A People’s Monument to Anti-Displacement Organizing
“Gentrification is displacement and replacement of people for profits”
–definition from the School of Echo Los Angeles
This definition of gentrification sits at the top of A People’s Monument to Anti-Displacement Organizing, a new collaboratively produced art piece that is viewable, as a part of the Third Wave of the AgitProp! Show at the Brooklyn Museum. In the words of its curators, Agitprop! “connects contemporary art that advocates for social change with many activist movements throughout the 20th century,”
The Monument currently functions as a community educational board with a narrative that will change as actions or new information arises around Mayor DeBlasio’s rezoning plans. It features a black-led activist group called Movement to Protect the People (MTOPP) that is struggling against rezoning in highlights in Crown Heights.
Why did this Monument get built?
As two of the artists who have participated in the collective process behind the Monument, we want to lay out the unique community-driven process we went through to produce the monument. We also wanted to show how the Monument itself is a mobilization tool addressing today’s pressing issue of gentrification in Brooklyn and around the city.
Before we begin, though, it’s it’s important to lay out what’s at stake. Housing and gentrification is on everyone’s minds in NYC since just this past March, the city council recently passed the mayor’s“affordable”housing plan, known as mandatory inclusionary zoning. Critics of the plan say it would allow developers to build taller and denser buildings in the 15 neighborhoods he’s targeting for rezoning in low-income neighborhoods across the city – from East New York to Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. Mayor DeBlasio claims that as long as 25-30% of the apartments rent out at less than “market rate” value then the rest can be market rate – but the so called affordable housing is far from affordable for those that currently live in those neighborhoods.
There is a lot of money on the line and the influence of those who want more of it is beginning to look a little nutty. For example, JDS Development Group and the Chetrit Group have put forward a plan for a giant skyscraper in downtown Brooklyn that is literally twice as tall as Brooklyn’s current tallest building, the Fleet Building which is 32 stories. The building serves as a metaphor for the current massive construction boom in luxury developments that promises to remake the city if unimpeded.
In some cases these new buildings include so-called affordable units, a term so far from reality it’s laughable. Most so-called affordable units will be priced at 60 percent of the Area Median Income, which means that low wage workers, even if $15/hour can be achieved, will not be able to afford them. Making this situation worse, are the serial arguments in the mainstream press lauding the wisdom of answering the city’s housing crisis by building affordable units into giant luxury developments ignore that what is deemed “affordable” will still push low-income residents out.
Given that most rezonings are happening in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and the majority of NYC jobs since 2009 have been created in low-wage industries, the potential number of displaced residents could be much larger than current estimates. Low wage earnings do not even come close to keeping pace with market rents. DeBlasio’s plan simply does not speak to that reality.
And it certainly doesn’t speak to the reality many people of color face in the city. This process disproportionately affects people of color, because concentrations of more affluent residents move into neighborhoods to populate these developments. Federal studies show that on average the net worth of African American families is approximately one fifteenth of white families. So rezoning leading to extremely high market rate rents and those slightly below market contributes to the whitening of city neighborhoods.
Leveraging Our Collective Power as Artists and Activists
It’s important to note that our A People’s Monument to Anti-Displacement currently in the AgitProp! show at the Sackler Center is not the result of an invitation by the Brooklyn Museum but rather came out of a demand and subsequent negotiation between the museum and artists after the fallout from the Real Estate Summit in November 2015. Activist coalitions like Brooklyn-Anti-Gentrification Network, Artist Student Affordability Project (ASAP), as well as artists in AgitProp! like Like Not and Alternative and the Illuminator Collective organized large protests which were widely covered in the press, building up public pressure on the museum for a negotiation process to begin.
Timing was everything. The show organization, which was conceived as an exhibition curated in three “waves”— first round of artists, chosen by curators, were asked to choose the next round, who in turn chose the third wave— opened right after the protests against the Museum and the Real Estate Summit. This collision of the protests–clearly a source of embarrassment to the institution– with what was meant to be a historic political art show that would highlight their progressive cultural agenda, provided a unique opportunity to pressure the museum itself to support an honest dialog about gentrification.
