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There’s a certain spot in the road driving south down Washington street in downtown Durham where you reach the top of the hill and catch a glimpse of the ever-changing skyline. Buildings and landscapes that were visible just a couple of weeks ago are now obscured. The specific imagery associated with gentrification varies from location to location, yet some consistent markers remain: newly built cubed houses, at least one restaurant that serves acai bowls, microbreweries, yoga studios, and, of course, the ever popular Bird scooters. These amenities intentionally mark the bounds of the gentrified environment, specifically welcoming those with disposable income to enjoy their new pristine city.
Aesthetics are a politic
Every system of political and social thought is accompanied by a symbolic system, an iconography that expresses and visually promotes the values of the political project. And gentrification—or revitalization, or urban renewal, or “negro removal”—is no different. The slow creep of gray cubes towards east Durham is not only unsettling to me as a person of color living in a predominantly low income Black and latinx neighborhood, it also looks absurd and blatantly out of place. I recall a Black coworker and friend of mine telling me: “When you see the bright colored houses, you know those aren’t for us.” I believe she meant that not only in terms of affordability, but also in terms of safety.
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These physical changes to homes and neighborhoods are redefining public space on the terms of the elite. The new houses and apartment complexes physically tower over older, more modest homes as literal representations of high art, signaling a disruption of landscape and history. The neutral colors of the cubed houses, the large glass windows, hard square edges, and the newness of these aesthetic choices all imply that the surrounding existing structures are “inadequate,” “outdated,” and screaming to be replaced. Purging pre-existing architectures and their cultures becomes an inevitable vital step in the the project of revitalization because their continued presence can be seen as a hindrance for cities seeking to appeal to the tastes of newer, wealthier buyers. We know how it goes; wealthy folks move in and those who cannot afford or simply do not desire to make the necessary changes to their homes are priced out of the area.
Undergirding the inequities regarding who gets to live where is a belief in free market economics, that those who live in cube houses with brightly colored doors are able to do so because they earned it. These specific aesthetic choices are consistently reproduced under the sincerely held belief of the upper class that these choices represent the pinnacle of objectively good design. And who other than the wealthy truly understand fine art and design? The message from new residents and developers is, regardless of whether everyone can afford these homes, this is how everyone should want to live. The result is uniform homes in uniform neighborhoods. And anyone who contests these unquestionably beautiful design choices is just as disposable as the home that they occupy.
“When you see the bright colored houses, you know those aren’t for us.” I believe she meant that not only in terms of affordability but also in terms of safety.
Whatever elements that remain are carefully filtered through a predetermined value matrix of authenticity and bygone grandeur so as to be suitable for the staged environment. Consider the Liberty Warehouse Apartment complex in downtown Durham, a prime example of the gentrification aesthetic at work. The exterior brick wall of an old tobacco auction house is left as décor for a complex that houses predominantly upper class white transplants. The exterior is obviously aged but the specifics of the building’s history are left intentionally ambiguous, and therefore politically safe. It stops just shy of reminding new residents of who exactly preceded them.
The value of representation
While gentrification is undeniably reshaping landscapes in its own image across the country, diminishing and often erasing histories in the process, it’s important to recognize that uniformity in and of itself is not a core value of the aesthetics of gentrification. The core value is not the eradication of difference, but rather difference safely recontextualized. In other words, gentrification doesn’t announce itself as a project of white supremacy, but hides in another neoliberal value—equality through multiculturalism. Many white parents moving into gentrifying neighborhoods don’t want their kids to go to an all-white school because there’s value in being cultured—but of course, it is imperative that those students of color are the “good” kind. A surviving decades-old Mexican restaurant can stay because every new local needs to know where to find the authentic spots. I’ve started to call the selection and valuing process that underlies the gentrification aesthetic “curated tolerance,” which really should be understood as curation of “the other.”
Of course this curation doesn’t occur for the benefit of all inhabitants of a space but rather only for those who pay to create and live within their new vision. Those who qualify as “diverse” are valued in terms of how their presence benefits the image of an institution and the experiences of the white folks therein. The creation of a diverse city still places whiteness at the center by construing the presence of other cultures as little more than seasoning—light pepper, heavy salt.
This understanding of diversity exclusively in terms of curated representation is about as shallow as the brick facade on The Liberty Warehouse complex. Representation alone never requires any structural or foundational shifts. Within the aesthetics of gentrification, as within corporate spaces, inclusionary symbols are perceived as adequate salve to correct historical and present inequities. In fact, the presence of these representational elements are indispensable to newcomers’ ability to enjoy the new space. Vestigial cultural traces permit newcomers access without first having to wrestle with the economic and social violence affecting pre-existing communities. So leave the old graffiti on the wall outside the new coffee shop; it isn’t just trendy, it is essential to the success of the gentrification project.
The message from new residents and developers is, regardless of whether everyone can afford these homes, this is how everyone should want to live.
