Turf Wars: Race and Hipster Gentrification

•February 26, 2013 • Leave a Comment

As I am preparing notes for my class’ discussion of race, I am once again overwhelmed by the richness of the neighborhoods of Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn as local sites for exploring how race and racism are inflected into the built environments and how much our home turfs – be they lush and green or gritty concrete – are intimately tied into our sense of identity. I asked students to read a short piece from Colorlines that reflected on a billboard campaigned launched in Bed-Stuy at the beginning of the year that is bringing the graphic imagination to the politics of race on the faces of bus stops and large-scale street advertisement windows all around the neighborhood.

Black-White Wealth Disparities

The billboards note not only the persistence of systemic racism that is a hallmark of American society, but also brings forward the question of neighborhood change and its relationship to the politics of race and racism that have shaped the contours of America’s cities for the past century, and how it is tied to the evolutions of neighborhood formation and change. Race and gentrification have a rather uneasy relationship in Brooklyn (was well as many other cities). As the article notes:

It’s no accident that of all of New York City’s neighborhoods, the billboards have targeted this one. A historically black neighborhood, Bed-Stuy has become one of the most contested spaces in New York City. A 2012 study from the Fordham Institute found that Brooklyn is home to 25 of the country’s most rapidly gentrifying zip codes. That’s created a stark contrast between those in the neighborhood who have more upward social and economic mobility than others. Several high profile media accounts have recently noted Bed Stuy’s so-called “hip” transformation and “resurgence”, but the borough’s medium per capita income in 2009 was just $23,000, which was $10,000 below the national average.

Gentrification is not stranger to Brooklyn, and the racial and class patterns of displacement are all too predictable, yet the fight against neighborhood change is also taking an interesting form in other ways at the street-level, not just with new businesses, new rents, and new neighbors, but with bike parking. From the City Room blog of the NYTimes:

In a city where gentrification debates usually involve real estate, the bike corral has emerged as a curious symbol, one that conjures feelings of displacement in some and empowerment in others…Roger Malcolm, who has lived in Crown Heights for 12 years and is also a cyclist, scoffs at the idea of locking either of his two bicycles at the corral. Mr. Malcolm believes the bike corral, while it is public property, sends an implicit signal that it is only for patrons of Little Zelda. It is an example, he said, of how newcomers are “changing the neighborhood.

I’m thinking of bringing this piece into my class because I think it helps to draw out the difference between the saliency of race as an identity that is tied to place and the troublesome nature of racism as an aspect of what creates strong community ties around race. I’m not only curious as to whether or not my students think that the RiSE campaign is tackling racism in an effective way but also if you can have both a campaign against racism (that effects where people live) and a campaign for a resistance to particular, racial and class, changes in neighborhoods, as some of the residents of Crown Heights are trying to mobilize around the potential removal of the bike corral.

There is just something so interesting to me about looking at these street markers next to each other: Markings of continuity and change in the big city – the more things change, the more they stay the same?

Little Zelda, photo: NYTimes

Racial Disparities in NYPD Stop and Frisk


Fighting Gun Violence with Style in Newark

•February 18, 2013 • 2 Comments

It’s been far too long since Newark has graced the pages of this site despite its skyline gracing the banner of our homepage. Newark is a city that I adore and struggle with for so many reasons, and when I came across the city in the world of Fab.com – a site I often scan for a quick installment of design and eye candy in between getting some work done. When I saw guns and Newark there, well,  I was very intrigued.

