Gentrification and housing have long been concerns of artist Martha Rosler, who tackled the trappings of the ‘creative class’ and the ways artists can be instrumental for the neoliberal restructuring of the city in a series of articles published under the titleCulture Class: Art, Creativity, Urbanism (2010). Since 2011 the artist has been dutifully documenting the storefronts of her changing neighbourhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Once predominantly an immigrant neighborhood, Greenpoint has been a site of continued gentrification by affluent young artists and professionals – pushing real estate prices up while luxury highrises populate the formerly industrial waterfront and city lofts mushroom next to neglected rowhouses. At Nagel Draxler in Berlin, the resulting photographic survey, Greenpoint New Fronts (2015) hangs on the gallery’s walls. Placed centre-room, meanwhile, vitrines containing concise photo reportage, Greenpoint Project, 2011 (2011), detail the information Rosler gathered by interviewing workers and small-shop owners – typically their names, origins and personal stories – alongside the large format prints. Most residents were happy to be photographed and to share their stories, though some, like a young Yemeni who works at a corner deli, declined, citing ‘the way things are now’.
The difference between the makeshift looks of Carmine’s Original Italian Pizza, which Carmine Notaro has owned for 30 years, and the carefully curated Instagram thread of the newly opened Le Fond French Restaurant couldn’t be more striking. In the exhibition’s ancillary text, which doubles as a press release, the artist tells us that unlike previous generations of shop owners, the well-off newcomers bring with them the rarefied, yet also generic environment of ‘spare décor’ and gritty minimalism, which gestures ‘toward a fetishized urban past (...) that retreats as they advance.’ It is hard not to feel sentimental about this rapidly receding working class cityscape, but Rosler portrays the like of young baristas with equal warmth.
Another work, the installation The Garden Spot of the World: Greenpoint, Brooklyn in Traffic, Transit and Flow, examines Greenpoint’s history through a documentary video and several environmental reports – made available for public viewing – detailing the severity of toxic hazards and manufacturing waste in the area. Blighted by the highest incidence of stomach cancer in the city of New York, and by an underground petroleum spill, Greenpoint also has a long record of community led struggles against polluters, all of which are often hidden from prospective real estate buyers by developers and agents.
A different iteration of the Greenpoint project, together with a selection of videos from Rosler’s project If You Lived Here … (1989), was also on show at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin as part of the exhibition The Housing Question, curated by Jesko Fezer, Nikolaus Hirsch, Wilfried Kuehn and Hila Peleg. The exhibition takes its name from a 1872 article by Frederick Engels written in the wake of a polemical discussion over the shortage of adequate housing available to workers in major industrial centres. For Engels the housing question was synonymous with the social question, impossible to solve without changing the relations of production between capital and workers. At present, with social security rebranded as ‘welfare’, and real estate speculation trumping all social concerns, the housing question has come back with a vengeance. The answer is unlikely to be found in either architecture or revolution, but likely a combination of ‘defensive architecture’ with what researcher Andrew Herscher calls ‘digital shelter’: an answer to the housing question that does away with housing altogether, instead forcing refugees, equipped with housing vouchers, ‘to compete for substandard housing with working class renters’ in the open market.
At the HKW, against the backdrop of global displacement, the Greenpoint project acquires a more sombre tone, as if foreshadowing what is still to come. Though Berlin has not yet experienced the degree of gentrification felt by London or Paris, similarities with Brooklyn abound. Since, in 2003, Berlin’s former mayor Klaus Wowereit coined the catchphrase ‘poor but sexy’, the City’s Senate has been aggressively attempting to monetize the cultural scene and pursue city branding initiatives as an antidote to divestment and withdrawal of public funding. Fake graffiti decorating the walls of the franchises whose arrival eradicated the same punk syncretism they subsequently emulate is now a common sight. And much like in Brooklyn, the divide between the ‘winners’ (hipsters, startup entrepreneurs, young creatives) and ‘losers’ (East Germans, bohemians, immigrants) of globalization keeps widening. Culture is the commodity that sells all other commodities, as a Situationist maxim goes – and that holds true today for both Brooklyn and Berlin.