Friday, October 1, 2021

The Dangers of Settler Colonial Art

This past summer, the Hill Rag informed readers that they could "Volunteer to Restore Mondrian-Style Murals Saturday." The murals are located in the underpass below the Southeast Freeway at 6th Street, SE, and originally joined a 30-foot high mural across the street, on the side of a public housing building in the Ellen Wilson Dwellings (see image). The chair of the ANC 6B had decided to organize the re-painting and restoration of the murals. I am mentioned in the article as providing some basic information about the murals, that they were painted between 1988 and 1992. When I learned about this restoration project, I knew that I had to say something about the history of the murals.

I had done years of research about the person who commissioned the murals, his connection with Piet Mondrian, and the philosophical ideas of Mondrian himself. My research article "The Aesthetics of Gentrification: Modern Art, Settler Colonialism, and Anti-Colonialism in Washington, DC" came out in August, just as the group was finishing the restoration, and you can read my article here or access it on my faculty webpage. The international urban journal that published my article tweeted this about it: 

argues that The Mondrian Gate—series of murals on/near a public housing project in Washington DC just before its demolition— enabled Black erasure, dispersal, dispossession, and displacement

Yes, the murals enabled the permanent displacement of hundreds of African American residents of the Ellen Wilson Dwellings. My article is a scholarly article and difficult to read, but this is because I am forging new historical knowledge based on a wide range of archival sources. The article is worth reading, especially because it has some amazing pictures and it explores DC and Capitol Hill history in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I also seek to understand what Mondrian sought to do in his art and what it meant for the city:

Mondrian’s artworks were cartographical fantasies of a vast, segregated, white European city pushing colonial subjects to marginalized areas, and the destruction this would necessitate. [See the many white boxes at the center of the image above crowding out the colored boxes at the edges of the painting.] The late 1980s and 1990s opened up possibilities for new forms of displacement and revanchism on a global scale. [The commissioner of the murals] Robbins brought Mondrian’s maps of a future segregated, imperial world to 1980s Washington, DC. Within this revanchist context, Robbins used the Mondrian images as a fortress gate, a racial map of the future, and as a gallery for public education...The Mondrian Gate signaled both the defense of Capitol Hill and its purification as a space of pure white, pure black lines and distant pure colors, and also motivated a white empowerment to take new land––a settler colonial globalization.

There are many criticisms of the corporate uses of counter-cultural murals. These murals were in no way counter-cultural. The commissioner of these murals planted a settler colonial flag at what was considered the southern edge of Capitol Hill as a statement about the future of this part of DC. 

Is the desire to repaint the murals some kind of expression of the settler colonial subconscious? Complicity with colonialism? Maybe the murals should have been left alone or even painted over? Or maybe another kind of mural should have been put in its place? Maybe the one in front of the Ellen Wilson Community Center (see it in the article)? What kind of murals would you want to have there?

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

The Spiritual Destruction of Gentrification

Yesterday I was reading the oral history of John Harrod, who directed the Market 5 Gallery, a community art space in the North Hall of Eastern Market, from 1973 to 2009-2010 or so. Market 5 has a fascinating history. In 2007, there was a huge fire in Eastern Market, but Market 5 amazingly avoided the fire, in part due to an effective firewall between the North and South Halls. But other forces may have also provided assistance...

Market 5 organized the weekend markets and vendors at Eastern Market. Among the vendors are psychics. The oral history has two very interesting segments regarding the psychics:

LEWIS: So, the psychics claim they stopped the fire?
HARROD: Because of their power, the fire didn’t come into the North Hall! [laughs] (p. 30)

HARROD: Have you ever been there and looked up in the ceiling, the trusses in the ceiling?
LEWIS: Uh huh.
HARROD: The psychics tell me that there’s a pyramid shape that’s up there.
LEWIS: Oh really?
HARROD: Yeah. Which means that the Gallery is protected by, according to them, the strength of the pyramid—a sign that is found so many places in nature. Did you know that?
LEWIS: Exactly. (p. 36)
According to this view, the psychics and symbols protected the space. As is clear from many documents, Market 5 had a spiritual presence and energy. As I will discuss in future posts, the Capitol Hill/Southeast area has had a vast landscape of spiritualities protecting spaces and people. 

However, gentrifying forces use disasters and shock to displace obstacles in their way, even those with protection. Often, such obstacles are completely destroyed and the space left vacant in an attempt, it seems, to destroy and erase the spirits. Also gentrifying forces may take advantage of chaos without plans for the space. Even though it escaped the fire's physical destruction, Market 5 Gallery was evicted and never allowed to return. Gentrifying forces took advantage of the fire to evict Market 5 and replace it with a homogeneous, predictable, almost empty space, a space without spirit. Here is Market 5 Gallery from a video in 2008 as they are being moved out:

Market 5 Gallery in 2008,

Here is the same space today (my photos taken this morning):

Still a pretty space, but Market 5 was erased and replaced with a spiritually empty space. A space ready for whom or for what?

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Public Housing Reunions

Today I came across an article by several amazing sociologists -- Marcus Anthony Hunter, Mary Pattillo, and Zandria F. Robinson (Georgetown!)-- and the brilliant Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, which really captured what is going on in Ward 6 in DC. In this article "Black Placemaking: Celebration, Play, and Poetry," they explore the ways that African Americans in Chicago have made meaningful, creative, celebratory, playful, pleasurable, and poetic experiences in hostile places. The authors focus on four case studies: black public housing reunions, black lesbian and gay nightlife, black Little League baseball, and the black digital commons. 