Here’s the story: A jewelry maker has recently been acquiring illegal guns confiscated by the Newark Police Department – who amasses a ridiculous amount of guns and shell casings every year -melting them down, and transforming them in bangles (jewelry) complete with up to 8 diamonds infused into the metal, along with the word “Newark” imprinted on the bangle and the serial number of the gun the metal was melted down from. It is called the “Caliber Collection.” Portions of the proceeds from the bracelets – costing anywhere from $150-$1,275 – go to the Newark Gun Amnesty  and Buy-Back Program, operated by the city of Newark, that offers up $200 in exchange for illegal weapons. The jewelry sales enable the city to help get guns off the street by providing them with supplemental funding for appealing to illegal gun owners to get ride of their weapon, with the hope of eliminating the ‘senseless’ violence that is so often attributed to the nation’s third oldest city. “The result,” as the maker’s website states, ” is a series of pieces that embody the gun’s transformation from a destructive weapon to a powerful symbol of renewal.”

Steel Bangle with 1 Diamond, $350

To be sure, gun violence is a serious problem that threatens many lives in Newark as well as myriad other places around the world. Certainly raising money for the Gun Buy-Back program is a positive thing (although I cannot personally account for the relative long-term success or challenges of such a program). There are many civic, charitable, and non-profit programs working in Newark to combat gun violence, geared not only at getting guns off the streets, but providing education and public programming and activities that will attract the attention of predominately young Black men away from the streets. These organizations surely get their funding from a number of partner organizations at the local and national level as well as through their own marketing – often selling goods like clothing, accessories, music, art, etc. to raise money for their cause. It would seem that the “Caliber Collection” is working along the same lines with their idea. And it is certainly a good way of re-purposing such devices into less potentially fatal metallic forms (wonder where all the guns that get confiscated go anyway…back into the gun market? A holding cell at City Hall?).

Despite this I still pause. I hesitate to commend this effort on a number of levels that may or may not be fair to assert – but I will assert them here. The first is the transformation of Newark into an object, not only to be saved by those who would buy the bracelets, but also by the vary design: Is Newark’s gun violence an ornamental accoutrement? The inscription of the city and gun number on the band is meant to remind the bearer of the “transformed gun” of the efforts they (the consumer) are making to stop senseless gun violence in a place that is mostly likely somewhere they have passed by, as we all have, on the NJ Turnpike. I am sure that there are folks who own the bangles who do have a more regular relationship to the city, but the brand of feel-good liberalism that inscription and even the oval-shape of the bangles are meant to invoke make me think that the designer and purchasers of the bangles might not have spent enough time seriously contemplating all the various factors that contribute to creating an environment were so many illegal guns can be freely circulated and used fatally, nor the variety of approaches that many organizations (not only the Newark Police Department) are utilizing to address not only gun violence but the overall economic and social disinvestment that has plagued a city like Newark for close to four decades now. Can the struggles of a community or the friction of a fired gun be translated into a brass and diamond bracelet? As the designer notes:

The Caliber bracelet is shaped as an oval, not a circle. It’s shaped like the trigger cage of a gun, an area that, if you put your finger in and pull, could cause so much destruction. But in this case, when you buy a Caliber bracelet, you’re giving back to the gun buyback amnesty program…The side of the bangles and cuffs are hand-hammered, to show that it takes the hard work of members of a community in order to create the beautiful surface that you see on top of the bracelets.

The bracelets are packaged in a rendering of an evidence bag, [which] was this incredible visual for me—I never wanted to see a caliber bracelet packaged with pretty tissue paper and a bow. If you gave this bracelet as a gift, I wanted to make sure that the recipient understood the story of caliber and what it really represented. So on the front of our packaging, it talks about the meaning of the word caliber, and where the guns are from.

“Guns can now be used to make peace,” as the designer, quoting a customer, notes in a recent interview with Time Magazine. The seriousness should of course be conveyed, but I fail to see the difference between a “pretty bow” and 8 diamonds. Frills are frills.

