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“Tales of the Swarm” by Alberto Serrano and Royal KingBee (image courtesy the artists)

In the southwest Bronx’s Mount Hope district, a new visual and verbal polemic against gentrification has been launched by two artists, Alberto Serrano (aka Tita Na Rua or “Tito on the Streets”) and Harlem-born, Bronx-raised graffiti artist Alfredo Bennett (aka Royal KingBee). Serrano, who is now based in Rio (which has its own pervasive housing issues), collaborated with Bennett to construct the mural, which is only one block from a section of the Bronx that has been designated for rezoning as part of Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing plan — a plan that is reportedly being disputed for several reasons, among them a one-size-fits-all approach, the elimination of parking requirements, an increase in building heights, and other incentives regarded as more friendly to developers than to community groups.

“Tales of the Swarm” mural by Tita Na Rua and KingBee on Walton Avenue (all photos by author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted) (click to enlarge)

As initially reported by Gothamist, on Walton Avenue, near where it intersects East Burnside Avenue, the artists created a vivid, comic book–like mural depicting bees being driven from their hives by “evil crops developer Dr. Dor,” a white hipster type with skinny black trousers and square-frame eyeglasses. In one panel, Dr. Dor wears a tank of dangerous-looking chemicals strapped to his back and holds a spray nozzle while shouting, “Go, my HIPSTER-MITES! Gentrify these honeycombs with your cultural appropriation and privilege! Give rise to luxury condos and coffee shops!” In another, a bee character who has been injured by the insecticide spray, says “No…not a Wholefoods!” To which Dr. Dor replies, “Yes…and crochet street art as well…” The last panel shows the local citizens (of color) attacking and fighting off the Hipster-mites along with a company of angry bees.

In order to get a sense of the community’s reaction to the mural, I canvassed a selection of people as they passed by the wall, asking what they thought about the piece.

*   *   *

Ingrid [a woman in her 40s who says she’s been in the area for many years]: “It’s very beautiful. It lights up the whole neighborhood and changes it from being full of graffiti.”

John [a young man in his 20s]: “I like it a lot; I never saw no one do this kind of work, like a comic book. You see different types of style, like the Brazilian [lettering], and KingBee from New York. It’s a really nice mural.”

Luz [who grew up in the neighborhood and identifies as Panamanian]: “I know [KingBee]; I grew up with him. Used to live at the building on 179th and Walton Avenue. I think it’s beautiful. It’s amazing. It did take them like a week to do the whole thing. He has other work on Arthur Avenue, on the Rite Aid there. He had a contract for a long time to do this work, but he was too busy.”

Doris [a woman in her 50s]: “It brightens the neighborhood.”

Edward [a man in his mid-30s]: “No one messes it up. It took them more than a week to do.” [I asked if he had read the story.] “No, I haven’t really read it.”

Reginald [a black man in his late 20s]: “I feel uncomfortable [after reading the story]. Why pick this neighborhood? It’s poor, low-income, and you supposedly making the neighborhood better, but moving poorer people out.”

Jerry [a black man who says he lives nearby]: “It’s like what they did to Harlem: raising rents, getting people out. It’s nice that they put [the mural] here, but most people aren’t going to understand what it’s about. They’re just going to think, ‘Oh, that’s a nice painting.’”

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Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a senior critic for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on the podcast The...

7 replies on “In the South Bronx, Locals Respond to an Anti-Gentrification Mural”

  1. The message here is awful and leads people who actually do read it into a conversation that is much less constructive than the one community groups are having with the city.

      1. Seph, thanks for the question! It’s dangerous to stereotype any group of people, including white kids with square framed glasses. The young people who visually represent gentrification are the effect but not the cause of the problem, which is certainly a problem worth discussing and which this article brings to the table. The mural is saying, “Next time you see a hipster, pin all your frustrations on them. They’re coming to kick you out.” I don’t think such a message is accurate and it certainly isn’t the right tone to set, in order to figure out the problem.

        Thanks for writing the article and I welcome your thoughts!

        1. Dear Gabriel,

          This is a fair point, but besides signifying hipsters, the depiction of the young, white male in square glasses and a white shirt and black trousers and a black tie, might also visually reference certain types of missionaries who often go into NYC communities alien to them to attempt to “civilize” the natives or make the natives’ lives “better” with their ideology. So this history may be part of the visual cues.

          I don’t believe I agree that the mural asks that all frustrations be pinned on hipster kids, (more to the point, white hipsters, which is what the principal villain in the story seems to be). Certainly gentrification is a complex process and comic art does tend to shorthand and collapse complicated ideas into visual tropes that are more easily grasped, but this is merely one volley in the fight. I take this art piece as a conversation starter, not a fully developed argument. Unfortunately, it seems that even as a kind of polemic, its politics are lost on many of the viewers.

  2. It’s cool to hear people’s responses to the mural. And I like the artistic intervention. One question: are we to presume that Ingrid, John, Edward, and Doris are white? Okay, two questions: how will we disrupt whiteness as the assumed norm — and assumed consumer for gentrified areas — if we don’t name it in the same way we highlight other race?

    1. Dear Sapphire,

      Truth be told we (that is, I and the editor) thought about this. I did not use any further descriptives with these folks because I would have to have guessed at their ethnicity. You can blame me for not thinking to ask the respondents to identify themselves to me by race. Still, though I did not think to do it, now I think it may not be all that useful to have that information. I wouldn’t read this article and presume the respondents are white; I would wonder about it, and perhaps being in that space of suspended judgment is a worthwhile space to spend time in to do a different sort of thinking than our usual. That said, you asked the question, so let me answer clearly: none of the respondents who passed by while I visited the mural seemed white (european, non-latino), except perhaps for John, though he seemed to my eye to be a combination of Latino and other.

      As for question two: I don’t believe what I’ve written above rests on the assumption that these folks are white. This might be an assumption you are making, and to be fair, others as well. I think I agree with you that in situations where we are identifying ethnic traits, we should clearly identify those who are white as well. Thank you for asking this.

      1. Hi Seph,

        Yes, thanks for pointing out my own assumptions, which I needed to think about. I definitely have a lot of them when it comes to coverage of gentrification and race that need unpacking. Articles like this help.

        I was about to make a huge generalization about whether or not we, African Americans, are part of the gentrifying process and from what side: the push or pull of the process. But that might be a different article entirely.

        Thanks, again, for the insights.

Comments are closed.