As I said in my post about last year’s Anti-Gentrification Summit, I’m always on the lookout for good, substantive conversations about gentrification. In the last year, Buffalo has been having them, and this week, on Wednesday, will be another.
Especially promising is that these recent discussions aren’t just being held by organizations that are involved in housing, public policy, and activism. A year ago, there was a short-lived but very thinky gentrification reading group that met at Burning Books, started by a thinky person who wanted to think with others about the issue. Over the winter, Assemblyman Sean Ryan convened a panel discussion on affordable housing at D’Youville College. Earlier this month, UB hosted a symposium on affordable housing for which former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros was the keynote speaker (a post about that to come).
Perhaps the most unconventional of recent convenings on gentrification happened recently at the Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology (BCAT). Artist Abiff’s exhibit on display there features materials and objects from abandoned and demolished home sites. Instead of a traditional exhibit reception, BCAT convened a small but thoughtful discussion panel to explore the congregation of art and gentrification. (Pictures from the exhibit and discussion are in this article.)
Abiff is the nome d’arte of the creator of the exhibit. Far more than a nom de plume (or screen name) of a writer, Abiff told me he sees his work as an artistic expression of an entity separate from himself, and separate from his professional work with youth at BCAT, which combines his artistic talent with his training as a social worker. He grew up in Buffalo, earned a BFA from Buffalo State, and spent a number of years in New York City, where was affected by that city’s notorious gentrification directly. He returned to Buffalo and now lives at Artspace. Among other accomplishments, he was part of the recent panel that had the unenviable task of choosing the final images for the Freedom Wall. His Twitter feed, @omni_prism has a number of photos of the creation of his BCAT exhibit.
In his exhibit, now-discarded materials that once were part of proud homes and neighborhoods seem to come alive again, almost as if we’ve stumbled across a dark-of-night, secret ceremony. Some materials, such as masonry and bricks, seem to have self-organized, as if remembering how they once lined up together to make a wall. Other materials rise up into almost human forms, as if remembering those who once formed them together into a home and shared their lives with them, before departing for greener pastures, abandoning their once-proud constructions to a dark underworld of entropy.
People build homes by bringing together materials at hand and fashioning them together to provide shelter to themselves and others close to them. In a similar way, people fashion together their lives from the people, jobs, services, and places that are at hand – traditionally in the neighborhood, town, or village close by. When neighborhoods change and become unrecognizable, and when residents are displaced by gentrification, the artist seems to suggest, people’s networks can come unraveled and lives can fall apart, making them have to regroup and try to re-form the pieces into something recognizable.
Those ideas were reflected in the panel discussion, which ventured into territory I’d never heard explored before, in particular the role of arts and culture in gentrification. Abiff talked about how artists in New York City, who more often than not have low incomes, unwittingly played a role in priming certain neighborhoods for an influx of those with higher incomes. For example, artists would paint murals on old industrial buildings simply because they couldn’t bear the plainness, without realizing their work could alert developers to a new area ripe for loft conversion.
Artist Milissa Williams and Rahwa Ghirmatzion of PUSH Buffalo used their time on the panel to expand the definition of gentrification from just displacement of people to a change in neighborhood culture. Gentrification is also about structural issues in society such as racism, Ghirmatzion said. To the claim of a renaissance underway in Buffalo she responded, “let’s have a renaissance reality check,” citing a statistic that black men in Buffalo between the ages of 18 and 64 have an unemployment rate of 57%. “I’ve never seen gentrification that was positive,” she said.
Panelist Nathan Hare, CEO of CAO (the Community Action Organization), offered an observation that was clearly informed by his organization’s work in community development: “Communities that are subject to gentrification are those that have assets in them. They are not asset-free.” That is because the working poor often locate in places that have assets, modest as they may be, to make their lives work. But developers and young middle-class members (or aspirants) can also be attracted to the same places, because those places are perceived as having assets to build on. Cultural alienation and actual displacement are most likely happen, in Hare’s observation, in places where those two opposing interests intersect.
Next up in our community’s discussion of gentrification is the League of Women Voters (I’m not sure if the League is part of the DC or Marvel superhero universe). One of the organizers, Nancy DeTine, told me that gentrification has been on the radar of their local government committee. Last fall, when they first considered putting on a panel discussion, they didn’t realize how many other events were already in the works about gentrification. But once they did, they “decided to focus on trying to move the discussion beyond identifying the problems and begin to consider possible solutions,” DeTine told me.
This Wednesday evening the League is hosting a panel including some guests from outside the area. The featured speaker is Dr. Rosie Tighe, associate professor of urban policy and planning at Cleveland State University. According to information from the League, “Tighe concentrates her work on affordable housing, social justice and equitable development as she seeks ways to bridge the gap between research and practice.” She has published research on affordable housing, gentrification, segregation and “shrinking” cities, and was co-editor of The Affordable Housing Reader and the forthcoming Legacies of Legacy Cities.
Also featured is Marimba Milliones, president and CEO of the Hill Community Development Corporation in Pittsburgh, PA. According to information from the League, “Milliones, a national presenter and thought leader in urban revitalization, advocates for and utilizes intentional planning and development practices. Her work centers on establishing a different approach to urban-core redevelopment and its impact on low-moderate income residents, communities of color and cities. Most recently, she successfully led negotiation of a community benefits agreement with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins to assure equitable development for a historic tract of land in the heart of fast-growing Pittsburgh.”
Rounding out the panel are well-known locals Veronica Hemphill-Nichols, founder of the Fruit Belt McCarley Gardens Housing Task Force; Sam Magavern, executive director of Partnership for the Public Good; and Dennis M. Penman, owner of Penman Development Partners.
(If you primarily know Penman from his former role with Ciminelli, you may not know that he has been extensively involved in the development of federally assisted multi-family housing and HUD Section 8 family and elderly housing projects. His Pratt-Willert development received a national Award for Excellence from the Urban Land Institute. He also serves as vice chairman of the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation. His new firm, among other things, is involved in affordable housing. At the recent UB symposium on affordable housing, Penman introduced former HUD secretary Cisneros, whom he briefed about Buffalo’s Home Ownership Zone project when Cisneros headed HUD.)
Event on League of Women Voters Buffalo-Niagara website