This brings me around to the second reaction I had to this collection: Can illegality be remedied by aesthetics, by style and, if so, who can afford to transform a gun into a weapon of style, a symbol of piece? Much of my own discomfort with with program is accompanied by my general distaste for capitalist ventures, and particularly practices of consumption, that market the selling of products as a way to combat problems like cancer, gun violence, poverty in African. I am all for bringing whatever skills you have to a cause, because we are certainly in need of creative people who are willing to bring their experiences, insights, and love to places and people that have suffered from long-term neglect and invisibility from the majority of the nation, and Newark is unfortunately an example of this. I am all for raising money for good causes as well, but these are treacherous waters. While campaigns such as the Breast Cancer research funds “Pink” business represent quick ways of gathering a lot of cash for good causes, it seems to me that making progress takes a lot more than throwing money at temporary solutions. I’m sure the bracelet-gun buy-back approach will have an effect in Newark, but I wish it could be a little more discreet aesthetically – i.e. not advertising martyrdom for the inner-city – and perhaps also putting funds towards a variety of ventures in the city that approach gun violence from multiple angles. But then again, it might be just as important to call Newark by its name, and link the bracelets directly to the city’s cause.

I can’t help wondering if there is another way to raise money or to put one’s skills to work in transforming a community. I think about Glassroots in Newark, that works under the auspices of teaching youth (as well as the Newark community at large) the skills of glass-blowing and shaping – offering mentorship, after-school and summer programs, as well as a gallery where community members can come to purchase objects made by participants in the glass-blowing studios – with the belief that the experience of making objects and working with dangerous materials such as glass and fire will be more alluring that hanging out on the corner. Or I think about the BlackLight project or Sadie Nash, both programs near to my heart, who draw upon teaching artists and scholars to share their skills with youth in the Newark community with the intention of building a stronger city through sharing knowledge, creative/artistic skills, and leadership to young people, empowering them to critically and compassionately engage their communities and work for positive change. In terms of addressing gun violence specifically, Stop Shootin’ Inc. continues to be an exemplar of community outreach for the prevention of gun violence (founded by some of Newark’s very own).

From afar it might not be so easy to create something like a jewelry-making school or metal foundry in Newark – although the idea of setting up a shop where gunmetal is transformed into art or other infrastructural pieces sounds like it would appeal to many folks in Newark – so making bracelets might be the next best thing if you want to help raise money to support the city’s anti-violence programs. But does it have to come so heavy handed, and with diamonds to boot? There is nothing beautiful about gun violence, but that does not mean that re-purposing guns into something new cannot be an powerful way to engage in a conversation about what to do about eradicating gun violence. As a friend notes, “The fact that they are destroying actual weapons makes each piece seem much more significant than say, a Livestrong bracelet, etc. But do they need to be so expensive?,” to which another, metal-working/artist comrade replied, “I think it is a viable fundraising tool, I agree about the heightened significance of wearing a piece that was once a weapon. As for the cost, it is not a cheap or easy process to turn the metal from guns into metal for jewelry. The other perceivable advantage to the cost is that it makes raising a significant amount of money more of a reality.”

Must it call Newark by name and champion the cause of saving the city? Who can afford to combat gun violence in this way? Couldn’t they just write a check  for $1,275 directly to the Gun Buy-Back program? My intention is not to overly critical because Newark needs all the help it can get, but nevertheless there is something off-putting to me about the endeavor. I understand that these pieces may be incredibly valuable to people, perhaps those who have even had loved ones killed on the streets of Newark, however I wonder if there are better ways to address the issue of gun violence in such a way that does not make it commodified, branded, object of neoliberal pride in helping the inner-city. Nevertheless, the designer takes the issue of gun violence seriously. Here is one of their promotional videos, shot in the style of “The Wire.” What do you think?

News for Kids – The Presidential Inauguration

•January 22, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Share this with the young ones in your life, and watch out for future episodes!

Street Style: KGL (Kigali, Rwanda)

•December 10, 2012 • 1 Comment

Kicking it with Ama-G the Black and SamiLOVE at Ibisumizi Records, Kigali, Rwanda. 

What do you call your style? 

A.G.: It’s Ama-G Style. Just

S.L.: And SamiLOVE style. You know.


