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JR's "Inside Out" Street Art Project Meets Brooklyn's Gentrification War

Know which leafy block to turn down off the numbered avenues of Brooklyn’s Park Slope, squint past the bright spots of sun and deep shadows dappling the ground late into a summer day, and you can puzzle them together — a series of portraits, “ghostly apparitions” as the New York Times called them — spanning the steps of front stoops of the brownstones lining a short span of Bergen Street.

This is an improbable venue for a public protest against the wildly expensive and potentially transformational real estate development several blocks north, let alone a global art sensation, yet the photos on Bergen Street manage to be part, nevertheless, of both. They’re intended as a demonstration of solidarity with immigrant shop owners, the subjects of the portraits, whose businesses, local residents fear, are in danger of displacement in the wake of theAtlantic Yards project, an effort to develop several blocks wedged between Park Slope and the adjacent neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Prospect Heights into a basketball arena surrounded by skyscraping office buildings and condo towers.

But the portraits have drawn more attention as a prominent local iteration of “Inside Out,” a worldwide participatory street art project orchestrated by JR, a seminonymous French photographer who rocketed to Banksy-level fame for his work, which began as a guerilla effort to bring portraits of marginalized suburban youth to the affluent streets of central Paris and grew to include pasting “supercolossal” photo portraits covering the roofs and walls of largely impoverished urban neighborhoods from China to Kenya to Brazil.

Earlier this year, JR, who only goes by his initials in order to avoid the consequences of producing technically illegal work, won a prize from the TED foundation (best known for its conferences hosting hit-or-miss talks from minor information age glitterati) earning him major mainstream recognition — and the ability to finance “Inside Out”. The scheme allows participants to upload images to the artist’s website, after which the project’s staff creates and sends them paste-able posters of their own. The art that’s been produced as part of the project is on a smaller scale than most of JR’s work — if more widespread and, occasionally, more impactful.

One place where that’s been true is Tunisia, where “Inside Out” prints were symbolically plastered over the omnipresent iconography of fallen dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. But even acting in lockstep with the uprising, participants did not escape suspicions over their motives for “imposing images” on Tunisians understandably protective of their newfound agency over the look and feel of their country. In places like Brooklyn, JR admits that the political uses of “Inside Out” portraits will probably be limited to much more limited skirmishes — but similarly complex issues surrounding the agency of those spoken for in the activists’ posters stalk the movement against Atlantic Yards.

The critics’ take on the redevelopment goes something like this: Atlantic Yards is a land-grab, a city- and state-subsidized corporate behemoth that has been allowed, through a radically expansive application of eminent domain, to displace working-class Brooklynites from their homes. Beyond its gluttonous consumption of funds from the ever-dwindling government pot and the forced evictions it entails, the development has been critiqued for being grotesquely out of scale with the surrounding neighborhoods’ streets, many of which are made up of lowrise blocks of brownstones.

Parts of this argument seem deceptive: much of Atlantic Yards will be built over train tracks, making displacement of residents minimal. The immediate neighborhood is neither as tight-knit or lowrise as Atlantic Yards’ opponents suggest: its apex, where the arena will be located, will face the vast, open intersection of two wide commercial streets, Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues, which is already home to the busy Atlantic Terminal shopping complex (built by Bruce Ratner, the same developer who is spearheading Atlantic Yards) and the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower (now known as One Hanson Place), which has stood at the corner since 1927 and was, until recently, Brooklyn’s tallest building.

This summer’s reception of a documentary film about the Atlantic Yards fight, Battle for Brooklyn (trailer below), serves as a useful microcosm of the debate and helps illustrate some of its broader contours. The film centers on Daniel Goldstein, lone holdout in a condo building designated for seizure in Atlantic Yards’ eminent domain plan. That focus alone points it in the direction of something that’s less an overview of the contours of the battle than a weapon deployed by the anti-development activists.

The film’s review in Dissent magazine casts a less sympathetic glance at the project’s opposition. Unimpeachably leftist, Dissent has been no admirer of the cozy relationship between developers and local government that has characterized the development process at Atlantic Yards; in 2008, it called the saga of its creation an “epic tale of corruption, cronyism, and obeisance to private interest”. And that was when starchitect Frank Gehry was involved, furnishing designs that gave Atlantic Yards some claim to aesthetic merit (Gehry’s plans have since been value-engineered out of the project).

