It is becoming more and more difficult to find real public space in cities. The competitive economic processes and social restructuring builds spaces that are monitored or turned into shopping districts or office buildings. Social housings, space for trial and community building seems to have lost its priority on the political agenda. These developments of displacement and the redefinition of space are often summarized under the term gentrification. The metropolises around the globe start to look alike consisting of a central business district and moving the residential parts of the city to the outskirts, leaving the central parts to the economic wealthy and businesses.
The question of what kind of a city we want to live in cannot be separated from that of what kind of social connections, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values we desire. In a lot of social movements, like Stuttgart 21 in Germany, the indignados in Spain, Occupy Wallstreet in New York City or the protests against big corporations in the San Francisco Bay Area, there is a big demand of citizens to get an active right to shape the processes of urbanization in the city. How does a right to the city look like in the 21st century?
Even though Munich might be internationally better known for its current Oktoberfest, it is an open secret that it is among the most expensive cities in Europe. Leading the list as Germany’s most expensive city, homes cost an average of €15 ($17) per square meter to rent and more than €5,000 per square meter to buy, the quarterly study of Empirica said. The awareness among the citizens got more sensitive and issues around abandoned properties in the city center, real estate speculation, and the lack of social housing were raised. Who can afford to live in such a city and what are the consequences of this development? Spaces for trial and discourses are deeply missed and most likely found in the artistic realm.
The theater Münchner Kammerspiele with its new director Matthias Lilienthal invited the architecture collective raumlaborberlin together with 120 young people, to built innovative and cheap temporary housings around the city with a fixed production budget of €250 for each apartment. The project called shabbyshabby apartments spread all around the city and 23 houses can be visited until October, formerly the project counted one further house which has been destroyed in a criminal act of incendiarism. Everyone willing to experience the city in a new way can rent the apartments out for a night for the reasonable price of €35. The locations vary from Munich’s expensive luxury shopping street Maximilianstraße, over spaces in underpasses to more residential areas in the city center. The simple housings do not provide a long-term answer for the housing problem but they occupy a space of trial, that seems to be way more important when discussing city development and facilitating a discursive space. With its performative attempt to show that experience happens out of once comfort zone, it demonstrated that new urban solutions are going to cost effort. The name shabbyshabby apartment plays with the stereotype that affordable means unattractive and connects it with the most used excuse for investors to renovate whole buildings and contribute to gentrification.
In Spain the housing sector was an important stabilizer of the economy until the so called housing bubble burst and led to the deep financial struggle affecting the country since 2007.
Enmedio is a collective of professional image makers who work within art, media, activism and politics. Enmedio literally translates from Spanish into “in the midst of”. They started to work in the beginning of the financial crisis when the country seemed paralyzed through the economic fear. The group developed humorous artistic practices to break through the vicious circle of fear and silence. The project “We are not numbers” from 2012 was an action against evictions in collaboration with the organization dealing with shady mortgage loans PAH (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca). The eviction problem in Spain is very worrying and the state reform cuts are increasing it. In the past years there were several suicides connected to the problem. The project worked in 2 ways: First, the members of Enmedio organized the photography workshop TAF! and printed photographs of people who were effected by the evictions. Those pictures built the images on postcards were people could write personal messages for Caixa Catalunya, a bank highly connected to problematic mortgage contracts. Participants said things like: “Thieves”, “You’re taking our lives”, “One day you will be judged”. The second part consisted in pasting portraits of evicted Spaniards onto the storefront windows of banks around the country. The large photographs put faces to the names of those that the banks would not or could not support, frankly embodying the consequences of the financial crisis. This gesture re-appropriated the visibility in public space of those who are usually minoritized. Enmedio uses humour and the bodily experience of people gathering together to create a strong human bond that breaks through the solitary attitude usually taking place in times of crisis.
Designer Justin Blinder’s Vacated series of animated GIFs uses data extracted from Google Street View to demonstrate the rapid changes in New York City’s built environment between 2011 and the present. The big data collection provides a base that Blinder accesses to show the processes of transformation in certain Manhattan and Brooklyn neighborhoods. As the name suggest he highlights the vacant lots where new buildings now stand. His goal is to establish a visual narration that shows the effects on the urban landscape of financial capital flow, building policies, zoning and displacement of people. Blinder visualizes the complex effects ascribed to gentrification in an immediate and comprehensible way. It is the space in the gifs or in the merged images between the before and after image that connects the human scale and all its individual stories with the architectural scale, aiming for progress and development –a space that is usually not visibly connected but builds the tales of a city.
Gentrification has raised a lot of questions regarding how much space a city is willing to provide for trial, for unfinished ideas or for the pleasure of communal appropriation. The precarious working conditions linked to the neoliberal terms forces low-income earners to rather adapt to the situation or find a space to be heard. The arts community is not known to have a strong political lobby, but has the ability to create imaginative encounters that might reach much broader audiences than just the arts community. Political movements nowadays are built in cities and public squares as our recent history showed.
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