Just glance through recent headlines and you’ll soon find stories on gentrification. From The New York Times debate to film director Spike Lee’s recent criticism, gentrification is a rising and contentious issue, particularly in urban spaces such as New York City. To better understand the process of gentrification, graduate student Diane Wong, Government, is examining how communities of color are affected and the various ways in which residents resist the shift.
Gentrification is a general term for when a neighborhood experiences an upward socioeconomic turn, usually by way of affluent people moving into a community. Rent and property values go up, new businesses move in, the culture and character change, and oftentimes, established residents are forced out and displaced.
Despite the rise in media coverage, gentrification is rarely discussed in her discipline, Wong says. New York City, for her, is an especially apt locale to research the process of gentrification, not only because so many neighborhoods—from Brooklyn to Harlem to Queens—are experiencing it today but also because Wong grew up as a witness to the city’s gentrification.
“The consequences of gentrification are familiar to many of my close friends and family members who have lived through the process,” says Wong. “It disproportionately affects immigrants and communities of color, and we need to talk about that. The conversations have centered on white gentrifiers.” Wong recently cofounded a multimedia resource and oral history archive called #TGTH: There Goes The Hood to highlight the voices of residents from across the country in their struggle against gentrification.
Wong was awarded a 2014 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to support her work. She has already conducted research on “insurgent politics,” which she describes as politics expressed in creative ways, often outside of traditional institutions. Specifically, she’s written on the process of mural painting and how it can be a form of everyday political action for marginalized communities.
Wong interviewed organizers at One Flushing, a Queens-based community organization that put up a mural titled “Flushing’s World Fair” at a local Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) station. The intention: Get the attention of political and MTA officials to clean up what was a trashed and completely run-down station.
Wong notes that murals such as “Flushing’s World Fair” oftentimes have political and social messages. Many of them focus on issues of community significance such as police brutality, incarceration, asthma, and displacement. She adds that the act of putting up a mural is frequently a form of political action for those involved.
“It disproportionately affects immigrants and communities of color, and we need to talk about that.”
“People of color have been systematically excluded from institutions and opportunities,” Wong says. “As a result, it has been difficult for many urban communities to participate fully or to have a voice. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that these communities are not political. It means that we need to broaden the scope of how we think and talk about politics.”
The process of putting up a mural is in itself collaborative and democratic, Wong explains. Neighborhood organizers need to find a location, recruit local youth and volunteers, come to agreement on the subject(s) of a mural, raise funding through community businesses and support, and paint it over the course of a couple weeks. Finally, an unveiling ceremony usually takes place, which brings the community together yet also raises awareness about the issue at hand.
Murals are related to Wong’s research on gentrification, as many of the communities that employ mural paintings are the same ones that are affected by gentrification. They are just one example of the many ways in which residents respond to their changing neighborhoods.
“Residents don’t just walk out of their neighborhoods,” Wong says. “There is push back and on-the-ground resistance. Even though residents may not have a lot of political capital, they often resist in ways that they can—hosting community forums, developing support groups, and in other ways that may not be outwardly observable, but still matter.”
Wong’s work fits into her larger research interests of urban race politics and youth activism. She aims to urge scholars to think about how politics is acted out at an everyday level and represent the stories of individuals often overlooked in the academic discipline.