“This is about getting people to start communicating,” said Dexter Wimberly, curator of “The Gentrification of Brooklyn: The Pink Elephant Speaks,” which opened February 4 at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporic Arts (MoCADA) in Fort Greene. “If you talk, you can get to a solution. If you don’t talk, you won’t get to one.”
The exhibit drew a crowd of approximately 500 people to MoCADA on its opening night, indicating that some Brooklynites are ready to move the conversation about gentrification out of private spaces and into public ones.
“The exhibit is as much about what people are talking about with one another as it is about what’s on the walls,” said Mr. Wimberly, who has lived in Brooklyn for almost all of his thirty-six years.
According to Laurie Cumbo, MoCADA’s founder and executive director, gentrification is our 800 pound gorilla in the room. She said the pink elephant in the exhibit’s title denotes “the people who have the power to change gentrification but who have not [yet] utilized their power.” The elephant stands for the Brooklynites who have been affected by this process, such as residents – including some of the 22 artists who are participating in the exhibit – and local business owners who have been priced out of their communities.
The power of these artists “lies in their creativity,” said Ms. Cumbo. “Their power lies in their [collective] voice; their power lies in their forms of expression.” What the exhibit is all about, she added, is creating a space where “the elephant is going to finally speak.”
As visitors spilled out of the exhibit on opening night and onto the sidewalk with tiny cubes of cheese and glasses of wine, the conversations that had been initiated inside carried on in the chilly February air, proof that this show had already started to follow through on its mission.
The exhibit strikes a complicated tone, with an apparent reluctance to project a strictly anti-gentrification message. Mr. Wimberly insists that gentrification, at this point, is inevitable, and that now Brooklyn’s neighborhoods face a real challenge in figuring out how to maintain character and community in the midst of such transformative change.
Although each piece in “The Pink Elephant Speaks” confronts the same topic, they vary widely when it comes to medium and aesthetic. The artist Adam Taye, for example, has created two spreads of New Yorker cartoons with rewritten captions (such as “It’s trickle-up Manifest Destiny”) that address Brooklyn’s gentrification.
Another particularly notable piece in the exhibit is a photograph taken in Crown Heights in 2006, which depicts a yellow sign in front of wrought iron grating with the words “we must protect each other and we must respect each other” scrawled on it with a sharpie in bold capital letters (pictured). The artist, Valerie Caesar, is 28 and has lived in Brooklyn for all of her life—first in East Flatbush and now in Bed-Stuy.
“I am often angered by the changes in Brooklyn,” said Ms. Caesar. “I know that all neighborhoods are subject to a sort of natural evolution, but gentrification in neighborhoods like Brooklyn and Harlem feels particularly insidious because of the wealth of history and culture that stands to be lost due to whitewashing.”
The photographer, a graduate of Cornell and Columbia Universities, strives to celebrate what she calls “the voice of Brooklyn” in her art. She believes that part of that voice is represented in the hastily written graffiti on park benches and in subway stations that peppers the urban landscape of this borough.
“It is my intention with my photography and artwork…to shed light on the natural and often unnoticed beauty, raw harmony and gritty balance that characterizes Brooklyn at its core,” said Ms. Caesar.
The beauty of “Protect and Respect” lies in its simplicity, its directness, and in its seamless transmission of the poignant message it contains. Ms. Caesar’s vocalizations about gentrification are no less direct. “What the presence of rice milk in the supermarkets means is that sooner or later, rent costs for long-time residents will increase,” she said, “forcing them to leave neighborhoods that they have been striving to improve for their entire lives.”
Her charge against gentrification is pointed and precise, but she also has ideas concerning solutions: advocating for sustaining mixed-income communities, putting an end to cuts to federal housing programs, and adopting mandatory inclusionary zoning requirements.
Sarah Nelson Wright’s installation “Locations and Dislocation” in “The Pink Elephant Speaks” provides a color-coded map of the movement over time of six Brooklyn residents and documents the motivations behind each of the moves, including “band hopes,” “priced out,” “building sold” and “love.” Ms. Wright, 28, grew up in the Bay Area and moved to South Williamsburg seven years ago. “I’m actually trying to move now because I can’t afford my neighborhood,” she said.
