Real estate promotional materials juxtaposed with images of dilapidated houses are the basis of an upcoming art exhibit in Charlotte, North Carolina, where gentrification threatens to displace members of the city’s oldest historic black community.
“There will be pictures of people jogging or walking their dog placed with these crumbling buildings,” Janelle Dunlap, social justice creative in residence at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture recently told Creative Loafing Charlotte. “It is to demonstrate the social and urban colonization happening with our community. We have a lot of young professionals moving into the area and they don’t understand their place in this [gentrification process]. Not that they should feel guilty about it, but they should be aware that they are oftentimes moving entire communities out of neighborhoods just by their presence alone.”
One point of critique for Dunlap is the idea that historic neighborhoods, pre-gentrification, are ugly and “must be changed,” — at least through the lens of white and affluent outsiders.
“I read and did a lot of research behind why the decision was made to displace neighborhoods like Biddleville and Brooklyn Village,” she told the paper. ”There was a lot of language that said that these communities were ‘ghettoes’ and ‘slums.’” But as she researched, she found that those “slums” were thriving neighborhoods filled with upper-class black business owners. “It is all a matter of perspective of what people consider slums and what people consider poverty,” she said.
(Art by Janelle Dunlap)
Charlotte, like so many cities, is grappling with the rise of both property taxes and displacement, as Sherrell Dorsey wrote for Next City last year. Neighborhoods in the urban core are seeing an influx of luxury condo high-rises and commercial development, and the Cherry Neighborhood, the city’s oldest historic black community, is shifting in demographics as $600,000 ranch-style homes replace $200,000 bungalows built in the 1920s. Complicating matters, Dorsey wrote, the city “has very few tools to actively force developers to set aside units to sustain affordable or ‘workforce’ housing for the benefit of lower-income individuals and families.”
Gentrification is rapidly becoming rich — if complicated — fodder for artists, who tend to both foster the image of an area as “desirable” for real estate moguls and get easily pushed out themselves when the rent goes up. In May of 2015, for example, Kerry Jane Marshall satirized New York’s High Line-era makeover with a mural in which even the city’s water towers had been transformed into glassed-in condos. The mural, intentionally (if somewhat ironically), was situated on the High Line.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.