A Conversation on Art, Activism, and Gentrification

A panel at Gallery 400 explores the intersection of art and gentrification.

By Lynda Lopez 

One of the first signifiers of gentrification in the eyes of many is the arrival of art galleries. It has become virtually impossible to think of gentrification without considering the role of art. Wanting to further explore these concepts, I went to “Streetopia: A conversation on art, activism, and gentrification,” a panel hosted at Gallery 400. Streetopia is the name of an anti-gentrification art fair held in San Francisco in 2012; the book by the same name features art from the fair. The panel featured a writer/artist behind Streetopia, members of Somos Logan Square, and a leader with Gozamos and Cultura in Pilsen.

Each of the panelists gave a brief presentation on their organization’s work. Alma Zamudio, a leader with Somos Logan Square, discussed the tenant organizing and civil disobediences the group has led to protest the luxury developments on Milwaukee Avenue. Ilene Palacios, touched on the displacement her organization Cultura in Pilsen faced this year. Due to rising rent, the organization was forced to leave its longtime home in Pilsen. Erick Lyle of Streetopia offered an overview of some of the challenges San Francisco faces with gentrification.

Once some of the context was set, the panelists started digging into some of the complexities of art and gentrification, particularly murals. While murals are innately political, they have often been co-opted by elected officials and developers. Alma Zamudio of Somos Logan Square gave the example of Alderman Danny Solis commissioning the murals along the stretch of 16th Street in Pilsen. The murals on 16th Street have a noticeable apolitical nature compared to ones seen in other parts of Pilsen, she says. In Logan Square, we can see some of the same apolitical nature of murals, such as the many seen on or near the Mega Mall façade (ex: Al Bundy in the parking lot). Apolitical murals become purely about aesthetics and about making a neighborhood safe for newcomers. When the 606 Trail was being completed, Zamudio says, there was also a struggle to have local artists make art along the ground-level walls, rather than international artists intended to elevate the Trail’s appeal to tourists. There is a clear connection between the beautification of neighborhoods through art and its branding for newcomers. “Developers are using modes of expressions that have historically been political for marketing purposes,” says Zamudio.

In addition to discussing some of the ways art has often been co-opted in gentrifying neighborhoods, panelists emphasized how art can also be inclusive and transformative. Zamudio particularly pushed back against the idea that we need to consider art as a separate entity from community. “All communities have art. It’s not a divorced topic from community. There is music, stories, murals,” she says. It’s more about considering how art is framed, what the art is displaying, and who’s it meant for. “As artists we need to consider what themes we are covering and who we are representing,” says Ilene Palacios of Cultura in Pilsen. In gentrifying neighborhoods, artists especially need to ask themselves these questions.

As they discussed this, I thought about how I had never considered myself an artsy person. I just never felt like traditional art spoke to me. I have recently started going to art exhibitions at Las Artelitas, a Latina-based arts collective in Little Village. Their latest show explores the methods of learning and education. Some of the art displayed includes zines on the lead crisis in CPS and a painting of what appears to be a mom and daughter holding glowing globes in their hands. All of the art has this feeling of resourcefulness, including materials I can find at home, such as what looks like a shoebox. I spoke to one of the artists about the exhibit and told her how I liked the space and that I felt more connected to it than most galleries. Something about the art feels more real to me, I told her. “It’s like it’s imperfect art,” she said to me. I wondered about that concept. Imperfect art. Perhaps it would be seen imperfect in the eyes of the mainstream art world. That’s what makes the art displayed there unique, that it veers outside the norm of what you expect in art shows.

A Remezcla article about the arts collective featured a quote that exemplifies this feeling:

“It’s the opposite of you know a Wicker Park, with all these galleries that are very commercialized spaces for art,” said Amara Martin. “It’s a community space, it’s a homey space, straight DIY, no pretension. People are looking for something more authentic and that’s what we’re trying to be.”

Going to Las Artellitas has made me think a lot about art-focused spaces and how they can be venues for the political and places that truly serve the community. Palacios touched upon the importance of Cultura in Pilsen as a gathering space for organizing. Groups like Organized Communities Against Deportations and Chicago Community and Workers’ Rights hosted their meetings at their old space. “We need spaces like this where people can gather for art and more,” Palacios says.

It’s clear that art spaces and art is a nuanced topic. Art spaces can be transformative and provide a vehicle for social change, but they can also be inaccessible and exclusive. Art is beautiful, but this beautification of neighborhoods through art adds to this appeal and consumption by outsiders. Artists are often allies to the anti-gentrification movement, but we should question when their voices become the central part of the story. Art is not innately a perpetrator of gentrification, but it is an intricately layered part of the story and we need to consider its impact and question our consumption.