Posted on April 15th, 2014

In the weeks leading up to our SOAPBOX benefit, we're publishing a series of interviews to highlight some of the awesome artists participating in the event.

First up is honorary co-chair, artist Wangechi Mutu.

What is your name?

Wangechi Mutu.
What is your neighborhood?
The Bed Stuy.
What motivates or inspires your creative practice?
• Conversations
• Left-leaning radio shows
• Audiobooks
• Live music

Your bio, in six words or less:
Cutting History's pictures, radically redefining realities!

Please tell us about an artist, curator, activist, or project that has influenced you.
Wangari Maathai's activism and powerfully pointed rage. Arundhati Roy's fiction, homegrown writing and activism. Binyavanga Wainaina, my brilliant friend/ writer's strategic, public "coming out" and general rebel-rousing.

Favorite book, movie, or album about NYC?
Another Country by James Baldwin.

What do you love most about your neighborhood?
1. The good mornings in the morning.
2. Anonymity and authenticity.
3. My own house.
4. Pre-hipster creative saturation!
What's your favorite sound, texture, or color?
Kinky silver water scales.
Wangechi Mutu is a Kenyan-born artist who creates, lives, and works in Brooklyn, New York. Her work is an active personal critique that engages the complexities of the daily issues, situations, and environments that affect some of the most disempowered beings of our planet. Her elegantly horrific figures lurk in a hybrid world, trapped between consciousness and unconsciousness, silences and noises, life and death, real and unreal. They assert their vulnerability while simultaneously revealing the potency of regeneration and power within.
Wangechi Mutu was the recipient of Deutsche Bank’s first Artist of the Year award (2010) and was honored as Brooklyn Museum’s Artist of the Year (2013).  She has exhibited at major institutions including recent one-person shows at the Brooklyn Museum; the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia; the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, North Carolina; Staatlichen Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, Germany; Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art; Wiels Contemporary Art Center, Brussels; Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and Miami Art Museum.  

Posted on March 5th, 2014

On Saturday, February 22nd, in collaboration with La Casa Azul Bookstore, we held a workshop and panel on artists, neighborhoods, and affordable housing. It was an insightful and informative event, and we wanted to continue the conversation. We asked panelists for "short, sweet, action-oriented policy-related or creative interventions that we can all take to continue yesterday's conversation."

Please check out the resources in the slideshow, and keep reading for some of their responses.

Action Steps: What Can Artists Do?

Caroline Woolard:
What can artists do?

Here's some actions to take:

1. CATALYSE CHANGE: If we make issue-based works of art, we can connect any media opportunities and interested people to existing efforts around that issue. With housing, this means informing ourselves of existing groups and telling artists and art publics about housing rights, not only making representations of housing or gentrification in our artwork.

2. JOIN THE MOVEMENT: We can support anti-eviction networks, tenants' rights organizations, go to our community board meetings, and add our skills to affordable housing initiatives as active participants, making media, strategizing for actions, and bringing beauty and vision to the movement. If you want to learn about permanently affordable land, consider joining the New York City Community Land Initiative! (

3. WORK TOGETHER: Artists can form a base that is reliable and organized, ready to mobilize for arts and non-artists struggles. Visual artists should be as organized as actors and performers in the Actors Fund. This is what Caron Atlas has been doing with Arts and Democracy, and what I'm hoping to do with

4. ENFORCE POLICY: As the new administration settles in, make sure De Blasio actually makes 200,000 new units of permanently affordable housing, taxes absentee landlords, and protects renters:

5. WELCOME ALL WORK: We can respect the importance multiple tactics, of resisting and creating, not ignoring policy and state-organized affordable housing while building “alternatives” that may only be accessible to a limited group or a wealthy minority. We can be humble and kind to everyone involved, as this is going to be a lifelong struggle for housing as a human right.

Shawn McLearen:
My recommended action: bring your artist friends to community board meetings to learn more about the issues facing your community and the people volunteering to advance them.

Adeola Enigbokan:
I never forget JAMES BALDWIN, Harlem renter, traveler and artist/activist extraordinaire: "There are, forever, swamps to be drained, cities to be created, mines to be exploited, children to be fed. None of these things can be done alone. But the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place." in Creative America, Ridge Press 1962

Rebecca Sauer:
It was a wonderful day and dialogue!
I certainly agree with Shawn’s suggestion for artists and their neighbors to get involved in their community boards.
I also think that artists can get involved by helping to break down complex housing policies and systems and explaining them to their peers and neighbors in new ways. The Center for Urban Pedagogy is really good at this, evidenced by the What is Affordable Housing? booklet: These types of actions would be particularly helpful in this moment of policy transition.

Esther Robinson:
Thank you so much for such an awesome idea-and-action-filled day!
What can artists do?

If you think affordable housing is a problem.... don't just try to solve it for yourself....join coalitions that are working to solve it for our city as a whole (if you are not the coalition type.... donate your $ or time to their work!) Some examples of things to do in this regard...

  • The campaign for inclusionary zoning at Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development
  • Keep the pressure on DeBlasio's affordable housing goals
  • Join the mailing lists for organizations like The Pratt Area Community Council  and The Fifth Avenue Commitee  or Organizing for Occupation  to learn what actions and coalitions you could help support.
  • Everything on Caroline's list... 
  • If you want to purchase a home, make sure you get the appropriate training 
    • download a Homebuyer Training handbook for an overview and a list of training partners
  • Sign up for your local City Council Person's email list to keep up on hyper-local news-- and to discover new ways to support your local community that include housing and other ways to be supportive.
But most importantly, be a great neighbor. 

