Art & Democracy

Art & Democracy

By Addison Vawters

During a conference on placemaking in 2013, cultural activist Roberto Bedoya surprised peers by indicating that they were tired of the endless discussions of gentrification; they were interested in a different question: How will the creative resilience exemplified by communities of color, embodied by the Chicano aesthetic of rasquachismo, manifest itself in the newly formed outposts of the displaced? (1) Before returning to this question, it is important to address the question that has plagued and exhausted Bedoya and arts and cultural workers for nearly forty years; to disambiguate the function of cultural institutions, artists, and cultural spaces like the cafe, the gallery, or the loft in the process of gentrification.

Is gentrification a pattern of social and cultural reproduction propelled by the desires of young professionals, queers, and artists for post-industrial lifestyles, rehabilitated brownstones, and proximity to nightlife?

The depreciation cycle of inner city neighborhoods (Neil Smith)

To explain gentrification in light of artists actions alone, while ignoring the role of developers, landlords, financial institutions, and the government is narrow. To fight displacement, it is necessary to understand the role of the producers of urban capital, as much as we understand the role of consumers. Neil Smith observed that it is possible to understand gentrification as a logical stage in the lifecycle of capital investment in the built environment. Smith theorized that while building stock created in the nineteenth century deteriorated and depreciated in the twentieth century, suburbanization presented an attractive opportunity for capital accumulation on the outskirts of cities where ground rents were less expensive.  As development ran its course causing ground rents to rise in the suburbs, a rent gap began to develop. Lower ground rents in the disinvested city then became the target of reinvestment. Developers seeking to invest where the rate of the return would yield the best profit returned to the city in order to take advantage of the relatively lower ground rents. In this scenario, the middle class is responding to supply provided for them. (2)

The cultural demand theory pits young professionals, artists and queers against workers in a kind of class warfare, commonly positioning the former as colonizers, morally culpable for displacement. The supply theory understands the actions of cultural workers, cultural institutions and young professionals as instrumentalized by capital rather than causal in the process of gentrification.

Gentrification can be metaphorized as colonialism insofar as that landlords and developers displace established communities in order to extract profit from the land and cultural value developed there over time. However, if the logic of the metaphor is adhered to, it becomes clear that the gentrifiers cum colonizers are not new residents or even businesses who physically occupy low income neighborhood in exchange for rent, but the financial and real estate institutions who are accumulating their rent.

Rather than understanding gentrification as the result of the private decisions of the middle class,  it can be understood as both a logical outcome under neoclassical land use theory and of decisions by influential private investment and development actors under the neoliberal public policy framework that has defined urban governance for the twenty-first century. International free market policies, the privatization of social provision and the financialization of capital, a set of factors that has come to define neoliberalism, have created an environment where investment no longer only flows back and forth across city limits, it flows across national borders in search of maximal returns.

Notable is the infusion of Chinese corporate capital transforming New York City's Chinatown real estate markets resulting in hyper-gentrification. Neighborhoods that were once affordable - a condition sustained by a thrifty micro-economy of immigrant entrepreneurs circulating their capital among one another - are changing rapidly. Real estate investors are erecting postmodern hotels and condominiums whose amenity and entertainment offerings are undeniably out of reach for Chinatown's working class residents.

Photo by: Chinatown Art Brigade

Chinatown Art Brigade

Chinatown Art Brigade is collective of artists and activists working in New York City's Lower East Side Chinatown. They produce community art projects, in partnership with CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities and The Illuminator, which engage Asian immigrant and refugee communities connecting them to resources and organizers. Their engagements address hyper-gentrification and tenant harassment, one of hyper-gentrification's most insidious appurtenances. While sometimes characterized by the media as anti-art protesters, the art collective has made important contributions to the discourse on the agency of artists, the art market and galleries in the process of displacement and anti-displacement work in working-class neighborhoods.

David Harvey, writing in the late 80's, explains that urban governance began exhibiting a sort of "urban entrepreneurialism" whereby governments prioritize the search for economic development, and employment growth opportunities rather than the “services, facilities, and benefits to urban populations” (3).  This shift in priorities is embodied by the urban policies of both former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and current Mayor Bill De Blasio. Their attempts to combat gentrification and economic inequality have been veiled neoliberal development strategies only to accelerate the problem. Changes in the tax code, land use policy and an emboldened financial sector are shaping the era of hyper-gentrification and encouraging the flow of capital into the city.

The strategies employed by most cities to combat inequality are individualistic, based on the notion that the state exists primarily to protect individual property rights and the idea that the private sector can, on its own, or in public private partnerships designed to benefit the private partner, solve inequality in areas like education, healthcare, and housing. These strategies altogether avoid any imperative to instantiate the right to affordable housing, to art and culture, and to healthy communities.

Who are the vanguard of anti-displacement organizing today?


