Over the past two decades, Brooklyn’s artistic renaissance spawned the borough’s neighborhood reformation. Artists and their ilk have helped put places from DUMBO to Williamsburg to Bushwick on the cultural map. Writers, grad students, and other largely white middle-class types have swarmed into Fort Greene, Bed-Stuy, Prospect Heights, and Crown Heights. From the newcomers’ perspective, their own arrival has made the borough a cool place to live. But for longstanding residents in black and brown Brooklyn and beyond, the process of displacement becomes more evident with each passing month.
Yet, even though gentrification is an everyday reality, outside of urban studies classes, it is one rarely discussed openly. Hipsters are either over it or oblivious to it. Longtime residents feel like there’s nothing that can be done about it. But a mutual “begrudging tolerance” doesn’t exactly create a vibrant sense of shared community. And so it’s high time for people to engage the issues. If there’s one thing that people in Brooklyn have something to say about, it’s what’s happening on their block.
Opening this month at MoCADA in Fort Greene, The Gentrification of Brooklyn: The Pink Elephant Speaks is more than just an art exhibition. It’s the beginning of a four-month series of events in and around Fort Greene aimed at opening up a community dialogue on what’s happening to Central Brooklyn neighborhoods. The various events planned at MoCADA and elsewhere will include the perspectives of FUREE and other community groups and of students at local high schools. How the arts can confront the process of gentrication provides a common thread.
The actual exhibition will showcase the work of 20 visual artists, who represent the theme utilizing the full range of media. According to the show’s curator, Brooklyn native Dexter Wimberly, the artists in the show “are engaged with gentrification on a daily basis. Some even consider themselves the very ‘gentrifiers’ we speak of.” Since they are either currently Brooklyn-based, or have been pushed out in recent years, these folks “didn’t need to do traditional research on the subject,” notes Wimberly.
As the show’s subtitle suggests, gentrification is the “pink elephant” in the room that many new Brooklynites would rather try to ignore. Laurie Cumbo, MoCADA’s founder and executive director, says that “Gentrification is a huge topic that impacts every single aspect of our lives in Brooklyn, yet we feel uncomfortable discussing it because of the racial, economic, and class implications.” In Cumbo’s view, providing an open forum for dialogue is thus a crucial first step. At present, she observes, “We can’t even say the word ‘gentrification’ out loud—nor can we say ‘white woman,’ ‘black man,’ ‘Mexican,’ or a whole host of other words.” And, she adds,“If we can’t even utilize these words to describe the changes in our neighborhood, how can we actually create a community that addresses our mutual goals and visions?”
Beyond just a group show and a series of events, MoCADA is thus offering a challenge to everyone involved in the process of neighborhood change: artists and their fellow travellers, local businesses, longtime residents, newcomers of all backgrounds. “I want this exhibition to help change community development so that the people participate in designing their community to fit their needs on every single level,” says Cumbo. That’s a laudable, though lofty goal, but reaching it is only possible if people are ready to break the ice. Let the conversation begin.
The Gentrification of Brooklyn: The Pink Elephant Speaks is on view at MoCADA (80 Hanson Place, Fort Greene) from Feb. 4-May 16, 2010. For details on the show and many related events, go to mocada.org
A related exhibit, Housing is a Human Right: Stories from the Struggle for Home, will be on view at the Adriala Gallery (57 Putnam Avenue, Bed-Stuy) through the end of March. For details, go to adrialagallery.com and housingisahumanright.org