‘Whose block is it, anyway?’ An introduction into Ark Republic’s major collaborative project

9 mins read

Brooklyn, Bronx, Austin, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Newark, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Oakland, Houston, and Philadelphia—are just some of the cities around the country experiencing dramatic shifts in its landscape. The phenomenon is best defined as gentrification.

While some describe it as a welcoming renewal of eroding urban terrains, others see it as a hostile takeover. Urban geographer, Tom Slater, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, describes gentrification as “the spatial expression of economic inequality.” On the other hand, Brooklynite award-winning filmmaking icon, Spike Lee, termed it as “the motherfucking Christopher Columbus syndrome.” For urban planner, Stacy Sutton, she says it often gets oversimplified.

This is why we asked, “Whose block is it, anyway?” For the next 18 days, Ark Republic’s fourth Major Collaborative Project (MCP) narrates and explores a series of stories that dig deep into the direct and indirect impact of gentrification in over 15 cities or municipalities.

We start the series with the personal stories of the editors, Rolanda Spencer, Gilmarie Brioso and Kaia Shivers—all of whom grew up in areas currently going through gentrification.

While Spencer looks at how Black Los Angelenos participated in a mass exodus due to growing violence in the inner city and a desire to situate themselves in the middle-class, Gilmarie Briso tells a story of her shifting perspective as a girl growing up in the Bronx to an adult finding value in a borough where newcomers swarm in. Using a cross-city comparison, Shivers reflects on consecutively living in three major cities—Newark, Los Angeles and Atlanta—all engaged in some form of gentrification.

On our first day, with a lot of help from the collective, Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, we borrow their interactive maps and zines to provide visual data on dispossessions in California and New York, while including the resistance movements and voices against displacement of hundreds of thousands of residents. 

On October 2, in a photo story by Nina D’Alessandro, she walks her audience through the East Village in Manhattan. Capturing both the renovations obstructing New York City’s history, as well as, the real-life moments of residents and activists, D’Alessandro disrupts the notion that the people in the City are replaceable. 

With Manhattan as the backdrop, illustrator, Matthew Gamble who inks, “Da Gambling Man” comic series for Ark Republic, draws a humorous, yet sobering engagement of former Spanish Harlem residents craving a hyperlocal, Latinx restaurant, but come across a hipster.

To provide a different perspective, on October 3, Chase Matthews, Ark Republic’s apprentice and budding sportscaster, looks at how professional sports industries play a part in gentrification. For his first podcast, he looks at how sports arenas, and in particular in Inglewood and his hometown of Brooklyn, reconstructed the economic and social milieu of areas, along with seeing a shift in populations. Later in the series, he breaks down how high-profile players, when drafted, widely contribute to the economic transformation of cities where they play for a franchise team.

Also on October 3, looking at New Jersey is Jacquetta Farrar. With her story, “Newark vs ‘Nork’ … Whose block is it anyway?” she dives into the history of Black and brown ownership in Newark, New Jersey. In this piece, Farrar wonders if the question is not if the city is undergoing gentrification, but where do the changes leave opportunity, growth and inclusion for native Newarkers.

On the other side of Newark Bay and Upper Bay, Sabeena Singhani’s short documentary, “Them,” highlights Bushwick women who took back control of their communities through their businesses on October 4.

The next day, October 5, we stay nearby Singhani’s site of work to meet the Golten Marine Company mechanics in Micah B. Rubin’s, “Brooklyn Machine Shop.” As they work their last days in Brooklyn’s last marine’s machine shop, witness heartbreak and share the memories of employees who gave anywhere from 15 to 50 years in service before being let go.

Traveling back to the west coast, also on October 5, Shivers reports on Oakland as a site of artistry and activism; however, local artists fight for a space in highly gentrified commercial districts like Jack London Square. Although the waterfront is named after a prolific writer and activist who lived in the area, most artists cannot set up shop on the waterfront.

