Not everybody in the new wave of urban development is backing down.

The trouble began with a Wes Anderson-themed crochet mural hung on the side of a building in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

If that sounds like the fabrication of an absurdist art prankster, it was not. It was, by all accounts, a sincere and well-intentioned decoration by prolific yarn-bomber London Kaye for the Bushwick Flea, an outdoor market set up in a parking lot in the rapidly gentrifying New York neighborhood.

The mural, which depicted the young hero of Anderson’s film Moonrise Kingdom holding hands with the creepy twins from The Shining, was installed overlooking the Bushwick Flea on an adjacent building. Unaccountably, it appears that neither the artist nor the market’s impresario, Rob Abner, asked the building owner’s permission to put the thing up.

The owner’s nephew, Will Giron, soon posted a complaint about the crochet mural on Facebook, alleging that Abner had been rude to him when confronted about the mural (a claim that Abner later denied). Giron’s post began with these lines, which resonated for many New Yorkers:

Gentrification has gotten to the point where every time I see a group of young white millennials in the hood my heart starts racing and a sense of anxiety starts falling over me.

When the story hit the local media, Abner said he didn’t think that the building’s owner would care, and emphasized that he had cleaned up the formerly trash-strewn lot. That did not stem the outrage. Before long, the crochet debacle, extensively reported on Gothamist, was being passed around New York as an egregious example of hipster cluelessness. (You can read a great, well-reported roundup of the ongoing saga on Hyperallergic.)

Abner said he would remove the mural, but last weekend, the market was briefly picketed by an anarchist group called the Brooklyn Solidarity Network, which later explained that they were speaking out against “the brutality represented by this crocheted artwork.” Police soon broke up the protest and issued a summons to one of the protesters.

Crochet and cereal, anger and anxiety

Clamor over the yarn mural was a milder manifestation of the same anger and frustration that recently boiled over in London at a shop called Cereal Killer. Located in the historically economically disadvantaged neighborhood of Shoreditch, Cereal Killer has become a hot spot for the young and affluent by selling bowls of Lucky Charms and the like for up to $6 a pop. The disconnect between people lining up to pay good money for junk cereal while neighborhood kids go hungry made the establishment a target first for skeptical media coverage and now, anti-gentrification protesters. Last weekend, a large group of people wearing pig masks and carrying torches attacked Cereal Killer, splashing red paint on the shop’s façade and blocking local streets.

London’s Cereal Killer Cafe (center, shown in September 2015) has been the focus of anti-gentrification protests. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

The reactions provoked by the whimsical crochet mural and the ironic cereal shop reflect deep underlying anger and anxiety about the influx of affluent residents and business owners changing neighborhoods in many of the world’s cities. The long and grievous history of segregation, colonization, and race-based redlining is the ever-present subtext to gentrification, and that’s only aggravated by the explicitly white, Anglo-Saxon aesthetic of much of prevailing “hipster” culture.

Lindsay Brown, a civic activist and designer based in Vancouver, B.C., wrote about how the bearded “lumberjack” hipsterism of that city negates the complex history of the region in an essay is called “When Hipsters Dream of the 1890s”:

Now that this 1890s lumberjack style has solidly entered the mainstream, I think it is fair to start asking a few questions. Even if you could, for yourself, somehow surgically remove the colonial pioneer aesthetics of that time from their origins, how can you guarantee that others will deem your efforts a success? What fantasy 1890s are you in, exactly? What if, inadvertently or not, you are helping to whitewash Canadian history, and what if lumberjack nostalgia functions to romanticize and legitimate the colonial system and economy we still live under in Canada, and particularly in B.C., with its ever-colonial resource extraction (exporting raw logs) and its nearly perpetual urban land rush?

In Bushwick last year, the developers of a new luxury residential building enthusiastically embraced the colonialist vibe with one of the most obtuse ad campaigns ever to be devised. The building, originally called Colony 1209, initially marketed itself this way, in copy preserved by Gothamist:

HOMESTEADING, BUSHWICK-STYLE. Here in bohemian Bushwick, Brooklyn, you'll find a group of like-minded settlers, mixing the customs of their original homeland with those of one of NYC's most historic neighborhoods to create art, community, and a new lifestyle.

