Gente-fication : Culture as Catalyst for Ethical Redevelopment
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
Development without Displacement, Chainbreaker Collective Symposium, March 3, 2017 - excerpted ©
Before I share some thoughts about the theme for today’s symposium, let me begin as I learned early in life to do — acknowledging the ground upon which we stand today and recognizing the indigenous people who have served as its stewards for millennia, to the present moment. Here in this sovereign landscape, some Pueblo elders have said that, “wherever we go, we leave our breath behind us” — an invocation recognizing those who came before us and how their life force remains with us long after they have gone. Here, we are reminded not only of displacement, but of the delicacy and strength of survival as well.
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I am honored to be here with you this morning, opening this symposium convened by a collective that is committed to breaking chains, as evident not only by their name, but through their direct actions.
There are certainly many types of chains, including a collective of links that fortify something, anchor it, or those that generate movement, as in a bicycle; however, given my scholarship on slavery and my ongoing commitment to social justice, I am drawn to the implicit tension that this name evokes for me.
Even as a metaphor or practice, the challenge of breaking chains is never easy because it counters a conscious effort that began with someone first imagining the need to forge chains and then to use them to bind. Especially now, the very notion of breaking chains, therefore is about resisting that which suppresses, that which separates and that which inhibits the full potential of our humanity.
Remembering, recovering and re-imagining possibility is precisely what today’s symposium is all about. Focusing on the theme of development without displacement, we are gathered because of the imperative before us—of advancing what is a growing dialogue nationally about the practices and policies that support a paradigm of equity, all of which is grounded locally in the ongoing development that takes places around and within our communities and neighborhoods.
Over the years, I am fortunate to have been able to devote a tremendous amount of my professional life to thinking and writing on the issues that help frame the context for some of the discussions that I expect will take place later today. However, this work is filled with paradoxes, as much as it carries promise and possibility.
But let me begin at that intersection. Notably salient in these discussions is what many have referred to, as the "power of place." While New Mexico has been incredibly storied over the centuries, where this concept provides a focal point, it is important to recognize that place is not only something that is represented, but something that is lived, something that gives the world shape because of how we live in it. No matter where we come from, places also shape us—our consciousness, our sense of being in the world.
As the Western Apache say of their homelands in Arizona, "wisdom sits in places" and New Mexico is certainly no exception. But one cannot grow wise by simply looking at the surface of the buildings, in neighborhoods. I believe that wisdom can only be achieved by seeing past the layers, which in essence make it deeply and profoundly contested and connected. It means thinking about what connects one site to the next as part of a deeply complex and intricate network. Sometimes this is visible and can be mapped, but for instance, it can also be found in
the flow of the acequia,
the profundity of language, music and traditions that linger long after a note has been played,
the dust rising ever so slightly from an ancient dance.
All of these hold the memory of places, and its people and spirit. But these spaces are also sacred because here is where people have lived for generations, burying their dead, nurturing their young, as well as their minds and their hearts.
Here wisdom is not simply about a depth and breadth, however. It is also about perspective. As Joy Harjo writes, “the story depends upon who is telling it.” Lew Wallace, New Mexico Governor and storyteller alike once wrote, “Every calculation based on experience elsewhere, fails in New Mexico.” True though this often quoted phrase may be for some, it simply and erroneously presumes that one’s experience is not based on being born and raised in New Mexico. The dilemma then of narrating place is connected, I think to the difficulty individual outside observers have had not just in truly, seeing, but listening to this place and to the people who have known it for generations.
In this way, as a trained cultural anthropologist, and frankly as a native son that is taught to do this, my practice has always been defined by the social responsibility of leaning in to listen. The best storytellers my grandmother taught me, are those that learn how to listen.
Although as a student of history, I have long worked to brush history against the grain. In order to understand the power of place, here or anywhere, it is also critical to understand displacement as well. It is after all, one of the formative experiences that mark the human experience across time and space. I define displacement as the separation of people from their native culture either through the colonizing imposition of a foreign culture or the physical dislocation of people (here I am thinking, particularly in this moment, of refugees, immigrants, migrants or exiles).
This dual definition of displacement has certainly marked the history of the Southwest, New Mexico and Santa Fe across the centuries and even as we look at a contemporary neighborhoods, this context has impacted, shaped and continues to loom large in the aching consciousness of Santa Fe’s contemporary residents.