Commit to the place where you live, care about your neighbors, work with your community to solve problems, celebrate victories and build the New York we can all prosper within...

Please leave a comment and let us know your thoughts, and stay tuned for more issue-based talks like Sustaining Neighborhoods coming up in the future!

Posted on February 22nd, 2014

Reading List

In case you've been following our past few blog posts, newly posted articles are at the top, while articles we've already posted are re-listed below.

Reports on NYC Housing & Policy


Posted on February 21st, 2014

Sustaining Neighborhoods: Part III

In this post, we're interested in thinking more deeply about what we really mean when we talk about "gentrification." 

We asked artists, as well as panelists who will be participating in Saturday's event, for their definitions of gentrification. Their responses are below.

Definitions of "Gentrification:" from Artists

  • Politically and economically triggered migration that results in change in population mobility
  • Rate of change
  • In my view, gentrification is when market forces take priority over community cohesion and stability. By which I mean, the market drives rent in one area past the threshold of what artists and other mid-low income (yet quite privileged) folks can pay. These folks then move to a neighborhood that is low rents, and also has a community dependent on those rents staying low. Since the newcomers can pay slightly more the rents go up, and with them, new businesses move in that cater to these more affluent (but far from rich) newcomers. These changes in the neighborhood then attract people who can pay slightly more, but want the indulgences that the first wave of newcomers supported, and the cycle continues until the area (rents, but also grocery stores, bodegas, social spaces, etc) are out of the price range or comfort range of the original residents. There are many other factors that play into it (landlords vs. homeowners for one example) but I think it's important to understand that for many involved in the system(s) of gentrification it is not a deliberate choice to be the source of gentrification as much as it is a lack of understanding of what they can do to combat it. In Crown Heights we're fighting this battle daily, and there is certainly a feeling of inevitability that can get quite depressing, for both the long-time residents and the newcomers.

Other thoughts shared with us:

  • Accelerated demographic change
  • Rate of new development, services or infrastructure in relation to a neighborhoods ability to afford housing because property values go up.
  • Everyone wants a new or upgraded park, plaza, services or amenities in their neighborhood...but at the expense of being displaced because home is no longer affordable?
  • When is it succession, when is it displacement?
  • Problems of cities with growing populations versus rust belt city problems.
  • What is the opposite of gentrification? Disinvestment, urban decay
  • Gentrification = city makes the initial investments of installing massive infrastructure  (trunk water mains, distributions water mains, sanitary sewers and combined sewers). Developers create new development in preparation for a change in population density. For example: rezoning the Brooklyn waterfront.
  • When the big pipes come in sparsely populated out!!

Definitions of "Gentrification:" from Saturday's Panelists

Adeola Enigbokan (artist, Archiving the City):
The term gentrification originally referred to the colonization of a poor or working class inner city area, by the middle or upper classes 'gentry,' implying the spatial, physical, economic and cultural transformation of an area. However, at this moment in New York City, much like the term 'hipster,'gentrification has become a catch-all for complex and ambivalent emotions, which people wield against each other like a weapon. It encompasses feelings of both guilt and retribution. It is associated with a deep sense of hurt springing from the unavoidable injustices that are built into contemporary life in a hyperfinancialized global city. At the same time gentrification is invoked as a label for "the other," "the new," or "the strange,"or "the unfamiliar" as it is encountered in the appearance of an oddly-dressed new neighbor, or a coffee shop with a rustic decor.  

Moses Gates (Association for Neighorhood and Housing Development):
I don’t really have a definition personally, and I’m pretty sure ANHD as a whole doesn’t have an official definition.  Even the fact that the various contributors are submitting their own definitions speaks to the vagueness of the word, and how much of the discussion around neighborhood change, stabilization and increasing costs living has a tendency to end up as a semantic discussion of what “gentrification” means.

So I’d say “what is gentrification” is kind of the wrong question, or at least one I don’t have an answer for. I would ask what’s a good and equitable vision of neighborhoods and housing in New York, and how do we get there? ANHD’s vision is one in which New Yorkers of every neighborhood have good, safe, and affordable housing choices. I know that’s a bit of a generic answer - I’ll definitely expand Saturday on how we think we get there in the context of the discussion going on.
What's YOUR definition? Leave a comment and let us know!

Posted on February 19th, 2014

Sustaining Neighborhoods: Articles and Questions, Part II

In this post, we're interested in thinking more deeply about the role artists play in neighborhoods.
  • Are artists to blame for gentrification?
  • What specific challenges do artists encounter in seeking affordable living & working space?
  • How can artists respond to the challenges facing gentrifying neighborhoods?

Please share your thoughts, stories, and ideas by leaving a comment below.
Or, reply via Twitter and mention @LaundromatProj or @LaCasaAzulBooks.

Resources and Articles

Tell us what you think!

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Hashtag: #sustainingneighborhoods

Remember to buy tickets to Sustaining Neighborhoods: Artists Moving Beyond Gentrification. Only a few tickets left!

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