Moving our exploration to Wilmington, North Carolina, on October 6, Emmanual Lloyd and Dalvante Howard provide video coverage on how the coastal city’s history of racism contributed to the displacement of low-income residents in the wake of the devastation of Hurricane Florence in 2018.

Following, we make a necessary pit stop in the nation’s capital, Washington DC, on October 7. Found to be the most gentrified city in the world, Yanni Wright looks the fight by Black Washingtonians to remain in communities they cultivated for generations. From the lens of the DC Native Movement and a family, four-generations deep, Wright explores how residents participate in having a say in the city’s redevelopments and social reconstructions.

While peering into shifting landscapes, we had to include citygoers who traverse the terrain daily as a critical source of income. That is why the 48-hour-drive with Jeff Tuggle on October 8, gave us access and a lens showing the intricate changes in the city. A Lyft cabbie and Atlantan who grew up in East Point, Ark Republic uses Nollywood-style, on-location filming, to document how Tuggle goes through different neighborhoods while explaining how the city’s reputation of being a “Black Mecca” is more of an aspiration than reality. From the Old 4th Ward to the Bluff, he details the rapid development that often excludes Blacks who built the southern metropolis still controlled by whites.

Next, on October 9, in search of those who navigate the rough waters of gentrification, Shivers features two towns with the same name; however with two different histories. Africatown in Mobile, Alabama was created by Africans brought illegally on the last slave ship, the Clotilda, to the United States, while Africatown in Seattle sprung up to support culturally and economically, the dwindling population of Blacks in the northwest metropolis. Both fight and face developers attempting to extract parcels of land connected to critical moments in American history,

With Inglewood as the new home for the Los Angeles Rams, the construction of its stadium flipped a fairly low-to-middle class Black and Brown community overnight. As well, on October 9, Ark Republic highlights three Black businesses—LA Create Space, Sip and Sonder, and Mama’s Sunshine Treasures—owned by young, optimistic entrepreneurs who speak on how they maintain their enterprises as residential and commercial property shift the community members they service.

To continue her expose on Manhattan, Nina D’Alessandro’s think piece, on October 10, another addition to Ark Republic’s MCP, reflects on the new development plans in store for Astor Place. While chronicling the area’s changes since the 1970s, D’Alessandro highlights the similarities she finds with the South Street Seaport’s latest renovation.

Again, on October 10, providing more comic relief, Matthew Gamble resumes how he captures the uncomfortable moments when old and new Manhattan communities collide in another satirical six-panel comic strip.

Furthering the narrative of DC, on October 11, creative couple, Johnny and Crystal Brooks deliver a powerful story of a city trying to hold onto its culture and identity in the midst of rising property values, taxes and the influx of non-native residents. Through words and pictures, “A tale of two DCs” gives viewers a glimpse of the Capital’s rich history and contributions from its native communities.

Directing the focus back to the Middle-Atlantic, Duane Reed, who owned a barbershop for seven years in downtown Newark, New Jersey tells a story through photos and words on October 12. He narrates how locally-owned salons and barbershops fight against displacement. While some still navigate the terrain, others shutter their businesses. Nonetheless, their perspectives offer a nuanced lens into how a city just a 20-minute drive to Manhattan, caters to corporations building franchise stores and a mostly white, incoming population.

JKD0WH Brooklyn, United States. 22nd July, 2017. More than a hundred people gathered at the corner of St Marks Place & Nostrand Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn to protest gentrification and cultural appropriation on the part of a new restaurant called Summerhill. Summerhill’s owner had declared that bullet holes in one wall were authentic, which many in the community found to be in poor taste. Speaker after speaker described life in Crown Heights as being far more than just the sum total of crime statistics & headlines Credit: Andy Katz/Pacific Press/Alamy Live News

Going back to Atlanta, on October 13, urban planner and professor, Nmadili Okuwamuaba, tells of her time spent at town halls in the early 2000s, with residents pushing back against encroaching developers. As she saw older Black citizens and low-wage earning community members gradually get priced out, she decided to move to her father’s home country, Nigeria. While there, she saw another type of displacement tied to ethnic clashes.