Ha.  Okay. Tell me, where is your favorite place in Kigali to find clothes? The best place? 

A.G. : On de street.

S.L.: Safik Boutique

A.G.: Mm. Yeah. Safik Boutique. Uh huh.

Where is it? Here in Nyamirambo?

S.L.: Yeah.

What’s your favorite piece of clothing?

S.L.: These. This. Soft window (pointing to her tights).

A.G.: This (holding up his glasses).

All glasses, or those glasses? 

A.G: All. NO. This one. (He takes the glasses off his face, and replaces them with another, small wire pair.)


Haha okay. How many glasses do you have? 

A.G.: Many.

Who is your fashion icon? Best dressed?

A.G.: DMX.

DMX? Seriously? He’s always wearing black.

A.G.: DMX.

S.L.: And for me, Rihanna.

Okay. Thanks!

A.G.: Sawa




More Ama-G Swag HERE


“Detropia”: A look at the city of the future

•October 8, 2012 • Leave a Comment

In my recent adventures about New York with a collaborator from omnivorous geographies, we decided to take in the new film by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, “Detropia.”

The first thing that struck us – as several reviewers have mentioned – is the beauty of the film. Images of Detroit as well as other US cities we consider ‘fallen’ to the ills of de-industrialization and the numerous social and economic dis-investments that come along with it, tend to always be striking: Emanating some form of beauty out of the ruins that is profoundly intimate, especially for Americans, yet cold and distant. The landscape is uncannily stirring because it feels so perfectly unreal while horribly familiar and mundane. The filmmakers work in this tradition while giving the motor city their own aesthetic: Deeply saturated hues of orange, yellow, and blue light linger on the screen just long enough to draw you in, but not exhaust your attention. There is something about the richness of the film’s scenic shots that transports you into the empty lots, freeway exchanges, and deteriorating buildings. The city pulls you in and expands around you, radiating its rather uneasy atmosphere.

We felt as if we were watching a painting but instead of standing in a room full of tourists, school kids, and docents on tour, we were lucky enough to see the film at the IFC, sitting in a small theater on what was more or less a leather love seat. A setting that is impeccably conducive to the atmosphere of this film.

I begin with the look and feel of the film because this is the bulk of its narrative structure. One of the most interesting things about this film is it silence: long-shots of the city, the stories of a few Detroiters the filmmakers followed, and a small collection of one to two-sentence factoids about the city’s history (historic decline). That is all. The film is moved by image and people, not by the artists or overly-didactic statistics about urban decline and decay. In this sense, Detroit ceases to be a trope of itself or fodder for the ‘creative class’ that seek to capitalize on the city’s hard times by piloting a project for turning the city into a zombie amusement park. Instead it urban tapestry, woven by image, personal saga, and operatic sound – another narrative subplot of the film – that sounds this city upon you.

“Detropia” is sincere in form and content. Tracking the stalwart pluck, love, disillusionment, and imaginings of several Detroiters – a union president, a teacher/blues bar owner, an urban blogger – refusing to settle upon a simple agenda of hope and despair but, in exchange, enters into the worlds of those that move through the city, remembering the good old days of ample factory work and union wages, thriving neighborhood life with people and music pouring out onto the streets, and musing about the city that used to be through the rummage of decaying urban architecture. We see through these characters how relationships to place forged through boom and bust times are never straightforward or easy to understand, but a complex intermingling of memory, economic struggle, and dreaming. Several of the main characters struggle themselves as amateur economists and social theorists in coming up with stories that will enable them to explain what they see around them and keep living in a city that feels like all but a memory haunting the future of Detroit. The filmmakers follow these Detroiters, letting them narrate, philosophize, and sigh, as viewers do, as they move simultaneously through a city they imagine and remember, and a reality that stubbornly refuses to match.

