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BUILT: Taking a Whack at Gentrification

Today we introduce a new series at NCN that will run on Fridays for about a month. BUILT explores the changing city in the US and the challenges that will affect housing, infrastructure, neighborhood cohesion, and equity in the coming years. BUILT is a series of research, installation, dialogue, interview, and performance events of varied scale, including the opportunity for public conversation offered at this blog.

In the coming years, the population of the US will continue to expand with increasing concentration in urban areas. There is no one plan for how that will happen. Where will we live? Will we be thoughtful about that? Can we imagine better cities, neighborhoods, and homes? Will we act to achieve that vision?

NCN is happy to provide a space for public discussion about how to shape the built environment for equitable, sustainable, and creative civic association. Of course, we think that a photograph is a fine way to get a conversation going. Photographs such as this one:


Several questions come to mind: How do we (and how should we) teach children ideologies of place? What does this image say about the “side effects” of gentrification? What perspectives on gentrification are excluded by this image? Does it point toward a better alternative?

BUILT is a performance/civic dialogue project and a collaboration of Northwesten University’s Theater Department & Portland, Oregon’s Sojourn Theatre, led by visiting artist Michael Rohd.

Photograph by R.J. Maccani.


BUILT: Taking a Whack at Gentrification


22 Responses

  1. Shade says

    As a political statement or a piece of street theatre, whacking a “gentrification pinata” in itself feels rather trite. The statement is already made before the activity happens.
    But the photo of a Child whacking the pinata to the smiling approval of the adults in the background is disturbing. Its like they are encouraging the child to address a community problem through aggression and violence. Does the child understand what is written on the pinata? Is the child “making a statement,” or is he being manipulated to make a statement? Is the child thinking “take THAT, gentrification!” or “I’m gettin’ me some CANDY?” (And what should fall out of a Gentrification Pinata?)

  2. mr says

    I’m interested in the decision to mix play and politics that someone made. Or didn’t make. I think so many moments of civic discoure happen on a daily basis without premeditation. Which i think, to a degree, is what this site is about, yeah? What gets documented, and/or framed, that contributes to a public consciousness without attention to the message being sent. As a provocation, the image seems to me a successfully loaded one. As an expression, or moment of communication, i wonder how its read…how do you read it?

  3. Kathleen says

    I definitely agree that the image is a disturbing one…even if the child does understand some of the implications of gentrification, what is the language that the adults used to explain it to him? As a 22 year old almost college graduate, I still don’t feel that I completely understand the all the implications of gentrification, so how can the idea be summed up into a pinata? I’m very curious about the context of the image and what was said before this action occurred. Was it inflammatory speeches? Reasoned dialogue? Was there discussion about how to bludgeon gentrification in the real world as well as metaphorically? The pinata almost looks like a person. Could the kind of mentality suggested by this photograph lead to other types of violence against real people?
    I understand the impulse though. With an issue as complicated and amorphous and hard to define as this, the urge to symbolically beat it to death is definitely tempting.

  4. Justin says

    I’m curious to know the context of this photo. Is it a public, artistic installation? Is the installation in a neighborhood being negatively affected by gentrification? Is this taking place after a town meeting?

    I’m with Kathleen on not fully comprehending the “implications of gentrification.” From this photo looking through the eyes of the child, I would assume that gentrification is a negative force that once beaten will reap rewards.

    I believe the opposing force in gentrification is the decay of the area being affected. If gentrification is overcome in the pictured community, what will happen? Will things remain the same? Is “the same” a good thing?

  5. Ehren says

    It is easy to see the limitations of this image. The words violence and indoctrination both come to mind. But it also brings to mind what I have been indoctrinated into: poor neighborhoods are called “bad,” rising property values is always good because we can then sell our houses for a profit, success is measured in personal wealth, and if you just work hard enough you can “escape” from your situation. All of these ideas were definitely a large part of my childhood, and without the physical action, I can remember quite a few adults in my life that encouraged me to metaphorically hit a pinata labelled “anti-development.” Indeed, if everyone were taught to have completely open minds about who development effects would gentrification be a problem? Maybe there are better ways to teach children a critical consciousness than symbolic violence, but maybe there are more harmful, more indoctrinating, more insidious, and more subtle forms of symbolic violence happening in homes, schools, and birthday parties every day.