Part of what makes “Locations and Dislocations” striking is that at first glance it is easily mistakeable for a science project, with its geometrical configurations and color-coded key. But behind each of the differently colored maps is an individual’s story, and it’s hard not to want to know more about what those stories are about.
“This is not a sociological study,” Ms. Wright explained. “It’s really portraits of individuals.” She created a version of the project in Sao Paulo, as well, and hopes, like the organizers, that her work and the rest of the art in MoCADA’s exhibit will provoke conversation about rising prices, changing neighborhoods, and displacement.
The exhibit also features haunting photographs of industrial lots in Red Hook, Gowanus, and Atlantic Yards that hint at impending corporate takeover. There is a mixed media piece called “Housing is a Human Right” that combines audio stories and photographs of Brooklynites who have fallen victim to the forces of gentrification, providing a compelling document of experiences of displacement.
“Good Neighbors” by Alexandria Smith (left) is one of the exhibit’s many oil paintings approaching the subject from a symbolic angle. Another portrays a fighter jet flying towards a traditionally-clad Native American. Close by, in a series of photographs of shiny condominium buildings new development is juxtaposed against abandoned and deteriorating corner stores. In the same room, an interactive installation gives visitors the opportunity to write what they would like to see “grow” in Brooklyn on “seeds” made of paper that will be planted throughout the borough when the exhibit closes. On opening night, visitors had already listed aspirations such as hope, green space, love, community, art, and peace.
Kendra Palmer, 22, an intern at MoCADA, was just one of the many guests eager to discuss the issues provoked by the art in “The Pink Elephant Speaks. “I’m a born and bred Brooklynite,” she said, “so I’m not a gentrifier but I know plenty of them, and I have no hate towards them. The way I feel is that as long as you’re going to keep the Brooklyn spirit alive, it’s alright.”
But Ms. Palmer recognizes that the “Brooklyn spirit” is a complicated thing to define, and that a neighborhood transformation that may seem to be in accord with that spirit, like the arrival of creative young people from far-flung cities, may come at the expense of long-time residents. “This is largely about poverty, but it becomes racial,” she said, contending that it is the racially charged nature of gentrification that makes it so difficult to talk about. “Gentrification has its good and its bad,” she continued, “but it saddens me that my own ethnic group cannot survive here because of escalating prices.”
Ayanna Williams, a curator from Atlanta who now lives in Bed-Stuy and attended the opening at MoCADA, said it made her think about whether Brooklyn’s gentrification is more about race or socioeconomic status, and about her own role in the process. She laments the fact that lower income people, especially blacks and latinos, have been and will likely continue to be priced out of their neighborhood, but asserted that “art has power”—and hopes that “The Pink Elephant Speaks” will be a first step towards halting the trend of displacement that is now in full force in Brooklyn and hurting so many of its residents.
Ms. Cumbo, who founded MoCADA in 2000 shortly after receiving a master’s degree in Arts Administration from NYU, counts herself among those who have been affected by the gentrification of Brooklyn. When her parents moved into East Flatbush over thirty years ago, they were the first black family in their building. Over the course of ten years, the entire white population moved out.
“Looking back, it kind of made me feel like we had some kind of airborne HIV, or something like that,” Ms. Cumbo explained. “It was like this massive exodus. But now there’s a reverse thing going on and there’s this feeling like ‘I thought you didn’t want to live by us. Now it’s OK?’ It’s that kind of thing. It cuts into so many levels.”
“What’s interesting about this exhibit is that it shows how, in many ways, [we] are really all facing the same challenge, and that’s survival in Brooklyn,” Ms. Cumbo continued. “It’s interesting how the experiences that are happening, which are basically economically driven, are affecting people across racial, cultural, [and] religious lines.”
“The Gentrification of Brooklyn: The Pink Elephant Speaks” runs through May 16, 2010 at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporic Arts in Fort Greene.