Embedded Art and Culture Is Essential to Our Healing
In 2013, around a table at the San Francisco Tenants Union, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (AEMP) was formed among community activists with the intention of documenting eviction and tech-led speculative displacement in San Francisco.1 While the project founders imagined they’d only be creating one or two data visualization maps of evictions, the project has since grown in scale, methodology, and geography. Now with chapters in Los Angeles, New York City, and the San Francisco Bay Area, the project uses a variety of modalities that employ technology and storytelling to build tenant power in anti-gentrification fights. Our volunteer members and community partners provide vital labor to the project and represent a critically diverse cross-section of scholars, tenant organizers, artists, media makers, and technologists from the cities in which our work is embedded. We embrace a connected approach to housing, data, and cartographic justice that foregrounds mutual aid, embeddedness, and accountability.2,3
In this essay, two long-time AEMP collective members come together to share insights on the intersections between housing justice and equity in arts and culture. Drawing upon lessons from the digital and storytelling practices that shape AEMP’s work, they offer recommendations on how coronavirus recovery efforts within the arts and culture sector can protect tenants and neighborhoods most vulnerable to the forces of gentrification. In addition, they call on funders to support the work of artists and cultural workers who are using art to cultivate and nurture community power.
Housing Justice and Arts and Culture Equity are Linked
COVID-19 is illuminating deep inequalities in all communities. The fallout of the pandemic has exacerbated existing housing injustice throughout the US and beyond, making it increasingly impossible for those who rent their homes to work and pay rent. In most US cities, renters make up the majority of residents: for example, Los Angeles and New York are 64% and 67% renters, respectively. Evictions and houselessness were already on the rise prior to the pandemic, and are only expected to become more prevalent without the enactment of stronger tenant protections, as residents lose income and incur unavoidable medical and childcare expenses. The landscape of housing in each city, locality, and region is varied and unequal — and the diversities of housing types, landlord-tenant power structures, level of access to services, and pre-existing protections all inform the housing justice movement’s call for immediate, broad renter protections to curb the impending tide of displacement from COVID-19’s secondary economic and household finance effects.
Equity in arts and culture and equity in housing justice are overlapping struggles. To site the People’s Cultural Plan for Working Artists and Communities in New York City,4 “Displacement and dispossession (also known by the euphemism ’gentrification’) are the greatest threats to culture in NYC, because culture is rooted in place, and skyrocketing rent threatens to displace working class people of color, working artists, and underfunded arts organizations.” We know that artists and art workers are a key dimension of community resilience in times of crisis. Concurrently, these communities are among those vulnerable to COVID-19-related displacement. Artists and art workers are among the millions being pushed into unemployment as the arts and culture sector responds to COVID-19. The past month has been marked by massive furloughs, layoffs, and salary cuts at arts institutions throughout the United States.5 As many other industries take similar steps to cut costs, deeper labor struggles have been brought to light such as wage disparities and racial equity. This all points to the vital voice of artists and cultural workers in movements for housing justice.
The rent precarity and uncertain futures that tenants are facing under the upheaval of the coronavirus are not new. The housing system that is failing tenants under coronavirus is the same housing system that has been failing low-income tenants for a long time. Since our inception, AEMP has been committed to curbing the speculative real estate practices upon which our housing system is predicated, and we see this moment as an opportunity to expose its failures. We stand in solidarity with current calls to #CancelRent knowing that this resistance has historic roots and is situated within ongoing processes of dispossession that trace back to settler colonialism, racist divestment, and discriminatory practices.
Art’s Role in Gentrification
We take this opportunity to acknowledge and elaborate on the myriad roles art and art institutions play in processes of real estate speculation and gentrification. Many have written critically about this, including Boyle Heights Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD), a partner organization organizing in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles. The work of BHAAAD shows us how this process plays out in urban space and demonstrates how to effectively organize against it. They write:
Every day, at least three families are pushed out of Boyle Heights. The presence of international art-world capital contributed, on an exponential level, to the displacement of this community. Many artists are directly investing in the displacement of their neighbors by moving resources and capital into disinvested spaces, and widely publicizing the virtues of the ‘transformation,’ ‘pioneering,’ or ‘revitalization’ they are leading. They are banking on that Flip of the Coin that will grow careers and cash from the flipping of disinvested warehouses and low-income apartment complexes. They are speculating on the likelihood of gentrification — the likelihood that a customer base able to pay top dollar will replace the poor as the inevitable return on their financial investments.