Understand this context can also deepen our awareness of the present. This core methodology has defined my work for decades, here and nationally, including my current practice as a consultant. As some of you may know, I recently completed Culture Connects Santa Fe - A Cultural Cartography, the City’s first cultural plan which I was honored to have designed and developed, and which included broad community engagement an
d extensive research, all culminating in a roadmap that is framed by the intrinsic value of culture and how it can be leveraged to address and improve the resilience, health and wellbeing of Santa Fe’s residents.
The City recently adopted the Cartography. As I noted within that document, my hope is that it will serve as living instrument – a compass of sorts, that will not only be continually engaged, but will evolve, responding to how culture can serve as a catalyst for the most challenging parts of our work to fortify our community.
The efforts of this initiative surfaced an obvious fact—that our community is incredibly fractured and part of my research involved attempting to understand what factors have and continue to contribute to this reality.
In one section, I address this larger context, noting that Santa Fe is an international destination for visitors, set in a breathtaking landscape and steeped in the confluence of the richness of history, art, and nature. On the other hand…just below the surface, lies a river of historic trauma that comes from the vestiges of colonialism and imperialism, as well as the more contemporary disparities that are manifest in where people live, their levels of access. All, especially salient when considering race, class and gender.
Understanding these fractures requires tracing how the city’s has developed at different periods in its own evolution. Conscious and systematic efforts were made to encourage migration into the city from other parts of the United States. In the early 20th century, for instance, artists from the East Coast were encouraged and drawn to the Southwest, and by the 1920s the city boasted a thriving, nationally-known art colony. Later, urban planning efforts, in conjunction with the real estate industry, proactively established practices and policies to encourage retirees to settle in Santa Fe. Over five decades this conscious effort to promote a tourism-based economy greatly impacted the demographic profile of the city; how could it not?
Given this reality, the demographic changes wrought upon Santa Fe are actually quite astonishing. For instance, demographic profiles of the north and eastern parts of the city, including its downtown are completely different than they were 50 years ago. Residents who could no longer afford to live in these parts of town moved out, either to other cities or to
the outskirts, effectively stratifying neighborhoods. Understanding this broader socio-historical context, including Santa Fe’s dual history of investment and displacement is imperative to any effort for sustainable growth, and in particular to addressing issues of equity. These shifts are much more deliniated in Equitable Development and Risk of Displacement, a report authored by Human Impact Partners with collaboration from Chainbreakers Collective and NM Health Equity Partnership. If you have not read this report, I urge you to do so.
As I was thinking about this historical context, I also thought about concept that has emerged in cultural circles recently. “Creative Placemaking,” which is a way to define activities that shape the social and physical characteristics of a place. Although this is something that communities have actually been doing forever, there has been very little critique of this cultural movement. Though, some thought leaders have begun to push the field to recognize its own “blind spots.” A friend of mine, Roberto Bedoya for instance, has written poignantly about what he views as a problem, in that this effort reflects “a lack of awareness about the politics of belonging and dis-belonging that operate in civil society.” This is dual edged sword and the reality is that one of the unintended consequences of Creative Placemaking itself can be gentrification and displacement. New influxes of creatives can lead to population shifts that profoundly affect housing affordability, infrastructure, transit and other resources. A friend of mine has perhaps said it best: “artists are often the foot soldiers of gentrification.”
In this way, what has been as interesting as studying the past is recognizing similar efforts being articulated recently, particularly as a focus for the City’s future. There appears to be an active push from some institutions in the city, enticing new cultural workers to migrate and settle in Santa Fe, which on the surface would seem to contribute to the vibrancy of the city, but we must ask, a vibrancy for whom? This recent call should not come as surprising to me, but it is, since it seems to be done without appreciating either the historical context nor understanding the present situation and the impact that this might have on contemporary neighborhoods, largely Latino ones.
The other problem that I have with the long standing and continual effort to consciously create an environment to attract more and different creatives is that it looks past the residents of Santa Fe, including its youth. As one person noted during our process, “the most overlooked and under invested assets in the community are its own residents.” Santa Fe’s social eco-system is rich with expertise, experience, and imagination, and yet I have seen time and time again, deference given to others, whose experience are not framed here. Certainly, learning from other places and people can widen perspectives and is tremendously valuable, but the point is about creating an equitable balance. What I have observed is that tremendous knowledge and creativity already held locally is seldom recognized or valued, nor is home-grown talent nurtured. Understanding this is one of the greatest imperatives and most salient threads to have emerged from this initiative, one I hope that we can continue to interrogate.
