury condos, we were doing this!” Billy spoke emphatically about the dangers of gentrification, calling it a version of climate change and talking about how it depoliticizes people. He called out to Anne Pasternak — “Hey Anne! Hey Anne! It’s Billy here!” — and followed the digressions of his mind — “the visual arts is like 90 billionaires floating above the Atlantic Ocean somewhere.” He rousingly reminded everyone that “you need the neighborhood for your art!”
As he spoke, I noticed a refrain of “yeses” coming from behind me; I turned around to see a woman affirming Billy at nearly every turn. When his speech was over, I introduced myself. Sandra D. works for the city and has lived in Crown Heights for 19 years. When she moved into her building it was “black-owned,” she told me, but after the owner was forced to sell, a series of landlords started systematically harassing the tenants; Sandra is now “the sole family” left in the building. The current management company — which has done illegal construction to convert all of the other apartments into five-bedrooms — offered her $70,000 to leave. She called the Department of Buildings, and the agency is now in the process of investigating the situation.
Sandra, who wore her union jacket and an improbably cheerful smile, hadn’t known about the rally when she left her apartment to go to the library this afternoon. “I didn’t know who was responsible for it, but I’m in agreement with the truth of the signs,” she said. On her way back, she heard Reverend Billy speaking and stopped to listen. Over the course of his minutes at the megaphone, she was converted. “I appreciate what’s going on and I’m willing to sign up for the cause. I’ve got the paperwork,” she said, shaking the ASAP flyer. “I’m going to share it with my friends, and I’m going to put it up in my building. This is like an answer to my prayers.
“Change is in the air,” she added hopefully. “Change is coming.” Then she gave me a hug and headed on her way.
“Double Crossing Brooklyn” took place outside the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn) on November 17, 4–6pm.