Ward 6 is filled with similar cases. Arthur Capper Recreation Center hosted a wide range of sports, including the Washington Stonewall football team, as well as a wide-range of other teams that competed throughout the city. Towards the end of 8th Street, SE, Bachelor's Mill, Back Door Pub, Phase 1, and many other locales continued a vibrant black lesbian and gay nightlife in the area. What especially resonated with me was their discussion of public housing reunions (pp. 39-43)!

Even though the buildings were destroyed by the DC government with federal support, the former residents of Arthur Capper public housing remain a community and have regular reunions. As in Chicago, the Arthur Capper community has a Facebook group with 1,400 members. Other public housing projects also do this, both those projects that are now gone like the Eastgate Gardens (their Facebook group has 2,100 members) and those current public housing projects like Potomac Gardens and James Creek. In Chicago, as discussed in the article, former public housing residents celebrate annually at the site of the former projects or at parks nearby or elsewhere in the city. The Arthur Capper community has held annual reunions in nearby Garfield Park and other parks in the DMV. The wonderful Sherman Mills invited me to the annual reunions. I wrote about one several years ago (here), and Sherman Mills and I put together a special website about the Arthur Capper community. The "In Loving Memory" section is particularly insightful with its photos and names of those who have passed. 

The authors of the article about Chicago explore the living communities of current and former public housing residents. The authors write:

At the height of their occupancy in the 1970s, Chicago’s family public housing was officially home to over 137,000 people, most of them African American (Hunt, 2009: Table 1). The actual number might have been up to 40 percent higher than that (Venkatesh and Çelimli, 2004: 28). In 2012,the population in family public housing in Chicago was just over 23,000 (Chicago Housing Authority, 2012: Appendix 2). Despite this drastic population loss, the disappearing of black public housing residents was unsuccessful. Even the children of former residents proclaim their public housing lineage: ‘Me & my pops at the Robert Taylor Homes reunion/ he grew up in building #4101/had to capture that’, writes one young woman about a photo of her and her father in front of a mural of her father’s building and the title ‘Robert Taylor Family Reunion.’
The authors further reflect, "As long as these memories are rehearsed, shared, spoken, and envisioned then the projects and the black families and communities that they housed will not die." Do members of the Arthur Capper community agree ? How do these and other displaced communities continue to live in DC and what does this mean for DC?

Monday, March 22, 2021

Gentrification in Capitol East

On April 3, 1975, Gilda Warnick, Rosetta Byrd, and Marianne Josem of the Capitol East Housing Coalition testified in front of the DC Council about how housing speculation was affecting them and the Capitol East area (here pp. 584-598). They and others had formed the Capitol East Housing Coalition a year earlier to stop the displacement of long-time low and moderate income residents. This displacement was caused by real estate speculation. In Capitol East, tenants were having their homes bought from under them and received eviction notices. Here are some excerpts I found most eye-opening:

Ms. Warnick:...We have found that the number of persons speculating in Capitol East is alarming. Last year, we found that over 60 investment groups, individuals, partnerships, and corporations operate in Capitol East, and since then, the list has grown dramatically

...speculators also benefit from more concealed and hidden real estate practices, such as flipping. Flipping is a process of buying and selling contracts before the property goes to settlement, and in this way, properties are artificially inflated before they enter the real estate market. Several real estate operators have told us about this practice, but it is extremely difficult to document, because the transaction does not appear in official records. 

Another practice is use of straw parties and dummy corporations, which gives speculators anonymity, while assembling real estate and ways of evading taxes. It also makes it difficult to get at the root of the speculation problem, which is the financing...

Those residents I am talking about are people who have literally already bought their homes. They have lived in there 12 or 15 years paying rent. They never had enough money to save up for a down payment or settlement costs. Then when the house is sold, they are given a month's notice to move, having had no time at all to try to purchase a home...

Linden Place NE

Ms. Byrd: My name is Rosetta Byrd, and I am the block captain of Linden Place, Northeast [between 12th and 13th St, south of H St NE]. I came here to tell you today about a housing problem myself and my friends are having because of real estate speculation on our block....Most of us have lived here for many years. We are regarded as low and moderate incomes, and many of us rent. All of a sudden last year, Linden Place became a speculator's market. Sixteen homes were bought up by them west of the park, from Virginia and Maryland. Six of them were bought by Capitol Hill real estate agents...Because of these problems, we on Linden Place decided to organize a block club to help each other to stay in our homes... 

To stop this displacement and "the cancer spreading all over the city," they asked the DC Council to:

  • Give tenants the first opportunity to buy the properties. 
    • With the assistance of "a citywide revolving loan fund, which could be financed from the sale of bonds, and the revenue from the sale of bonds, and the revenue from the passage of taxes on tangible property and professional services."
  • Implement a speculation tax.

The DC Council realized their request with a speculation tax in 1978 and Tenant Opportunity to Purchase (TOPA) in 1980. We know from Katie Wells' work that the the speculation tax was quickly overturned. In the meantime, Rosetta Byrd appeared on a 1978 news segment "Disappearing People," in which "Rosetta Byrd describes her experiences after being evicted and moving from place to place looking for low-income housing she could afford." 

How might we use policies like these (as well as protecting public housing) to help low and moderate income residents stay in DC?