An aesthetic of curated tolerance hinges on the maintenance of an outward representation of a racially and economically diverse city. But in 2017, Legal Aid NC found that Durham County’s eviction rate was double that of the national and state rate of eviction. Therefore, in keeping with neoliberal values, proponents of redevelopment in Durham have had to propose a strategy that appears to mitigate rapid demographic changes—and only appears to. Enter affordable housing.
Affordable housing is a strategy of gentrification, not a cure
Mayor Steve Schewel proposed a $95 million dollar affordable housing bond referendum on 2019’s November ballots, the largest plan of its kind ever proposed in the country. The referendum passed, but as the influx of new residents shifts what qualifies as a median household income the plan doesn’t necessarily guarantee affordable housing for current residents. Mild reforms like the construction of new affordable units and inclusionary zoning in lieu of broad foundational reforms like rent control and greater protection for tenants’ unions do little to ameliorate the current housing crisis.
It’s even possible that Durham’s new affordable developments will ultimately end up serving techies moving into the city. Again, the argument about the benefit of affordable housing comes down to aesthetics and appearances, allowing officials and wealthy voters the chance to pay lip service to issues that largely do not affect them.
The core value is not the eradication of difference but rather difference safely recontextualized. In other words, gentrification doesn’t announce itself as a project of white supremacy but hides in another neoliberal value—equality through multiculturalism.
Ultimately, affordable housing initiatives amount to about as much as putting a Black Lives Matter sign in a yard, putting a liberal bumper sticker on a car, or being one of the first to frontier a sketchy side of town. These actions, often seen as beneficial declarations of solidarity, actually only excuse further inactivity. Shouts for more affordable housing become just another instance of neoliberal virtue signaling.
Although the construction of affordable housing units is discussed in generous financial consideration for those unable to afford the cost of rent, these developments never take into consideration the aesthetic preferences of the local residents that would move into these facilities. This is because within the aesthetics of gentrification, images and objects must remain tightly curated, and only certain people get to decide.
From the gallery to the block
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In fact, the people leading the curation of our urban neighborhoods share a great deal in common with the folks who have been guiding artistic and aesthetic preferences in the fine arts world. A recent study by Smithsonian Magazine found that 82 percent of art museums’ permanent collections consist of works by white artists, and 87 percent by men. The history of centering white male artists as the primary creators of fine art has synonymized whiteness with objectivity and neutrality. The ubiquity of white male artists within art institutions confirms and bolsters their status as “free” creative agents who are not influenced by their social, racial, and gender identities. It is their perspective—and theirs alone—that elucidates the world through a clear lens, unscathed by the pre-conditioned emotions, traumas, and histories. This is what enables them to decide what deserves to be preserved and what deserves to be jettisoned, often for an entire city.
It’s as if the white paint of the cubed house calls out to the white cube of the contemporary art museum. Both provide the perfect backdrop for solitary undisturbed contemplation of the environment—colorless, neutral—almost as if the choice of paint for a gallery or a home were innate. The neighborhood becomes an extension of the gallery space. Art objects by western contemporary artists are typically presented against white walls and illuminated by bright track lighting. These curatorial decisions prime the minimalist aesthetic of the new architectural designs.
It’s as if the white paint of the cubed house calls out to the white cube of the contemporary art museum.
In contrast, art from African, Native American and Asian cultures typically appear grouped closely together in smaller rooms with dark colored walls and dim lighting. Works from these cultures are literally ghettoized, housed in different floors and separate rooms of the museum.
Transferring these same curatorial tactics to the domain of urban planning, pre-existing communities are erased in the eyes of the gentrifier by way of never coming face-to-face with remaining communities outside of the newly-created environment. The concentration of sexy amenities and the sectioning out of other communities confirm a practice for new residents of “out of sight, out of mind.”
Understanding that gentrification is also a battle of aesthetics with implications for individual lives is a necessary reframing for people looking to preserve the cultural and iconographic integrity of their communities. Curated tolerance foregrounds the stark inequities that are presented as natural by connecting visual symbols to their ideological underpinning. This understanding helps us further map and examine our rapidly-changing surroundings. This building deserves to stay, but this one can go—the cherry-picking isn’t happenstance. The old brick wall in front of the new apartment building isn’t there for artifice, but as artifact of the past and the displaced.
Consider the cramped, dim projects built in the ‘70s and ‘80s compared to the bright modernist mixed-income housing units. No one has to directly tell you that you aren’t welcome when a picture’s worth a thousand words.
Amber Delgado is starting a collaborative project based on the contents of this essay also titled “Curated Tolerance.” This project will consist of a short podcast series, a zine related to gentrification, and an instagram account (@curatedtolerance) where people can submit examples of gentrification happening where they live. Amber is currently accepting submissions of photography and poetry related to gentrification for the zine until March 30, 2020. To submit, email your name, location, and your submission to firstname.lastname@example.org