Gentrification is never inevitable. It is the result of actions and policies that can be changed through collective direct action. We challenge everyone, but especially nonprofit developers, land-bankers, and gallerists to reconsider their collective role in the future of Los Angeles.6
In New York City, AEMP partners Chinatown Arts Brigade (CAB) and Mi Casa No Es Su Casa (Mi Casa) are similarly leveraging anti-gentrification fights as sites for artistic creation. CAB is a cultural collective of artists and activists that has combined direct action and cultural organizing strategies to hold Lower Manhattan cultural institutions accountable for their role in displacing working class residents in New York City’s Chinatown. In May 2019, on the heels of organizing efforts to remove Warren B. Kanders from the board of the Whitney Museum, CAB organized “Chinatown is Not 4 Sale Anti-Displacement Walking Tour and Public Action” with Decolonize this Place, WRRQ Collective, and NYU’s Asian American Political Activism Coalition.7 CAB and their collaborators staged public actions at six institutions throughout Manhattan’s Chinatown and Lower East Side, interrupting art world business-as-usual, and drawing connections between real estate development, artwashing (a term used to describe the instrumentalization of art in raising property values), and the displacement of low-income and rent-subsidized tenants. CAB also made headlines in 2017 when, in a radical act of defiance, they and fellow activist groups protested Omer Fast’s exhibition at James Cohan Gallery’s Chinatown location for its reification of “racist narratives of uncleanliness, otherness, and blight that have historically been projected onto Chinatown”.8 Their action drew attention to the dangers of monolithic representations of communities of color and called many other local gallerists into critical conversations about ways they can be in solidarity with long-time residents and anti-displacement fights. Art Against Displacement (AAD), a coalition of Lower East Side and Chinatown artists and arts professionals, emerged out of those conversations.9 Bushwick-based collective Mi Casa similarly combines art and direction action to fight gentrification and cultural erasure.
Much like Chinatown and Boyle Heights, Bushwick is another example of the interconnectedness of art and art institutions in processes of displacement. The Williamsburg-adjacent neighborhood experienced an influx of new artists and artist run spaces in the early 2000s, which has led to rising rents and the displacement of long-time Black and Latinx residents.10 Mi Casa made these intersections clear in their 2019 fight against planned rezoning in Bushwick, an urban policy practice that has been known to accelerate displacement pressures in New York City neighborhoods of color.11 In collaboration with collective The Illuminator, Mi Casa staged visual interventions throughout the neighborhood by projecting statements like “Rezonings Are Racist,” “Bushwick is Not 4 Sale,” and “Department of City Planning Displaces Working Class Families” on buildings throughout the neighborhood.12
What unites these hyper-local projects is an artistic imperative to expose and resist the art world’s gentrifying practices. Materially and conceptually, they treat art not as an end in itself but as a tool for advancing local anti-gentrification fights. This ethos is central to their cultural and art making processes. They move beyond the social and aesthetic imperatives of art, using eclectic methods to hold the art world accountable and point to the people, institutions, and structures that keep displacement pressures in place. These collectives are working outside of the museum and gallery system to realize their production goals, a practice situated within a long tradition of arts-based grassroots organizing strategies.13,14
Expanding Our Definition of Artistic and Cultural Production
Committed to a radically expansive notion of what constitutes artistic and cultural production, we affirm practices that might fall outside of the traditionally “artistic.” To borrow from Roberto Bedoya’s 2014 essay15 about how places are made through rasquachification, an aesthetic of intensity rooted in the Chicanx term Rasquache that confronts invisibility and subjugation: “The Rasquache spatial imaginary is a composition, a resourceful admixture, a mash-up imagination that through objects and places says, I’m here.” The cultural organizing strategies of collectives like BHAAAD, CAB, and Mi Casa are engaged in a praxis of rasquachification. Their work is playing a vital role in disrupting the gentrifying effects of the White spatial imaginary through artistic interventions that are rooted in community-defined notions of power. The art work that emerges out of their practices might not fit within traditional genre categories, but it pursues urgent questions that need to be interrogated by the art world and urban policy makers as they grapple with issues of gentrification. The communities that AEMP and our collaborators are fighting to protect face uncertain futures. While we do not yet understand the scale of COVID-19’s impact on low-income tenants, it’s safe to speculate that large swaths of the cities in which our work is embedded will be met with sudden influxes of speculative investment and heightened displacement pressures once this public health emergency is lifted. Sustaining the divergent, yet essential, practices of cultural organizers and collectives needs to be a part of COVID-19 recovery.