  6. Kimberly says

    Well the one thing missing from the photograph is the progress, or perceived progress that comes with Gentrification. Gentrification most often stems from a perceived idea that the neighborhood in question is in need of revitalization and the best way to accomplish this are tax breaks for businesses and in some cases, tax credits for home buyers.

    Of course what this does is incite (can I use that word?) property owners to sell property at ridiculously low rates, displacing renters, and replacing them with, usually, young, urban, hip professionals, who have the cash flow to “improve” their home, thereby improving the neighborhood. This has the desired effect of increasing the visibility of a neighborhood, increasing the housing prices, and the neighborhood changes.

    Today’s Gentrification is in the urban centers, where people of color have primarily made their homes, because of low rents and ease of finding work. The “white flight” to the suburbs of the seventies, is being replaced by this “white rush” on the inner cities, as more and more people are enticed by what seems to be the trendy thing to do.

    The neighborhoods in Portland that have sought to balance revitilization with keeping the neighborhoods integrated, are looking at the mixed housing model that includes affordable housing, high end housing and median income housing all in the same development. The problems inherent in this are that the affordable housing isn’t necessarily promoting home ownership, and while it does improve the livability of the area, nothing has been discussed about how community is built and whether or not this intentional model will eventually make a community.

  7. Rachel says

    I’m with some in that the piñata seems to be a very complicated one. he’s not beating something that says ‘white rush’ or disrespect, or poverty…which makes me wonder what does gentrification mean to most? as simple as the question sounds, what specifically would give you the urge to beat it? is it the fact that, in one area in atlanta that used to be considered the ‘bad part of town’ and most people drove around it if possible or locked their doors going through it but is now the up-and-coming ‘glenwood park’ with new developments, indie restaurants, book stores and neat t-shirts? is it the IDEA of being ignored until money comes along that is so angering? or the logistical displacement? is it ‘the same’ that the group in the photo wants or is it respect?

  8. Greer says

    What is interesting to me is the idea of pinata – if you break this open you will get a reward. When I was young I never felt an hostility toward the object I was breaking (I feel like I remember pinata’s as colorful balls, donkeys, sombreros). I never felt as if I had to attack the object, that the object was in some form bad (although what does that say if a child is wacking at a sombrero?). I was always focused on what was inside – we have to crack it to get the candy. Maybe this is saying we have to crack open gentrification if we want to see any results – perhaps symbollically it is attempting to get us to engage in a dialogue. What is behind gentrification? What is it trying to do? Maybe we need to “crack open” gentrification and see what it’s all about before we can do anything positive. I don’t know if this is acheived at all but I think it’s something to consider.

  9. Nikki says

    i’m currently in a creative drama class that is exploring various BUILT questions, one of which is raised in the article: How do we (and how should we) teach children ideologies of place? we will tackle big questions like this one through a series of workshops with 4th, 5th, and 6th graders. instead of focusing on loftier, pedagogical questions about the difference between space and place, we plan on asking, what makes this space YOUR space? i’m also interested in questioning, if not you, who does this space belong to? why? who decides who “owns” this space? i am curious about youth perceptions of power and space because my guess is that they would be more astute than adult perceptions (who have already, in multiple ways, been tainted by the power structures that make up a space).

  10. Harry says

    I would be interested to find out the context of this photograph– where was is taken? (i.e. school party) as well as what geographic location?

  11. Robin says

    first of all, i’d like to point out the man lying on the floor gazing up at the kid with the bat. his relaxed pose seems to say, “this goes on all the time, we try and take a crack at these hard issues, and we never really bust it open and (as greer said) reep the rewards from inside.” but, i wonder, and maybe its because i’ve been thinking about pandora recently: what IS inside that pinata? it could be something sweet, staying in your neighborhood, reversing rising property taxes. OR, smashing that pinata could lead to a heap of unimaginable troubles. or is gentrification already the representative of the demons unleashd by pandora, or the property shark/neighborhood “betterer” (whatever that word might be)? so, will we just continue to smash things until something good comes out of it? what are we looking for? or are we satisfied with conducting these violent abstractions instead of working towards the real betterment of all people?