But as Norman Oder, Dissent‘s reviewer and author of a blog critical of Atlantic Yards wrote of Battle for Brooklyn, “[t]he David-and-Goliath portrait” of Goldstein crusading against the developers could “be compelling, but it avoids some gray areas, and sometimes Goldstein’s personal story displaces needed context.” One particular point it misses: Ratner’s “willingness to challenge gentrified Brooklyn neighborhoods, relying on working-class proxies of color”. In other words, it’s possible to see the real battle for Brooklyn as a contest between wealthy gentrifiers and powerful developers, in which the working class — the interests of which are claimed by both — are merely pawns of both sides.

It’s true that Ratner’s partnership with the city government, and their joint efforts to whip up local enthusiasm for the project, can read as cynical exploitation. But it’s not inconceivable to many Brooklynites that the developer might be more responsive to the cultural and economic concerns of most of the rest of the borough than the project’s detractors. Atlantic Yards has been scaled down, partly as a consequence of its opponents’ activism, and many of its initial promises will never come to fruition. Still, the project’s arena is projected to create many jobs, and they will largely go to low income borough residents. Many are also bigger pro sports fans than the creative class professionals who have taken over nearby blocks.

This might all be spotty conjecture if Atlantic Yards’ formula weren’t one Ratner had deployed for the benefit of Brooklyn’s low income residents before. The Atlantic Terminal mall is a mecca of low-cost retail options for borough residents who live outside the picturesque brownstone belt. And on Court Street, the ragged edge of tony Brooklyn Heights, Ratner built a modern cinema that caters to wide audience, not just the monied sophisticates who live nearby. It’s become a popular destination for many Brooklynites, ensuring the surrounding streets remain a fairly diverse cross-section of borough residents, rather than the exclusive preserve of the wealthy.

>It’s clear Brooklynites have a genuine basis to believe that Ratner’s development won’t be a blight on the borough (though his critics do make several effective points: the national chains with which Ratner stocks his projects are far from the most desirable form of investment for borough residents, and it would be naïve to claim that adjacent businesses have no reason to fear their effects). At the same time, while grounds to distrust the solidaristic overtures of his detractors are less readily apparent, there are clear reasons to suggest they are as culpable as Ratner for hijacking anti-gentrification protest politics for selfish ends.

Cash, for one, has made many once seemingly earnest concerns disappear: the “suffering victims” of the eminent domain fight could just as easily be portrayed as extortionists after many walked away with millions in hush money. And, as Oder points out, “eminent domain makes strange bedfellows” — much of the fight against the development, as well as the making of Battle for Brooklyn, was funded by libertarian activists who would be Ratner’s biggest supporters if not for the state subsidies he’s received.

It’s also not difficult to believe that the brownstone Brooklyn aesthetic the activists are transparently fighting to save — and its skyrocketing property values — may be many locals’ most potent motivator. The posters on Bergen Street, while verbalized as protest, also landed this otherwise average Park Slope block on the international art (and, by extension, real estate) map. At the least, the activists’ focus is inconsistent: unlike Goldstein, the individuals depicted on Bergen Street’s prints do not live or work in the area threatened by Atlantic Yards’ eminent domain order. The claim that they will be upended by rising costs caused by the project’s impact on local prices ignores the effect on them of the high income residents currently inundating western Park Slope.

The pressure newcomers have placed on prices is as much a byproduct of capitalist greed as any megadevelopment — and it has just as much power to reconfigure geographies of race, class, and wealth. It’s a process that has been at its most forceful in the quaint pockets of Brooklyn that have remained, as the anti-development activists would have the streets around Atlantic Yards be, free from the proximity of Ratner’s often behemoth projects. Little wonder that, in such places, gentrifiers’ pretensions to shared “community” with the neighbors they are rapidly displacing often ring as hollow as Ratner’s political song-and-dance routine.

The consequence is that no one side of the Atlantic Yards fight has had a monopoly on the best (or worst) interests of Brooklyn’s working poor. The multiple passions — and perspectives — of the struggle over the development strongly imply, at the very least, that the forces bringing change to Brooklyn are more numerous, and less clear, than any group dedicated to a single one might suggest.

“The project is a mirror of society,” JR said in response to the different uses to which “Inside Out” had been put in Tunisia and Park Slope. On one level, he was conceding that the local preoccupations of the Brooklynites participating in his project are necessarily less world-historical than Middle Eastern revolutionaries’. But on another, his statement can be taken to mean that participants’ engagement with “Inside Out” is necessarily indicative of local social realities — in ways intended or otherwise. After all, the gaps in Bergen Street’s portraits, split by the stairways they ascend, are their most striking feature — transmuting them from the viral agitprop they were meant to be and making them, instead, something strangely reflective of the borough’s multiple, torn and fractured faces.

(From UrbanPhoto. Follow Szabla on Twitter.)

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