So this particular issue reveals one of the first paradoxes that will have to be dealt with as we work to effect a more thoughtful approach to planning and city building.
Though I don’t want to be misunderstood, thus the paradox. I believe in the power of artists to effect change, to get us to see the world differently, to raise consciousness, to create openings. I also believe, as was profoundly revealed in the Cartography, that defining culture narrowly fails not only to capture the fullness of the life force of a community, but in working toward solutions, it must be grounded in the richness of the entire fabric of our cultural assets—our stories, our languages, as well as our creativity, in all of its manifestations.
But here is where we can begin discussing development that is informed, not only by an ethics—thoughtfulness in approach, but by the parameters of culture, including sharing stories across communities. After all, gentrification is not unique to Santa Fe and as discussions about ethical redevelopment begin to emerge in other cities, those conversations and solutions may provide methods, if not models.
This work is not for the faint of heart. It is in fact some of the most challenging work taking place in communities. I am interested, for instance, in what we can learn here about the tensions that have begun to emerge in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
Part of the tension is based on the fact that galleries are beginning to move into what has been a traditional Mexicano neighborhood, essentially attracting a more diverse, affluent crowd that is almost entirely White. This, of course, is a classic gentrification process, one that also has defined much of the past century in parts of Santa Fe and that will be recognizable to those who were growing up and interfacing this on Canyon Road two generations ago.
But what is happening in Boyle Heights is also a parallel phenomena which may resonate for Santa Fe. Gente-fication, is a term that has emerged to define what happens when upwardly mobile, college-educated Latinos return to their old neighborhood and invest their time, money and interests in that neighborhood, opening up businesses. For many, the phenomena, is complicated, risky and can also lead to displacement. Those most critical of these young entrepreneurs note that Chicano-owned businesses are not exempt by virtue of being Chicano and can be just as complicit in the practice of displacement, serving up vegetarian chorizo quiche, gluten-free tacos and atole with rice milk.
While the term for some is negative, for others, it affirms the positive and as my friend and fellow nuevomexicana Dr. Patricia Trujillo who has written extensively about gentefication, has noted, the term “simultaneously signifies class and community membership."The term is, after all, a play on the Spanish word for ‘the people.’ Dr. Trujillo recognizes that while class, affluence are important factors, it too narrowly defines the profundity of this concept. By taking the word that signifies community membership and combining it with a noun of action, it could very well be a different way of saying ethical redevelopment. After all, Dr. Trujillos’ emphasis focuses on leveraging the “knowledge [and I would add experience, skill and expertise] of Nuevomexicanas/os” coupled with a vocabulary and language for understanding displacement and more importantly for how to rescript this language into action and in her words to “shape and re-shape our own spaces.”
She is not alone in her thinking about his. These tensions have raised the question in Boyle Heights about how Latinos invest in their own neighborhoods without catalyzing a wave of demographic change that also displaces residents. Barny Santos, the founder of Gentefy, an incubator for Latino-owned businesses is beginning to interrogate this question and do precisely what residents articulated as important here in Santa Fe — listen to and involve the community in the conversation and through those conversations to strategize and activate that consciousness. “We need to bring new businesses into the neighborhood, Santos has said, “but at the same time we need to invest in the legacy businesses that are already here.” The aim is to find Latino entrepreneurs already operating in the neighborhood and support their businesses being more successful, support them through resources and capital they need to grow.
At first glance, as I was thinking this through this week, I wondered how many legacy Hispano owned businesses there once were in this city, even 25 years ago, including neighborhood grocery stores. There is only a single one standing now. But I also think of those working in the informal business sector in our community. I know for instance, three different women that sell food out of their homes (biscochitos, tamales and goat cheese). This is a type of creative entrepreneurship that has long defined a part of what I would say is an underground culinary arts economy here in Santa Fe. Applying Santos’ notion of gentefying could indeed incubate and advance this culinary work, but this effort requires first recognizing this work as part of the cultural fabric.
Charged with mapping what is culture and doing so through the lens of equity, allowed me to not only interrogate our assumptions of where it sits, but to recognize efforts like this that are largely invisible in our community.