  12. alison says

    This image makes my mind want to personify gentrification into a big monster – animate it into something that is going to come alive and tear through cities like King Kong. If gentrification is created into a visible, living things (as done by the pinata) then it is an easy fix, right? Just smash it and it will die and go away. Done. It is true that this image does lack an alternative to this violent and uncompromising solution…….how else could you get the candy from pinata?

  13. mr says

    so ,here’s a question i have- what is the vocabulary for urban change that isn’t the word “gentrification”, which, if i’m correct, has a perjorative ring to it, yes? Change? Development? Progress…? Lots of reasons these are the wrong words, but, what does someone who sees much of what you have mentioned above not as a negative, call the phenomenom itself…?

  14. Rachel says

    just thought this might be useful,’s definition:

    the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper- or middle-income families or individuals, thus improving property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses.

  15. Courtney says

    just a couple of loosely related thoughts:
    i think the positive term is urban renewal…and i think it’s a function of a living, breathing, thriving city, the way the body regenerates cells.

    the average american family moves house every five years. we are changing jobs and careers more frequently than our parents did, and exponentially more than their parents did. migration is unavoidable.

    is gentrification the problem? is it just symptomatic of our real problems: race and class?

  16. Ehren says

    The problem is that the average american family also makes around $60,000 (according to the 2000 US census). People making $60,000 a year have the freedom to move every 5 years, and aren’t the ones that gentrification effects the most. Gentrification effects the 13 million families living on $25,000 or less per year. 3 million of those are living on under $10,000. (According to the 2006 American Community Survey). Those families can’t move every five years. Those families can’t afford to just go somewhere else when other people move in. Migration is very avoidable if you’re not make $60,000 a year.

  17. Lucaites says

    According to the most recent census reports, the real median income for a household in the U.S. is 48,201 (2006). I’m not sure how this effects Ehren’s argument, but if the amount was 60,000 in 2000 (I couldn’t find that number) we also have to factor in an inflationary effect that would mean that there might be a bit more impact on “middle income” families than the claims imply. That said, the larger point that the lower you are on the scale the more seriously you get hurt would seem only to be accented more.

  18. mr says

    urban renewal
    that’s the term
    i think that ‘migration’, on an individual level is of course avoidable, but
    ‘migration’ as a phenomenon is unavoidable, because indeed many people move for jobs
    and that phenomenon, which will not change, is i think linked to what ehren is talking about…
    those that get left behind as areas change…those who cannot move…
    the two conditions, both survival issues, are connected…

  19. Kenisha says

    Looking at the picture of the child whacking the gentrification piñata, I could not help but think how this photograph is such a powerful political statement. It combines play and politics, which makes the photograph dynamic and complex. I do not see the child whacking the piñata as an approval to be aggressive or to be violent, but I see it as the child taking an action to prevent gentrification. The child whacking the piñata is essentially a metaphor or a symbol. The act of whacking is the symbol of “taking an action” to either prevent or stop gentrification. The adults in the background are trying to teach the child that in order to stop injustices, a child has to make a change.

  20. Josh says

    The last few comments got me thinking about a bit of a devil’s advocate argument…I feel like we are tempted (and this came up in rehearsal some the other day) to give added weight to the arguments/issues of those we see as disenfranchised/downtrodden/victimized etc…This is in no way a bad thing, but it is also not the complete picture. If the average american family does in fact make 60,000, or whatever, then it seems like more people are in a position to move and migrate…not all, but more, and definitely some…and that seems to lend credence to the ideas of urban renewel (a more positive, necessary sounding term, esp. the way Courtney described it above) than the more pejorative sounding gentrification that seems to be put forth in the picture or in the performances that were made in rehearsal the other night…Its definitely a tricky issue that goes both ways and that is hard to get a handle on, but I’ve been thinking about the arguments that we tend to exclude by focusing on those who resist the idea of gentrification…if they are a minority (in the less of them in the world sense, not in the racial or linguistically charged sense) both in the world and perhaps in our audience, does that change our responsibility in representing the arguments?

  21. Kathleen says

    I think Ehren brought up a good point in that even in making these arguments, we need to realize that we are speaking from our own experience without the ability to truly understand how this issue affects those with backgrounds different than ours. And it makes me wonder if the word gentrification can even be used without connecting it to those other underlying issues of bias in our society. What I’m starting to like about this image is the idea that this gentrification pinata has all kinds of other crazy issues inside it that are going to come busting out as soon as that kid hits it hard enough.

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