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Can art be used to resist gentrification rather than accelerate it?


In 2012 artists, squatters, and low-income residents of San Francisco’s rapidly gentrifying Mid-Market neighborhood organized a five-week art exhibition and grassroots festival called “Streetopia.” The aim of the event was to try to use art to critique and resist gentrification rather than pave the way for it. A book documenting the event has just been released, and A. M. Gittlitz has a review of it at The New Inquiry. Here’s a snippet:

The theoretical centerpiece of the book is Lyle’s 70 page essay on the competing utopian visions of Bay Area punks and radicals and the Tech giants. Drawing connections between Phillip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, he sees singularity-fetishist Google and Apple’s vision of the future a fascistic dystopia, while utopia for him is “a process or movement towards possibility… the ‘in-between’ place that the Tenderloin National Forest [a squatted guerilla garden and social space in a formerly trash-filled alley] represents, the ‘no place’ found in the literal meanings of the word.” Paying particular attention to day-to-days of homeless people, Lyle sees life on the street as indicative of this potential, and art as a way to transform the public sphere into a site of bottom-up struggle against those who would enclose it with cement domes in front of businesses to prevent sleeping on the sidewalk, evictions of affordable housing, and broken-windows policing. Artistic solutions to these problems reach towards a utopia in which public life is constantly defended and recreated from the streets to the skyscrapers…

The urbanization of capital is such a gigantic enemy that well-meaning politicians and radical visionaries like Lyle are practically reduced to the same slingshot-wielding rank. Tech and real estate have been given free reign to radically remap society, economy, and territory. Dissidents of gentrification will have to do the same without the venture capital resources, so Lyle finds some comfort in preferring a utopianism consistent with the spontaneous and fleeting historical moments of rebellion like the White Night riots In 1979, LGBTQ San Franciscans rose up in response to lenient sentencing for the murderer of Harvey Milk with a night of rioting and the Kronstadt rebellion. The latter was depicted in the 2009 film Maggots and Men, shown and discussed at Streetopia. The insurrectionary sailors were played by a queer and trans cast, partially a criticism of the radicalism of the White Night rioters’ slide into liberal gay politics and middle-class identity. In 1921, Soviet sailors in the city of Krondstadt, who had been instrumental to the revolution in 1917 and strong Bolshevik supporters, rose up again, demanding freedom of speech and assembly, freedom for all political prisoners, and a devolution of power away from the Party. The Red Army, led by Trotsky, brutally suppressed them It is not enough, radicals argue, to merely protest the injustices of heteronormative violence, bad court rulings, and shady landlords. We need to reorganize ourselves socially and theoretically, producing art and revolution simultaneously, never content with just one or the other.

Existing at the intersection of the run-down and the hip, defeatist nostalgia and utopian exuberance, leftist pragmatism and adventurist hail-maries, Streetopia could be as inspirational to artists and activists as the moment that got guerilla arborist Joey Alone into reforesting the Bay Area: “I saw a friend plant a redwood and I watched it grow to the size of thirty feet in five years, threatening a neighbor’s retaining wall…”

Image via The New Inquiry.