The work of AEMP is another example of the strategic use of cultural production to interrupt displacement. The methodologies embedded within our visual production and storytelling work position renters as experts and center the needs of communities most affected by housing injustice. Our data visualization maps give visual form to on-the-ground struggles for housing justice and provide critical leverage points for anti-displacement organizers. Grounded in oral history protocols for gathering life histories, our storytelling methodology places emphasis on open-endedness, inter-subjectivity, double consent, and centering the self-determined narratives of tenants.16,17,18 One of the ways our storytelling work comes to life is through our Narratives of Displacement and Resistance (NDR) map which channels the personal and social histories of tenants. The map itself is a digital assemblage of interview recordings that are geo-located with relevant eviction data. Since the creation of our NDR map in 2014, our storytelling work has expanded to include murals, zines, video projects, and events that strive to foreground community assets, multiple temporalities, and artistic collaborations.19 In appropriating the tools and methods of online mapping, we seek to subvert the geographic imaginaries of housing and land speculators that are predicated on extraction, capital gain, and displacement. Instead, we assert counter-topographics that affirm the position of renters as producers of knowledge and cultural memory.
In the midst of COVID-19, AEMP has created an interactive map of emergency tenant protections and relief measures being enacted and fought for around the world. The map visualizes the adoption of policies such as eviction moratoriums, homeless housing, and utility shutoff bans, as well as ongoing campaigns for such measures. It is available in multiple languages and includes a crowdsourcing feature that allows organizers and community members to contribute on-the-ground, up-to-the-minute information on new policies being proposed, implemented, or demanded in various municipalities around the world.
Already, AEMP has produced a preliminary version of this project that achieves several of these objectives. The tool documents tenant protections emerging around the United States, whether enacted by local governments, courts, or police/sheriff departments. It allows public submissions and can be viewed at the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project website.20 AEMP hopes to expand and enrich this tool to  achieve a global scope;  offer information on more types of policies that could keep countless households afloat during this public crisis [rental assistance funds, homelessness support, utility relief programs, etc.];  improve usability and design of the tool, including adding a search feature; and  provide translation into multiple languages. This will require research capacity, data maintenance, and tech support. AEMP has the capacity to translate the project into Spanish, French, and Mandarin, and is seeking to procure translation into additional languages.
The map is also a storytelling and documentation tool. In addition to crowdsourcing submissions of renter protections, it also includes a feature that asks tenants to document their rent strike campaigns and their landlord’s response to the global pandemic. These pieces build on AEMP’s long standing oral history project which seeks to document tenant stories of dispossession and resistance in gentrifying landscapes. Including elements like these in a far-reaching tool illuminates how crucial storytelling can be for movement building. Many tenants who have shared their story on the map have already been connected to organizers, legal help, and most importantly, other tenants, in order to organize against their landlords. We’ve partnered with multiple tenant organizations across the country to make sure the tool is relevant and useful in local contexts. For example, in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Tenants Union is excited about using the tool to connect tenants who may live in different buildings owned by the same landlord, in order to organize stronger rent strikes.
Making sure renters know what their rights are during this time is crucial to keeping them housed and safe during this global pandemic. Further, by informing policymakers and residents of the menu of available, implementable responses to this crisis, the tool expands the scope of realizable politics and policies for both the immediate term and the time to come. Our tool makes sure that tenants are writing the way forward in both regards.
This is an opportunity for arts and culture funders to interrupt the patterns we’ve named here and take a more liberatory, accountable path forward. We share three recommendations as a way forward in protecting and supporting artists and cultural workers in the broadest sense through this global pandemic.
- Arts funders and institutions should acknowledge the legacy of art and art institutions in processes of gentrification and commit to not perpetuating these processes as we move through and out of this pandemic. As more community art spaces close or go out of business during this time, we warn against this real estate, freed-up through COVID-19-related displacement, being acquired by corporate entities and blue chip art institutions. In order to preserve and cultivate community-based art spaces, we demand that art’s role in real estate speculation be curbed in the aftermath of COVID-19.
- We also call upon funders to embrace an expansive definition of what constitutes art and cultural production. As we’ve observed with cultural organizing collectives, many of whom are achieving their art-making goals in lieu of art world validation, this work is an act of community care and preservation. Their work is exposing the violence of crises like structural racism and inequality, which people are perpetually living through. These are organizing models that should be sustained and supported by the arts and culture sector.
- Holding arts and culture workers and renters as essential residents of our cities and towns, we demand that arts funding prioritize sustaining individuals and collectives who are committed to doing work that is embedded and invested in community well-being. This includes taking cues from and actively supporting artists and cultural workers from Black, Indigenous, and disabled communities who have been hit the hardest by COVID-19 and hold wisdom that can guide us forward.
The stakes are incredibly high. We task arts and culture funders, who hold enormous power and influence in shifting culture and societal practice, to implicate themselves in prioritizing community care as we address the impacts of COVID-19. We hope the recommendations we’ve provided, which come from years of embedded work at the intersection of housing justice and cultural production, will be helpful in shaping the conversation going forward.