The film offers little comment on race, which I found  strange at first, considering that it is very difficult to tell the story of a city like Detroit solely through the perspective of economic boom and decline without mentioning how much the history of race in America intersects the story of de-industrialization and economic decline in cities like Detroit. But perhaps that is not on the minds of Detroiters in 2012, or at least the ones the filmmakers decided to engage. If the film is about the struggles of the middle class in Detroit, it seems to be a story told by mostly middle-aged men of color, with the occasional nod to working-class white men and, of course, the films’ young female urban archeologist and imaginative force, Chrystal. With no heavy-handed criticism – for the film is innovative and provocative on a number of levels, as I have indicated – I am a little dubious about the fact that economic decline is depicted in such particular terms: I’m left wondering about families at home and the other outlets and phenomenon that make a city run, that make its residents feel at home and alive in their city. This is much to ask of a feature-length film, and I’m not so much asking for it as much as I am noting these absences. My fear is that somehow audiences might take away that Detroit’s decline is the sole result of foreign outsourcing of jobs or the 2008 economic recession, and that would be just too simple of an explanation.

This is a film worth watching on the big screen and thinking about. It will make you want to go to Detroit. It might even make you go through your old record collection and give those old Motown tracks a good listen and begin to imagine the place that used to be. I would not be so bold as to assert, as one of the main Detoriters in the film does, that this is the direction America is heading in and that your city might be next, but it seems important to take the time to consider, as this film does, what might compel a Detroiter to deliver such a message to the rest of us.

“You Are Welcome”: First days in Kigali

•October 4, 2012 • 1 Comment

I heard the housekeeper singing in the kitchen, leapt out of my seat and sprinted down the hall. He stopped as soon as I passed through the doorway. “No!” I nearly shouted. Then, more calmly – “Please. Don‘t stop singing. Please sing the song. I would like to hear it.” Eddie, the 21-year-old caretaker who washes our shoes, prepares our meals, and makes our beds, just stared at me. Then he smiled. “Yes?” he said, with obvious confusion.  But I already knew Eddie did not speak any English and that my pleas were lost on him. Eddie was orphaned as a baby in 1994 and attended little school. He does not speak English or French. I rushed to find the house’s Kinyarwanda dictionary and tried, painstakingly, to repeat my request in the local language. “Please, music, can you make it?” is what I managed to compile. I couldn’t pronounce the words, but I pointed at them until I thought he understood. “Music?” he repeated. I nodded frantically and Eddie proudly sang “la la la la la!”. “No,” I insisted- “From Rwanda! Music from Rwanda?” “Oh no,” he answered me in English. “We do not have.”

I could have cried.

This is the same answer I have gotten from every Rwandan I have asked about music in Rwanda. In all three languages, I’ve been shut down. Whether I am asking where I can go in the city to see live music, or am asking someone if they personally know any popular or traditional Rwandan songs, I am turned away. “We don’t really have music in Rwanda, not really,” they all tell me. “You should go to Congo.”

Yet this is clearly not the case. The Rwandans are not the only people in human history to develop an entire culture and build a lasting civilization that includes no melodies or rhythms. And in pieces, in the madding moments where I am teased by a hum or a whisper that I cannot isolate or identify, I hear it. Eddie singing in the kitchen. The lilting voice of the teacher asking her students to stand in a line. In a pulsing coming from a house down the hill. In the wistful humming of a woman sitting in from of me on the bus. I have been chasing these leads, grasping hauntings and puffs of air. Nothing! I’ve got nothing. I’ve only been at it for 3 days, but already I’m worn.

I doubt I can articulate how consuming of experience it is to know that you cannot reach the information that is hiding right before your eyes until you figure out how to ask the right question. Knowing that your own alien and ignorant nature is preventing you from making a vitally human connection, and everything you reach for is withdrawn, at the moment of encounter, behind a veil of mist.

