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On a Saturday evening a few weekends ago, several artists, performers, activists, and writers gathered at an apartment in Chelsea to discuss their relationship to the city-wide process of gentrification. The event, Gentrifiers Anonymous, was a kind of colloquy loosely modeled on the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting template of therapeutic interventions that are, in this case, geared toward helping attendees to see gentrification as a process in which they have a degree of conscious or unconscious participation. The email invitation described the evening to be as “to publicly confess their own sins of gentrification, large or small, in order to explore their complacency and complicity in the citywide struggle for ‘affordable’ housing and the wholesale displacement of low-income New Yorkers.” The garden apartment were we met for this was upscale and tastefully decorated — a tranquil setting for what ended up at times being an uncomfortable conversation.
Mildred Beltre, half of the Brooklyn High-Art Machine duo that co-developed the event along with Month2Month, began the session by doing a bit of housekeeping: asking everyone to keep their answers short, explaining that a reporter was on hand to make audio recordings of the event, and then set her phone to give an audible alert when each person’s two minutes were expired. Beltre then started off the conversation portion by saying, “Hi, everyone I’m Mildred, and I’m a gentrifier.” She went on to explain how she became aware of her own socio-political position in the ongoing struggle (that despite being a city-wide phenomenon has a distinctive character specific to each neighborhood) a good while after moving into Crown Heights. Beltre says that she attended a tenants meeting where she eventually discovered that everyone else was talking about how to keep people like her, someone who had come into a renovated apartment with a rent higher than that charged most other tenants, out of their building. At that moment, the issue of gentrification became personal for her, she says. This account set the tone for much of the rest of meeting.
Most of the speakers who followed started off by identifying themselves as on one side or the other of the gentrification demarcation. Some talked about how they had arrived in their neighborhoods and the circumstances that drove them to move. Some stories were slightly self-concerned narratives about their position vis-à-vis the arts, and what brought them to New York City. One woman, who is African-American and whose family has occupied a neighborhood in Queens for generations pointed out the irony of her family members being perceived as “other” in a place which is the only place they have lived. Some rationalized their participation as caused by forces beyond their control. Some spoke about being thrust out of their comfort zones of social interaction and thereby learning that being neighborly is a way to ensure that neighbors will look out for you and take care of you and your family when the need arises. A few pointed out that the core issues that lay at the foundation of gentrification were not being adequately addressed: the exploitation of the housing market by the wealthy, the capitulation of the government agencies to the forces of capital, the wealth amassed by the theft of human bodies and labor through chattel slavery that economically founded the nation and set up a system of legally protected, systematic inequality.
When the conversation took that turn towards race and ethnicity (indeed how could it not?) the situation became tense. When I spoke about my own relationship to gentrification, I did point out that I was the only black man in the room, and said that I had no idea how my own experience would suborn or challenge expectations. From that point several speakers attempted to use their experience to clarify what they thought previous speakers had been getting at. Among the most compelling stories and analysis were given by Oasa DuVerney and William Powhida. Oasa talked about the pivotal behaviors that get us to see our neighbors, really recognize them and open ourselves to dialogue with them. Many of these ideas are listed in their pamphlet “You Discovered Nothing” which lays out 12 steps to “being less of the problem and more of the solution.”
Powhida told a story that illustrated some of the complexities of gentrification, thus demonstrating how guides like this are necessary. He related that he once worked as a public school teacher in Brooklyn and witnessed the violence being heaped on his black and brown students by other young people from the nearby housing projects (in plain sight of a police precinct which made no move to help). One day, when two of his students tried to cut through the Pratt Institute campus to avoid the beatdown, they were arrested by the campus security. There is a push-pull to gentrification which often improves schools and area infrastructure, yet, on the other hand, can produce policies and institutional behavior that treats community members like criminals. The evening eventually broke up into small groups of people chatting with each other, once the organizers thought that most everyone who so desired, had the chance to speak.
The event was the co-production of two group art projects. Brooklyn Hi-Art Machine, which is a project founded by Oasa DuVerney and Mildred Beltre in Crown Heights in 2010, had produced a book that combined information about tenants’ rights with art-making activities. William Powhida’s and Jennifer Dalton’s Month2Month venture is a public art project that takes place in private residences, and comes out of the collaboration the two artists have shared since 2008. Powhida and Dalton have organized work around the issues of power and access, so, according to Beltre, when they found out what she and DuVerney were doing around housing issues they invited them to co-develop Gentrifiers Anonymous. Beltre says that they are not sure what they plan next, but they will keep us posted.