Since its introduction to the United States market in 1935, the board game Monopoly has been a handy primer for real estate tycoons. Paradoxically based on the 1903 The Landlord’s Game, created by Elizabeth Magie as a “practical demonstration of the present system of land grabbing, with all its usual outcomes and consequences,” Monopoly took what was intended as a cautionary tale and turned it into a recreational activity for budding capitalists. Through an interminable process of gameplay, you can tell which of your kids is a bleeding-heart liberal (whoever chooses the Scottie Dog game piece) and which is going to be an insufferable Libertarian (the one who refuses to let the game end until they have collected the holdings of every single other player). Family fun!
A collaboration between artists B. Robert Moore and Esteban Whiteside adapts the Monopoly format to talk about one of the contemporary consequences of land-grabbing: gentrification. In their series of drawings Amerikkkan Monopoly Game (The Monopoly of Gentrification), they replace the game’s iconic locations with a politically charged set of properties and events intended to highlight the impact of gentrification on neighborhoods and the historic connection between land ownership and the exploitation of Black people.
The work is highly didactic, recasting Monopoly’s trademark property squares with gentrification’s contributing factors — from the enslavement of African people in the Americas to the incursion of a Whole Foods franchise in the neighborhood, exploitative utility companies, and the “unholy trinity” of crack, sugar, and booze, which has variously and intentionally afflicted populations of color. The gameboard also includes specific sites, such as Wynwood, Cabrini Green, and Central Park — previously known as Seneca Village and seized by eminent domain from a population that was roughly two-thirds African American to make way for New York City’s celebrated greenspace. It also features more generic locations, common battlegrounds, and casualties of gentrification campaigns, such as “Chinatown,” “a ‘project,’” and “Skid Row” (making way for the Superbowl LVI at Rams stadium.)
Throughout the work, the artists deploy signature Monopoly motifs, from the red and green housing tokens to twists on the famous corner squares and pull-cards. “Chance” becomes “Never Had A Chance,” “Free Parking” features a double-booted abandoned vehicle, and of course, there are several variations on “Go to Jail.”
As an artwork, Amerikkkan Monopoly Game (The Monopoly of Gentrification) skirts the line between impactful and simplistic. The point is definitely made, and taken, at first glance, but there are moments for deeper learning about individual properties and historic deeds. At the same time, there may have been opportunities for more specificity. For example, two of the four railroads are replaced by “Underground Railroad” and a third with “Slave Ship” imagery, where they could have also recognized the labor abuse around the building of the US railroad system that disproportionately exploited Chinese and Chinese American workers. Similarly, “Chinatown” is presented as a generic location, rather than as a series of individual neighborhoods, each with a unique character. It underscores the reality that the notion of “other” is always more opaque than our own lived or inherited experience, and even as we struggle to be seen in our own humanity, we must still work to fully realize others.
Quibbles aside, Amerikkkan Monopoly Game (The Monopoly of Gentrification) in many ways delivers on its promise of “a realistic and racial construct exposing instances of gentrification and racial injustices built into the system,” according to a press release from the artists. In seeking to showcase the cruel and exploitative outcomes of unchecked land-grabbing, this unsanctioned edition ironically comes much closer to replicating the spirit of The Landlord’s Game than all the many official variations in the Monopoly pantheon.
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