The hills in Kigali are misty in the mornings. The sun rises almost instantly. The night comes early. The moon has been full and bright since I arrived. There is a ring of blue light, around.

In der Freitagsnacht Langstrasse

•September 29, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Speaking German is not something I can do. Thank goodness the Swiss are the most omnilingual people on earth. If you don’t understand German, maybe you can try French, Italian, English? Arabic? You will hear it all, often in the context of a single conversation.

Zürich is a dreamy city, and also the most expensive place I have ever been. It made me long for the $8 beers in New York City. Not unlike New York City you situate yourself in Zurich in relation to two rivers that border the city center on the East (Limmat) and the West (Sihl). The transit system however, puts NYC to shame, and includes luxurious feeling river ferries that stop at various points along the east and west banks of the Limmat.

Across the Sihl, above the train tracks, is the neighborhood known as West Zurich. After growing tired of the flashy boulevard lined with Loius Vuitton and Burberry facades, I wandered that way along the river bank. After crossing the river, I first went the “wrong way”. This means you walk along a simple, quiet street that could be anywhere New Jersey. The antiquitous daunting  stone gives way to simple wood frame apartment buildings, gas stations, and empty lots. I stopped to watch a young man spray painting “Über Gang Club – Coming Soon” in neon orange  on the side of a wall. I asked him where I could sit and have a beer, and he said, confusingly, that he didn’t know. With that, I turned around and hopped a ubiquitous tram heading the other way.

Great luck and destiny brought me to a street corner that looked a lot more Williamsburg, and a lot less Newark, where I was drawn by nostalgia and already emerging lust for Americana to a purple neon-lit bar called “Chicago-Bar”. As I approached the doorway, I was discouraged by the lone, lonely looking man sitting at the bar and instead ducked into the tiny room behind it.


Chrigi’s Bar to save the day. 

The bartender/owner/host, Chrigi is a charmingly charismatic man with mischievous eyes. I joined the only other patron on the stools, pointed to the tap, and asked what it was. “Beer,” he said with a grin. Fair enough. I had a few “small” ones, as well as a couple delightful “house shots” that Chrigi served with great flair and hospitality. His drink menu is organized by human capacity, from the first page “drink this and drive home”, to the middle, “drink this and call a cab”, to the last page with a sentiment something like “drink this and you will die”.

Chrigi opened his bar 10 years ago, as commemorated by the assortment of international $10 notes taped to his ceiling, signed by adoring patrons. His family owns the bar, as well as the Chicago-Bar I narrowly missed and the 22 apartment units above. The rent in those apartments averages about 1000FR/ month, which I’m told is a very low rate for Zurich.

“It’s not a great area,” the Swiss gentlemen Matthias & Jan who sat beside me said. “Here, in Switzerland we would say these people are very low, very poor…Still,” Matthias qualified, “it is not like the US. Maybe there, you would not say that they are poor. But to us, yes.”

A handful of men and women came in and out of the bar, and Chrigi greeted each of them as friends. A woman left her drink at the bar, and Chrigi put it in the fridge for her inevitable return. Some sat alone, others with friends, but everyone, truly everyone, came to talk to Chrigi. He laughed, made shots, told jokes, and kept the music going on his electronic jukebox. I was at home almost instantly.

I asked Matthias to help me ask Chrigi a few questions about the place. He agreed, but when I asked the first question, “What is your favorite thing about the neighborhood?,” Matthias paused. “That is a very difficult question you are asking,” he said with narrowed eyes. “I don’t know what he can say. Here, people mostly stay where they are from. You don’t often get away from where you live. But I’ll try…” he said, and waved down Chrigi to translate my ignorant question into something that might make sense. Chrigi’s response?

“The chief surgeon, he is always coming here. He keeps coming back”.

I think this answers the question I meant to ask. If I make it back to Zürich one day, I will certainly go back to Chrigi’s Bar for the trademark hospitality, good feelings, and good friends that make this place feel like the place to be. Image