A few weeks ago we talked about The Haus, a temporary street-art gallery in Berlin, being destroyed to make way for luxury apartments. And while this exhibit was meant to be temporary, it demonstrated the importance that these public art spaces provide for the communities in which they are situated. And The Haus is certainly not the only example of invaluable community spaces getting destroyed for the very spaces that will inevitably ruin them.
Public art spaces and other places designated for the public good are wrecked all the time. This has been exemplified in the recent destruction of 5pointz. It used to serve as an international meeting point for street artists and those who admire their work. The walls have now been literally whitewashed, removing the character that made the site unique. And there is an endless list of other examples like this. The 5pointz case has gotten plenty of publicity due its status as a street art mecca, while as other areas are obliterated without much widespread media attention. Take the Lower East Side’s rotating exhibit known as the Wallplay, which was torn down to make space for the creation of luxury high-rises. Or, there’s the West Farm’s meat plant in the Bronx, which will be demolished to accommodate apartment buildings and retail space.
This alludes to what society does and does not privilege. Society loves private property. And it loves private property that looms over the city like a daunting force of the ruling class. While graffiti benefits a neighborhood and adds to its visual appeal, it holds a very different visual appeal than the cold, calculated architecture that condominiums convey. That is, graffiti conveys an accessibility that condominiums do not. The elite seem to think that exclusivity is attractive, accessibility something to avoid.
The commonalities between these unofficial exhibits is that they have directly and indirectly been destroyed because of gentrification. The creation of these pseudo-cities destroys the diversity necessary for a thriving neighborhood. The upscale apartments that will replace both exhibits have nothing to offer but blight and monotony. Newness is superficial, a facade for a quickly perishable commodity. Every city has the ability to provide something for everybody when it is created by everybody. The duplication of upscale apartments undermines the force of its own attraction. Diversity is crowded out by duplicating success. And this sort of duplication breeds failure within a community, creating a cultureless void.
Also regarding public spaces, there has been a trend in public housing complexes being torn down to accommodate facilities that will never be used by those who are being displaced. For example, a housing project in New Orleans was torn down to accommodate a golf-course, and (also in the name of urban reconstruction) Trump constructed a golf-course in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Bronx. The one in new Orleans charges $90 per round, while as the average income is only about $33,000. The course in the Bronx charges $200. Not only does this actively create second-hand citizens out of neighborhood residents, but it creates cultureless institutions that provide no use for those who live near them. It may be “reconstruction,” but what it does is reconstruct poorer neighborhoods into recreational facilities for the rich.
Golf has come to be associated, due in large part to its general inaccessibility, with wealthy businessmen and politicians. There is a reason that sports like basketball thrive in the inner city but sports like golf have no relevance to residents of underfunded neighborhoods: it’s incredibly costly to play. Public sports complexes and courts are important to creating dynamic cities that prioritize recreation, but golf courses create the opposite effect by exuding exclusivity. Golf has its place. But that place is with the wealthy, suburban elite – not in vibrant and thriving urban urban communities.
Another example involves the construction of Lincoln Center. Lincoln Center, unlike the other examples in this post, has the potential to serve the community well. Its eclectic mix of art-based offerings fills a much-needed cultural dearth. But the problem with Lincoln Center is that its construction required the displacement of many, few of whom benefit from the artistic offerings the center has. Most likely this derives from Lincoln Center’s feel as an elite cultural institution that prizes sophistication over genuine cultural engagement. While its events are indeed appealing and certainly worth attending, the clientele feels very dinner party name-dropping. Of course, this isn’t surprising. Robert Moses (the tyrannical city planner responsible for destroying much of the city’s diversity and displacing thousands) is responsible for eradicating what used to be known as San Juan hill and is now known as Lincoln Center. He considered San Juan hill a cultural desert because he considered culture something that catered to a specific group of upper-class residents; however, San Juan hill was already a thriving cultural center, albeit a non-institutionalized one; it was home to some of New York’s best jazz-clubs and the birthplace of numerous jazz musicians.
While housing projects are flawed – often creating a type of apartheid in which the poor are relegated to certain parts of the city – we need to talk about what urban reconstruction looks like for residents who depend on the affordable housing that the projects provide. They need public art spaces. They need accessible forms of recreation. They need public parks and libraries. This, ultimately, is the problem with urban reconstruction as it currently exists: It’s focused on private property, on ownership. It discourages congregation in spaces in which you don’t have to pay. Urban space is organized to serve a specific function, not intended as a space for communication between citizens.
The places that have been constructed in place of those that existed before all share one specific commonality: they encourage people to pursue the status quo, doing nothing to encourage physical diversity or diversity of thought. You can peer at condominiums through their high-up glass windows and know that you cannot afford what’s inside. You can try and look through a gated golf-course and know that you could never afford to play a game or to buy the $400 driver the game requires. This is the type of reconstruction that the city deems “acceptable.” It’s reconstruction that creates recreation for the rich and makes the poor wonder if they can ever be there. It devalues what communities have already created – the public art spaces, the unofficial gathering places, everything that makes each neighborhood unique. Basically, It’s reconstruction that any vibrant community would never actually ever build for itself. It’s the kind of reconstruction that destroys vibrancy. Because vibrancy, like accessibility, is dangerous.