Ariana Faye Allensworth is a photographer, educator, and arts organizer based in Brooklyn, NY. She is currently the Senior Manager of Teen Programs and Neighborhood Engagement at the International Center of Photography and a 2020 Create Change Artist-in-Residence at the Laundromat Project. She co-founded the New York City chapter of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project in 2017.
Terra Graziani is a researcher and organizer based in Los Angeles, CA. Her work focuses on the dispossession and resistance of tenants in California cities and how policing and state violence are used to control people’s relationship to land. She founded and co-directs the Los Angeles chapter of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project and is Research Program Officer at Educopia Institute.
- Terra Graziani and Mary Shi, “Data for Justice: Tensions and Lessons from the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project’s Work between Academia and Activism.” ACME An International Journal for Critical Geographers 19 (2020): 397–412. http://unequalcities.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/17/2020/04/Graziani-1776-Article-Text-9190-2-10-20200414.pdf
- Erin McElroy, “Housing, Cartographic, and Data Justice as Fields of Inquiry: A Connected Approach to Mapping Displacement,” in Housing Justice in Unequal Cities, eds. Ananya Roy AND Hilary Malson, (Los Angeles, CA: Institute on Inequality and Democracy at the University of California, Los Angeles, 2016), 29–36. https://challengeinequality.luskin.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2019/10/Housing-Justice-in-Unequal-Cities.pdf
- People’s Cultural Plan for Working Artists and Communities in New York City, https://6651a8c9-9dae-4f7a-829f-a8c3c84cc3a1.filesusr.com/ugd/8c7daf_c9c9a291aed945788a2d862fa1d68634.pdf
- “Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement,” at Boyle Heights Alianza Anti Artwashing y Desplazamiento, accessed June 30, 2020, http://alianzacontraartwashing.org/en/bhaaad/
- Robin Pogrebin and Elizabeth Harris, “Warren Kanders Quits Whitney Board After Tear Gas Protests,” The New York Times, July 25, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/25/arts/whitney-warren-kanders-resigns.html.
- Hrag Vartanian, “Chinatown Art Brigade Protests Omer Fast’s ‘Racist’ Exhibition at James Cohan Gallery,” Hyperallergic, October 16, 2017, https://hyperallergic.com/405812/james-cohan-gallery-omer-fast-racism/.
- Art Against Displacement (AAD) is a member of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side. AAD supports the passing of the Chinatown Working Group’s Rezoning Plan in full, https://www.aad.nyc/.
- “Bushwick Brooklyn Neighborhood Arts and Cultural Inventory,” New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, 2019, https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/dcla/downloads/pdf/BCC-NACI-Bushwick.pdf.
- Gregory Jost, “To Stop Displacement, Disclose the Data!” Urban Omnibus, September 4, 2019, https://urbanomnibus.net/2019/09/to-stop-displacement-disclose-the-data/.
- Paul Frangipane, “Light display floods Bushwick junction as protesters denounce rezoning,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 22, 2019, https://brooklyneagle.com/articles/2019/07/22/light-display-floods-bushwick-junction-as-protesters-denounce-rezoning/.
- Springboard for the Arts, “Creative People Power,” 2018, 6, https://springboardforthearts.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Creative-People-Power-Report-2018.pdf.
- Nicholas Lampert, A People’s Art History of the United States: 250 Years of Activist Art and Artists Working in Social Justice Movements (New York: New Press: 2015).
- Roberto Bedoya, “Spatial Justice: Rasquachification, Race, and the City,” Creative Time Reports, September 15, 2014, https://creativetimereports.org/2014/09/15/spatial-justice-rasquachification-race-and-the-city/.
- Erin M B McElroy, “AEMP Handbook, by The Anti-Eviction Map- ping Project,” in Creating Social Change Through Creativity, eds. M. Capous-Desyllas and K. Morgaine, (2018): 289–308.
- Erin M B McElroy and Manissa Maharawal, “The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project: Counter Mapping and Oral History toward Bay Area Housing Justice,” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 108 (2018): 380–389.
- Nancy Mirabal, “Geographies of Displacement: Latina/os, Oral History, and The Politics of Gentrification in San Francisco’s Mission District,” The Public Historian 31 (2009): 7–31.
- Ariana Faye Allensworth, Adrienne Hall, and Eric McElroy, “(Dis) location/Black Exodus and the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project,” August 6, 2019, https://www.radicalhistoryreview.org/abusablepast/dislocation-black-exodus-and-the-anti-eviction-mapping-project/.
- COVID-19 Housing Protection Legislation and Housing Justice Actions Map, https://antievictionmap.com/covid.