Come January 2016, only two months after artists and activists had put pressure on the museum’s tacit support of local real estate developers, a group of us met with museum curators Saisha Grayson, Jess Wilcox, Catherine Morris, Stephanie Weissberg, and the new director, Anne Pasternak. In this meeting, we echoed the demands at the heart of the November protests, calling for the museum to never again rent their space to a Real Estate Summit. Additionally we asked museum to issue a statement that they would stand with the local community who is facing displacement and proposed adding an additional space to the exhibition for programming that spoke directly to gentrification. Although the Monument process has moved forward, we have yet to hear a response from the director regarding a change in rental policy or the proposed statement.
That’s been a great disappointment and one we’d like to addressed while the monument remains on view. That monument was produced in the period after the meeting—February through April—by a collective formed to to carry out anti-gentrification level of the show. This consisted of Agitprop! artists along with artists of color and most importantly people organizing against displacement in Crown Heights. Some of the artist collectives currently in AgitProp! like Not An Alternative, The Illuminator, Occupy Museums, Ultra-Red along with artists and cultural workers like myself (Betty Yu), Sarah Quinter, Antonio Serna and Alexander Dwinell met with Alicia of MTOPP regularly for three months to sketch out the key concepts ofThe Monument. Far too often, we see social justice art, culture and media created by a small white group of artists who are removed and lack first hand experiences with the issues they are seeking to expose. The group of artists who decided to donate their labor to help produce this wall – all in one way or another felt a visceral connection to the issue of displacement.
Agitprop and Pop Ed Meet – So what is in the actual Monument?
One of our hopes for the monument was that it would debunk popular misconceptions about rezoning—he big one being that they are inevitable because development, like capitalism, is process that can’t be disrupted. Another pervassive myth is that rezoning is, as Mayor De Blasio likes to purport, the best solution for affordable housing (which it is not).
More specifically The Monument features the local organizing fight headed by The Movement To Protect The People (MTOPP) a black-led community organization that has been successfully fighting upzoning of the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn for the two years. It shares effective organizing strategies and tips which has been successful so far in stopping the rezoning process in Community Board 9. The rezoning would allow for massive displacement of mainly Caribbean low-income residents and families in the part of Crown Heights that borders Lefferts Garden.
Through graphics, facts and visuals – the Monument illustrates the struggle against displacement of people of color across the city and presents specific information about the fight against rezoning in Community Board 9: the Museum’s own backyard. For example, we added a section called “Agents of Gentrification” which exposes all the parts that are working to displace and gentrify – particularly the NYC Planning, REB-NY, greedy landlords, politicians. We put together a map showing rent burden areas of Brooklyn, showing that communities of color are most rent burdened, meaning they spend upwards of 68% of their income on rent. And finally, we outlined “the Great Con” —tricks used to con communities into participating in the rezoning process, and a map called Displacing People of Color’ which shows the decrease black and latino populations and the growing white (non-hispanic) populations.
The video in the center of the monument shares MTOPP’s effective organizing strategies. It also highlights the brutal arrest of Alicia Boyd, (one of MTOPP’s lead organizers) at a Community Board 9 meeting. Itshows the full arrest unedited – as Alicia is being dragged by 4 police officers with a table almost crushing her. This scene demonstrates the way police have been used to repress community opposition to rezoning and gentrification.
Central in the monument is a six-minute video documenting the fight to stop the rezoning of Crown Heights/Flatbush, a fight that is occurring on the doorsteps of The Brooklyn Museum. The video highlights the insidious role of local city council members as well use of police force as an state apparatus to repress dissent.
The Urgency To Act
The monument also is intended to act as an organizing station against displacement and gentrification. We created sections entitled “Tips for Organizing Against Rezoning” and “Take Action” which invite people to participate in the fight to stop rezoning in Crown Heights/Flatbush and citywide. A petition demand no rezoning in Community District 9 (in Crown Heights/Lefferts Garden) is on display for visitors to sign.
Most importantly, though we wanted to ensure that the voices of those most impacted by gentrification–namely people of color– guided the content and overall political vision of the piece. Solutions and ways for people to plug in were essential as well. As a group we were clear that The Monument must be a piece of “AgitProp” that serves its’ utility as art that can agitate, educate and provoke the public to help take action to help stop massive gentrification in New York City.
Betty Yu is a Chinese-American NYC-based interdisciplinary artist, filmmaker, media educator and longtime social justice activist. She is a co-founder of a newly formed collective, Chinatown Art Brigade.