When Chiara Valli first ventured to Bushwick, one hot sticky night in the summer of 2013, she fell in love with the place. “Everyone was out on the street, playing with fire hydrants,” recalls the young Italian. “I felt a very good vibe.” And the more time she spent in the neighborhood, the more she realized that there was more to Bushwick than colorful murals and great stoop chat.
“In Bushwick there are two parallel worlds,” Valli says. “And it’s seldom that they meet. They look at each other—they are interested in what the other side is thinking—but they don’t talk. And that’s too bad.” While the rest of us might shrug, utter the word “gentrification” under our breath as if it’s a foregone conclusion, and wander off to sip kombucha, Valli decided to gather some empirical data.
It so happens that Valli is three years into a PhD in social and human geography. With a background in urban planning and sustainable architecture, she entered the doctoral program in Uppsala University, in Sweden, hoping to explore the potential of arts to change the urban environment. In Bushwick—as in her parallel research in Milan—she realized that an artistic influx can have long-lasting and diverse affects on a neighborhood. “Art has great potential as a social catalyst because it can talk to people at an emotional level,” she says. “The hard part is to transform this into practical, consistent engagement.”
Hoping to gather as varied a reaction to these changes as possible, she set out to interview a representative sample of the Bushwick community: both long-term residents and recent transplants. She did so with flyers in laundromats and bars, and through word of mouth. She admits that certain segments of the population are harder to connect with. “Being a European white girl doing a PhD makes me less trusted by some, and also more easy to talk to for some,” she says. “I’m very, very aware of that.”
Nevertheless, she managed to conduct around 40 interviews, gathering a good sample of voices. She then held a “co-production of knowledge” event at Silent Barn, inviting people to come and read 16 of the most diverse interview transcripts. The visitors cut and pasted the parts of these transcripts that they found most interesting, and out of these scraps, Valli has put together a “gentrification zine,” which she’ll be presenting at the Bushwick Open Studios Community Day. “I have all this material,” she says. “I want to share it.”
And she’s certain that all members of the Bushwick community could benefit.
“I think in Bushwick there are many gallery owners and artists that would like to be more involved in the community, or for the community to be more involved with them, but they don’t know how,” she says. And on the other side, long-standing residents have no clue that the newcomers feel this way. “I wanted to do this little humble thing to make a tiny difference to the situation.”
So how can Bushwick residents somehow close the gap? “I suppose it’s very simple, but try to go beyond your assumptions,” she says, sighting. “It sounds easy, but it’s not at all. And there are power differences, so to go beyond assumptions implies something different—a much greater effort—for some than for others.”
Tomorrow, she’ll have her full transcripts out again at the community day, and will also be asking Bushwick residents to answer further questions about the changes in the neighborhood. “Maybe, if it goes well, I can make another ‘zine,” she muses.
Click through the contents of her first iteration above.
Bushwick Open Studios Community Day, May 31 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Maria Hernandez Park, Knickerbocker Ave. at Starr St.