Here is the thing, as I believe Santos, Trujillo and I would agree and argue. Regardless of your background, if you are complicit in displacement, you participate in gentrIfication, but being a gente-fier is all about, placing the people of the community at the center of the work.
In many ways, this is the most essential component of ethical development. It begins with that focus on the people, but the rest is a process that is much more challenging—engagement. I have already mentioned the importance of listening, but inclusion, engagement and participation are also key. But the uncomfortable reality is, that the people who are in need of the change and people that make the change are often not the same people, so part of the ethical redevelopment work is figuring out how we interrogate and perhaps bring together those who know how to make change and those that can really benefit from that change. It cannot be one sided; it will fail.
The answer is really in the formation of networks. Depending on which neighborhoods we are talking about, I do think that a large part of this effort will require the convening of la gente, gathering of Nuevomejicano expertise that exists within the community of Santa Fe that are skilled in urban planning, architecture, law, design, real estate and arts administration. This community-based work is about supporting the connections, creating a sense of neighborliness, of connectivity, but some of the work is much more rigorous and will must necessarily go deeper, otherwise, we remain, as we have for decades, scratching at the surface.
What this requires first is addressing the tensions in a community. Yes, this means talking about race, privilege and power—who holds it and who doesn’t. These are not comfortable conversations. Yet, in order to set the stage for strategy and connectivity, we have to be willing to talk about the things that divide us, to ensure that people who most benefit from these transformations are not leading the conversations. Providing the platforms for this to take place is critical and is where there is one aspect of culture that is not utilized enough in this work, that of storytelling, which for me is as much about recovering testimony, extending the narrative as it is about creating openings across divides. This is what a group of colleagues and I once called the sovereignty of context.
This articulation of a conscientiousness and value-driven philosophy is perhaps the most concise definition of this work. When done well, this is the promise of gente-fication. Words matter and I think of the etymology of conscientiousness, from the Latin, a compound verb that is defined by an awareness that is formed together, collectively, but more than consciousness, it is a careful, principled vigilance.
The focus on values is equally imperative in this work. It reminded me of the Statement of Values that emerged in the Cultural Cartography, largely drawn from the engagement in our community. A shift in value systems first requires engaging the community, in the neighborhoods, and asking —what are our core values? Perhaps these values may also be found in Chainbreaker Collective’s “Bill of Rights” that frame this symposium, but for me, either way, it points to the need for a conversation or maybe a series of conversations about what people that live and work in these neighborhoods believe in, what they want to experience, see, access and feel in these spaces.
When I think of values in this way, I think of beauty, which I believe when emphasized can point to transformation. A couple of nights ago, in preparation for today’s talk, and reading through the responses to surveys, postcards and post-its taken during Culture Connects Santa Fe, the word beauty was referenced over 100 times by people who came to the gatherings, who spoke about their aspirations, for themselves and for the youth. In this, I was reminded of the work Chicago based Place Lab which reveals that
Beauty is a basic service often not extended to “forgotten parts” of the city. It is an amenity considered incongruent with certain places. Beauty has magnetism. It defines character. It promotes reverence. Design can enhance the desirability of a neglected site, corridor, or block while illustrating the reverence and care of a neighborhood and its residents. It provides value, respect, importance, and regard for the character of a community.
This is where I believe the ideas, imaginative capacity and work of creative people, especially those that live and work in these neighborhoods, can resonate and advance the work of ethical redevelopment profoundly. This creativity provides pathways for how people imaginatively and literally reinvest in a place and informs the spirit and use of a place. In this way, the many manifestation of culture hold the potential to serve as a catalyst. In the words of Place Lab, “it can be the thing that makes the thing.”
Acknowledging and addressing this challenge will require assessing a host of practices and policies at all levels, but I believe in culture, which lives and breathes all around us.
We are the stewards of these places and it is our responsibility to encourage curiosity and imagination and everything that flows from those openings. Nourishing and sustaining culture, requires this deepened understanding, as well as an inspired reimagining. We have the responsibility to awaken memory, knowledge and will, and to expand the depth and breadth of our national narrative and consciousness, here in local community.
There are many challenges before us, but I stand confident in the possibilities that lie ahead, knowing that the enduring legacy of our generation is that we took responsibility for the thinking that had been handed down to us; that we re-imagined the promise of our humanity; and because of our work, we transformed the world (or at least our neighborhoods) positively.
Copyright 2018 Estevan Rael-Gálvez