The campaign caused an uproar, and the building is now known as 1209 DeKalb. The development’s current website touts the neighborhood this way:

BUSHWICK LIFESTYLE One of Brooklyn's most historic neighborhoods, Bushwick combines the best of the creative arts, diverse culture and fare to form an incredible community, just minutes away from Manhattan.

The pitch has changed, but the impact of the building on the neighborhood remains the same.

The backlash to the backlash

Not everybody in the new wave of urban development is ready to back down. An article this month in Philadelphia magazine, entitled “The Death of Gentrification Guilt,” discusses the controversy over a pop-up restaurant, Le Bok Fin, which opened atop a building that had once been a thriving public vocational school. (Philadelphia itself outraged many when its most recent cover image, accompanying a story about the city’s schools, failed to include any African American kids—although 52 percent of Philly’s public school students are black. The editor issued an apology.)

In the gentrification piece, Holly Otterbein discusses the way that many “New Philadelphians” reacted to a blog post critical of Le Bok Fin and what it represented:

[T]he post struck a nerve, and it, too, went viral. Only not because anti-gentrification zealots were taking to Facebook and Twitter. Instead, it was an incensed band of young, privileged urbanites, including many of my friends and neighbors, that broadcast far and wide the musings of this newly minted amateur blogger. The post sought to shame them, and when it comes to remaking the city in their own image, New Philadelphians will not be shamed.

And so the backlash to the backlash has asserted itself. In Shoreditch as well, the owners of Cereal Killer, and many surrounding new businesses in the neighborhood, are standing firm. “We’ve had immense support from the local community with many stating the actions of the protesters did not reflect them,” Cereal Killer’s Alan Keery told The Guardian (he and Gary Keery, his twin and co-owner, both sport luxuriant, even lumberjackish, beards).

Many small business owners in the Shoreditch neighborhood say they don’t see why their relatively modest endeavors are targeted in the building conflict over economic inequality.

“It was quite worrying and I’m disappointed they picked on an independent shop in the area and not the Winkworth [estate agents] that’s just opened up or the Pret [a Manger],” one Shoreditch shop owner told The Guardian.

But small businesses are often on the front lines in social unrest that stems from deeper, more systemic causes. That’s because they’re right there on the street, where the people are. You can see their faces.

In the dramatic rhetoric of the Brooklyn Solidarity Network:

Due to the callous destruction the gentrification process is wreaking on New York City, daily life today seems like a series of mini-skirmishes against an unrestrainable, omnipotent adversary. Usually this adversary is hidden in Australia, or in NYC's financial district, nestled away on the 45th floor of unapproachable towers that watch over us like peasants being ushered rapidly of a town. … Today, however, we found an adversary that needed to be confronted and, for once, not hidden in a glass tower.

Symbols of social forces

A banker or real estate broker might be able to maintain anonymity. Not a retail merchant. And so a crochet mural or a bowl of cereal or a rooftop restaurant becomes a symbol—not of artistic expression or entrepreneurship, but of what seems to many like terrifying forces of history and economics. Forces that will not stop until they remake the world in their own image, sweeping aside everything and everyone that came before.

But by directing rage about seismic economic and social forces at such puny targets, people who care about urban neighborhoods risk dissipating their energy and letting the parties who are truly responsible for displacement and disinvestment get off easy.

On the Newsworks site out of Philadelphia, Temple doctoral student Kristyn Stewart wrote a piece arguing that “Scapegoating Le Bok Fin Missed the Real Problem for Philly Schools”:

Le Bok Fin was just an overpriced, easy-to-attack symbol of the deep-seated issues of educational inequality, manufactured failure, gentrification, and the slow, painful privatization of our public school system. …

Let's put the blame where it's due—with our leaders in Philadelphia and Harrisburg who refuse to create a fair funding formula or acknowledge the systemic disinvestment at play, ultimately neglecting to create policy that serves their constituents.

That work is a lot less visible, and harder to do, than picketing a trendy restaurant or flea market. But then, no one said that building an equitable city would be easy.

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