For the same day, October 13, Wanda Blake gives a chef’s story of growing up in San Francisco. Her audio story on witnessing massive changes in the Bay is really a love letter to the city while coming into adulthood in the 60’s. Blake pays homage to the mom-and-pop shops, familiar faces and vibrant communities in a city overhauled by gentrification that drove many minority-owned, small businesses out of the only home they’ve ever known.

Pausing in the midst of heavy stories, on October 14, Brioso adds creative writing to pepper and refresh Ark Republic’s MCP with “Bronx Poems,” a celebration of her native borough where she explores Bronx’s physical changes through time: from Bronx night-time fun to what is loved about the borough and more.

Adding to creative works on October 14, is Herman Spencer’s, the “G Code,” a poetic trip through gentrified Chicago. This piece gives voice to the pain and resistance of communities of color that are becoming extinct in a city that once boasted thriving Black neighborhoods.

Next, on October 15, Rolanda Spencer contributes to the MCP with a profile of lifelong, New Orleans resident, Janice Lucas, who is currently embroiled in the fight of her life. While New Orleans, in the middle of aggressive, post-Hurricane Katrina gentrification efforts, Lucas’ love offering to New Marigny, a community parenting center, may never see the light of day.

In an additional story, and on the same day, October 15, Rolanda covers the experiences of three generations of New Orleans’ women who literally fared the storms of the Crescent City just like their homegirl, Janice Lucas. Now, they deal with the social, political and economic calamity caused by the 2005 category 5 storm, Hurricane Katrina.

When Los Angeles travel expert, Matito Ki’Abayomi ventured down the Crenshaw Corridor to see how the new metro rail faired for local Black businesses, he discovered that the once heartbeat of the commercial district was left barely standing. His discovery changed the direction of his lens as he found out that the Crenshaw he once knew was becoming something else. On October 16, we will see what it became.

To add to more Los Angeles stories, on October 16, Shivers looks at two social enterprises in the area that are directly affected by gentrification—Nipsey Hussle’s joint venture with David Gross, Vector 90, and Jabari Jumaane, founder of African Firefighters in Benevolent Association known as the AFIBA Center, located across the street from Hussle’s untimely death. While one thrives through opportunity zone backing, the other currently faces eviction by an organization Hussle promoted when he was alive.

Ending Ark Republic’s online series, on October 17, Patrick Range McDonald offers investigative work on how the current Los Angeles mayor, Eric Garcetti, ushered in a corporate takeover of housing with questionable business tactics. Before and during Garcetti’s tenure as mayor, high rise and luxury building development exploded. Coinciding with this particular type of real estate boom were dramatic rent increases and record-number evictions in nearby communities. At the same time, the homeless population in Los Angeles rapidly multiplied. 

In McDonald’s detailed report—an investigation he did for Housing is a Human Right organization—provides the answer to how a Los Angeles billboard prominently displaying the phrase, “Gentrification Sucks,” is not a joke. It’s real in the City of Angels.

For our final piece, we go offline, but stay live with a free-and-open to the public, panel discussion on Friday, October 18 at the School of Visual Art, The Theater Room 102 F, 132 W. 21st Street (Between 6th & 7th Avenues), New York, NY 10010. Facilitated by TV commentator and political-pop culture critic, Lisa Durden. The panel consists of the following: Nadhege Ptah, Director of Paris Blues in Harlem; Iris Williams, realtor; Wayne Smith, former mayor of Irvington, NJ; La Shawn M. Paul, LCSW-R, ACSW, founder and lead licensed clinician social worker of Social Work Divand Dr. Dale Caldwell, executive director of FDU Rothman Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

With this deep dive, one of our important goals is to expand conversations and actions on the current state of our world. Furthermore, this multimedia, collaborative series  works to ensure that voices often silenced, are brought to the fore, and remain there. With us, we ask that you enjoy, discuss and share the storytelling of gentrification. This project was carved with our blood, sweat, bones and truth. As they say in New Orleans, yes indeed chère, yes indeed.

Rolanda, Gilmarie & Kaia

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