Opinion

A Proposal to Improve New York City for Migrants and Working Class People

The artists and activists behind the People’s Cultural Plan offer actionable steps to precede the City’s Immigration Summit for Cultural Organizations.

The People’s Cultural Plan presenting at the 2018 Anti-Columbus Day Tour at the American Museum of Natural History (image by Jasmine Weber for Hyperallergic)

We, the People’s Cultural Plan, were recently invited to participate in an event sponsored by the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) and the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA), along with BRIC, Art Space Sanctuary, and No Longer Empty. The event, entitled “What Can We Do: Immigration Summit for Cultural Organizations” will be held Wednesday, October 31, 2018, from 1–5pm at BRIC in Brooklyn. What Can We Do, as stated by the organizers, aims “to provide a platform for discussion and presentation on how the New York City cultural sector, along with City government, can work in solidarity with immigrant communities across the city, many of whom are artists and cultural workers at the core of our cultural community.”

We would like to thank the organizers for inviting us to present, along with many other artists and organizations. Some of the organizations sending representatives to speak at Wednesday’s event are among those who signed a letter sent late this summer calling the city to take action in regards to the assault of migrants. We are unable to present this statement in person because we work hours that make attending an event between 1 and 5 pm on a weekday difficult.

Although we find the gathering, as well as its initial organizers, well-meaning, we feel the urgency of our present cultural crisis far exceeds the scope of the event. As we have seen with this week’s terrorism, which left 11 people in Pittsburgh and 2 in Kentucky murdered, the white supremacist and fascist rhetoric that has inspired these actions demands stronger and more direct action.

The biggest threat to migrants in New York City, after ICE and far-right nationalists, is gentrification — a direct manifestation of capitalism’s history of extraction, displacement, and dispossession. Rising rents put people in situations where they become vulnerable to landlord harassment and scare tactics, and have to spend more hours at multiple jobs under great fatigue and stress. Until truly affordable housing solutions become a priority for City officials, in addition to stopping persistent rezoning and the selling of city property to developers for as little as a dollar, migrants’ safety will be at risk. In other words, New York City government is culpable in continuing to pursue policies that further community displacement, and in that light, a summit such as this can serve to distract from that culpability.

Below is a brief list of suggestions that would directly impact the lives of migrants, people of color, and low-income people here on Lenape land. As we have stated in our plan, the survival of culture in this city rests on its people, mostly of color, Black, Indigenous, queer, and working class. It is our hope that those in attendance, as well as the organizers, will consider them as vital to the sanctuary New York City officials claim to provide:

  1. Stop creating artist projects with Business Improvement Districts (BIDs). BIDs and their projects accelerate gentrification, as real estate uses these opportunities to attract more buyers and raise rents. Not only are artists used, but the community gets sold out.
  2. Put pressure on the city to stop Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) forces causing gentrification, in particular nonprofits who partner with real estate interests to create studio and exhibition spaces for artists and provide resources for artists to do work in the public realm, in ways that ultimately benefit the real estate sector, rather than the communities they purport to serve.
  3. Stop taking money from foundations and donors whose wealth is linked to the practice of 
investing in businesses that extract resources from countries. Like the millions around the world, the caravan coming north is filled with families, children, teachers, workers, parents, and artists fleeing economic, climate, and political violence.
  4. Demand that ICE not be present at NYC courthouses and stay away from cultural institutions.
  5. Demand the end to video hearings of migrants in detention. It is dehumanizing and accelerates the deportation of people, making them less likely to find a lawyer or apply for legal residency in the United States.
  6. End the war on E-bikes! Migrants deliver your conference lunches and home dinners.
  7. Demand top art and cultural institutions who receive taxpayer money, especially those in the Cultural Institutions Group (CIG), provide free safe spaces for migrants to organize in, practice their cultural work, and not be under threat of surveillance, racist gawking, or cultural appropriation. Additionally, remove racist statues and undergo a decolonization process led by the people themselves.
  8. Erase all ties between art institutions and real estate. One only needs to see the example of the Brooklyn Museum previously having a real estate lobbyist on its board to understand the threat it presents a neighborhood.
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