Given the state of affairs in the Bronx regarding art and real estate, an article such as the one published in Crain’s New York with the title “Bye Bye Bushwick: The Bronx is the City’s Next New Art Scene,” is not surprising. The fact that her artists aren’t considered on the pages of Art News or any other publication dedicated to discussing cultural production and instead are relegated to a discussion about “up-and-coming-neighborhoods” reveals the precarious nature The Bronx currently finds herself in. In the X, the pre-existing arts communities at this moment in time, are only considered through the lens of real estate speculation and this will not change unless we collectively refuse to allow our work to be positioned in this context. A critique of the market, and its abusive exploitation of art and artists as real estate pawns is imperative, and it is desperately missing in this borough.
Any interest from a publication such as Crain’s, or the audience it attracts is based only in self-interest, motivated by potential profits. The failure of Bronx artists to recognize this blatant fact is at our own peril. These entities come to The Bronx to probe the inner workings of the local art scene only to parade local artists and art institutions around as décor; Cultural cache in a real estate advertisement. If this publication or this author cared to value anything about the arts in the Bronx, then they would have carved in content that lays bare its history. They would have highlight the artwork being produced by artists there and written about the projects produced throughout the years by local institutions. But that is not the goal. The article only asks us to consider the art and artists insofar as it adds cultural value to the land and property of the Bronx making it ripe for investments and profits. The artists and their fledgling institutions and non-profits are expendable. And yet, this fact seems to escape local artists and arts institutions, who eager for attention and validation, foolishly and selfishly offer testimonials to the article which amounts to the statement, “Yes, we have a burgeoning art scene here! We too are worthy of displacement!” It is worth noting that not all of these institutions and artists understand the scope of this mistake. As I am sure this author and this publication means to shape a certain position, and many artists and institutional figures quoted in the article are refuting the statements made in the article. But there are a select few who are unable to see past their ambition. Who believe that rolling out the red carpet for developers and gentrification will somehow land them a winning lottery ticket. They gamble with the lives of the community. They fail to realize that the streets of Bushwick are not paved in gold. They are covered in street art and graffiti. By artists who are not from Bushwick because those artists along with their families can no longer afford to live there. One does not have to look far to confirm this. Visit any of the homeless shelters in the Bronx and there you will find the residents of Old Bushwick, Bed Stuy, Crown Heights, etc. In New Bushwick, you cannot sense their missing bodies because the street art and graffiti silences their displacement in a virtual happy land of aesthetics. Street art camouflages this crime.
In essence, the Crain’s article behaves like an infomercial, which utilizes the local art scene in the Bronx as a selling point for its readers. The tone of the article wants to convey to its readers that it’s okay to buy property in the Bronx because the artists have paved the way. Its okay to evict that bodega and offer the lease to the coffee boutique at double the price. You will have an audience. The local Bronx artists and college students have expensive taste and they will keep you afloat until the good tenants arrive.
The ideology behind this article is sort of an old trick that somehow keeps working. The old Richard Florida concept of relying on the creative class for “urban regeneration.” The author is aware of this as she is writing. It is the reason why art and real estate are always in the same sentence these days. What’s less obvious is her citing of the increase of college-educated people living in the Bronx today. The author credits this to students from Richard Florida’s alma mater, Columbia University. It couldn’t just be that we are seeing higher levels of poor and working class Black and Latino kids going off to college. It must be those Columbia students moving into Mott Haven because “it is all the rage.” I’m sure the author is aware of the detrimental effect the expansion of universities are having on poor working class communities in major cities throughout the world. The studentification of neighborhoods is often overlooked as slumlords evict long-term tenants to chop up a two-bedroom apartment into a four bedroom dorm in order to collect triple the amount of ivy league dollars. Interested parties reading the article who turn their gaze towards the Bronx might consider building dorms where a community garden once stood. Political sophists, poverty pimps and fat cat economic development corporations would only be too happy to cut the red tape, rezone our communities away and line their pockets.
Still the question remains, if the Bronx is indeed the last borough standing against being gentrified over, then where will the people collectively go if these readers decide to heed the advice provided by The Crain’s article? We might consider the Eastchester Garden raids as an answer to this question. When on an early April morning, the FBI, ICE, DEA, ATF, and Homeland Security joined forces with 700 NYPD cops to raid and remove 120 young men from a community overnight. These boys were painted as vicious gang members and paraded through the media as such. Still, the charges against these boys remain vague and live in the realm of conspiracy via the RICO act, which gives license to the feds to pin anything on them for liking a comment on Facebook allegedly. Criminalization of the youth is an aggressive tactic that comes hand in hand with gentrification. Consider also that these boys reside in NYCHA, who has been attempting to sell off portions of itself to private interests for years. However, the picture doesn’t completely come into focus until you learn that their arrests could mean eviction for their 120 families since having a criminal case in public housing is forbidden.
The people of the Bronx have lived through many plagues. The draining of resources as a result of Robert Moses and white flight, the massive loss of manufacturing jobs as a result of deindustrialization, the psychological effects of Vietnam and the murder and framing of black and Puerto Rican leaders, the heroin, followed by the crack epidemic and the drug war, the Rockefeller laws, the AIDS crisis, all of this while slumlords burned the Bronx down to the ground for insurance money. The people of the X are a resilient people. They are survivors who in the midst of all of this despair, still managed to give birth to one of the greatest avant-garde art forms of our time, Hip Hop. But, can they survive another plague? Especially one that is disguised as revitalization, smells like fresh brewed coffee, and bares the smile of cool artists and harmless college kids? Will they see the coming bulldozers and the 700 cops marching behind it?
The answer lies with the artists and art institutions. If Bronx artists and arts institutions continue to court developers and real estate publications such as Crain’s, the Bronx will fall to gentrification. This is true for the Bronx, but it is also true for all of New York City and every enclave that houses artists and students throughout the world. The tension between developers, artists, and poor and working class communities has reached a boiling point and must be addressed. Artists find themselves in a unique historical position. The spread of gentrification on a global scale lands squarely on our shoulders. Real estate developers and their wealthy clientele follow the artists around like shadows, waiting for us to plant down roots and to create new Bohemias in order for them to extract it. They mine our creativity like coal. This trap they have set for us manifests itself in many ways. As empty white spaces in “up and coming neighborhoods” where we are encouraged to build our studios or show our work in. It appears as fully renovated kitchens straight out of an IKEA catalog in a dilapidated building, or it appears as invitations by complicit art institutions to participate in colonizing pop up shows in newly constructed real estate. Everything about this formula hinges on the quiet complicity of the artists. But if the artists collectively decide to loudly denounce this role, to shun developers and art institutions that utilize these practices and to stand with the communities we live and work in, this trend we seem to be on the front line of will not continue. Artists possess the ability to stop this destructive speculation and to turn the tide right now. As cultural producers we must shift the culture away from this passive acceptance of unfettered speculation in our hoods and in hoods and barrios everywhere. Ultimately, as artists, we are concerned with space, be it the illusion of space in painting, or the way a sculpture or performance occupies space, or in the cadence of music or the recital of a poem. Perhaps its time for us to turn our gaze towards the disappearance of physical space on our lives and in society and to question the neoliberal forces at play, which terrorize us all.