Review: Street Art and Gentrification are the Focus of Streetopia

Erick Lyle’s Streetopia hits shelves this month. The book is a collection of works from 24 San Francisco artists and writers associated with the “New Mission School” street art movement. The book tackles the tough topic of artists’ role in gentrification. Erick Lyle will be reading and signing books at Quimby’s in Logan Square at 7pm Thursday, October 20. 3cr-streetopiaBright smiles on beautiful girls light up the gritty street deemed just safe enough to be a playground for middle class millennials. The graffiti here is street art rather than gang tags. That shop's coffee, instead of the employees, is sourced from Colombia. We don’t worry about money because it’s cheaper than the Loop and safer than Englewood. This is what gentrification looks like: selling a space to yuppies looking for a good time. A low-income neighborhood attracts starving artists because of cheap rent, who in turn create a cool vibe that attracts consumers willing to pay for entertainment or the satisfaction of living somewhere urban, artsy and cool, which in turn prices-out the low-income renters (and when you are low-income, you are most definitely renting) from the neighborhood (effectively eliminating the neighbors that made the it "authentic"). Governmental officials advocate for the process because their tax base is arguably more stable. Yet, the question remains: what happens to the most vulnerable once they’re forced out of their homes? One could blame artists then for being the first intruders into low-income neighborhoods. Their intrusion eventually leads to the original residents’ forced exodus. Streetopia responds directly to this accusation. The book chronicles an artist-led anti-gentrification art show in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood; events include a muckraking-101 session, interactive art installations, and a man who literally walked around the street for 72 hours reading poetry. The book analyzes the history of the neighborhood, current efforts of gentrification, and possible future for a utopia that includes all. All this with hazy pictures of the title event. The book is a catalog of art pieces and a collection of essays. The later are smartly written, but also bitterly self-righteous at times. One article attempts to encourage activism by declaring that actions determine a person’s value, not race nor class. Only a few pages before that statement did the author thoroughly shit on white suburban transplants for their invocation of gentrification anywhere they go, as if class and race are the only way to talk about a certain subset of people. This is not a book for a person unwilling to hear narratives with strident, patronizing undertones. This is the book for a person willing to reexamine the mainstream narrative about hard topics such as effective care for drug addicts, treatment of veterans and the homeless, and how in our middle class fetishizations of “culture,” we may be complicit in a process that hurts others. Gentrification is happening in every growing city, and Chicago is no exception. Whether you are well versed in the conversation about poverty and powerlessness, or you are simply curious, Streetopia is a good introduction/refresher of the complex web of interrelated issues that compose your cultural landscape. Find Streetopia at your local bookstore for $20. OR, if you want to talk it out, come to Quimby’s, 1854 W.North Ave., at 7pm on October 20. The free event will bring in Streetopia’s editor Erick Lyle to discuss the San Francisco experiment. You can ask all of your questions about how white suburban transplants can avoid gentrification, or even challenge the power of art against the forces of economic redevelopment.    
Picture of the author
Sherry Zhong