Observed Strategies: Anti Art & Economic Democracy

Anti Art

In a controversy that has spanned nearly half a decade, Defend Boyle Heights (DBH), and it’s sister organization Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAD) have adopted a violent anti art organizing strategy. The groups physically attack, threaten, intimidate, boycott, protest, disrupt, and shout down non-profit art organizations, galleries, high end cafes, and restaurants that attempt to operate in the low income black and brown neighborhood of Boyle Heights Los Angeles.  A lot of attention has been paid to their threats against artists, art galleries and cultural institutions. While their tactics may seem confused, these groups are operating with a clear understanding of how gentrification instrumentalizes cultural workers and cultural institutions in pursuit of profit and have chosen to target them in their efforts to halt displacement.

Photo credit: Defend Boyle Heights

They offer a compelling critique of the relationship between government, nonprofits, and business. Business is guided by a for-profit motive, government is guided by business, and the diminutive power of the non-profit serves only to mediate and palliate any contradictions that arise in the arrangement.

Economic Democracy

While the street resistance organizing of DBH and BHAAWD is a necessary component of halting displacement, gentrification is a global force. Economic democracy organizers elucidate a scaled response to the processes of neoliberalism and gentrification, and a future where artistic and cultural production are possible alongside economic stability and well-being for the working class.

Economic democracy is growing socio-economic philosophy characterized by the understanding that the financial power of corporations invests them with disproportionate political decision-making power, resulting in a variety of social problems as public well-being is consistently subordinated to private profit. Economic democracy proponents propose a variety of alternative models of property relations all characterized by democratic ownership, operation, and wealth distribution. In the short run these new economic relationships begin to alleviate inequality and gentrification. In the long run the preclude them altogether. These relations can be implemented in urban, suburban, and rural contexts.

Enumerated below are popular examples of economic democracy. A few are explained in detail.

Labor based:

Community Development Corporations
Community Development Finance Institutions Cooperatives
Employee Stock Ownership Plan Companies
Community Development Limited Liability Company

Housing based:

Limited equity housing cooperative
Mutual housing associations
Community Land Trusts

Mutual Housing Associations and Limited Equity Cooperatives:

Limited equity cooperatives are housing ownership arrangements where residents are both tenants of the corporation that owns the building, and also shareholders. There’s no landlord profit, and they democratically control the operations and the fate of the property. They are often combined with community land trusts which are a model for collectively owning and preserving the affordability of land.  

Community Development Limited Liability Company:

Market Creek Plaza is a multimillion dollar commercial and cultural center built on the former site of a 20-acre abandoned factory in Diamond San Diego. 120 residents designed a community development limited liability company. Their economic development model is derived from the indigenous American theory of thirds: a third for personal benefit, a third for community benefit, and a third for on-going development. Profit from the center is democratically invested in the neighborhood via a community foundation.



" A leading example of economic democracy principles is provided by the Mondragon cooperatives. Today, the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation (MCC) consist of 257 cooperative business, including the Eroski retail chain with over 200 hypermarkets, supermarkets, and convenience stores, and Mondragon University, which offers training in management and business skills, With a workforce of more that 80,000, Mondragon, according to it's website had revenues in 2012 exceeding 14 billion euros .(4)

Mondragon cooperatives are guided by ten principles, including: open admission (nondiscrimination), democratic organization (one worker, one vote, implemented through a general assembly structure), and sovereignty of labor. (5)

The individual Mondragon co-ops put money back into the cooperative sector, investing in new products, new co-ops, and the reserve fund for the cooperative university. Co-op members pay a membership fee that helps capitalize the co-op; they then receive interest on that capital once the co-op becomes profitable. Employment security at Mondragon is extraordinarily high; since its founding, a co-op member has never been laid off.

-Excerpt from Achieving Sustainability: Visions, Principles, and Practices (6)

Photo credit: Democratising the Economy

While the food co-ops of wealthy, white, gentrified, and gentrifying neighborhoods dominate the popular imagination, make no mistake, these institutions and the advanced examples illustrated above are founded on radical philosophies borne of poor people’s movements. High levels of economic democracy greatly contribute to reducing inequality. " (7)  The cooperative and economic democracy model is empirically the most promising approach for stopping gentrification, and transforming the city and ourselves.

Returning to the question of the role the artist, the café, and the loft in the process of anti-gentrification; the artist must revolutionize the art market, establishing collective and sustainable modes of art production and ownership, the café must be a worker cooperative, and the loft must be incorporated in a limited equity cooperative. Then, the former weapons of gentrification become the tools for equitable economic prosperity and cultural enrichment.  Art is perhaps the greatest tool for imagining new social possibilities. A just future will not only celebrate art and culture but will require their utility along the way.

The vanguard will be those organizing to collectivize ownership of housing, and anchor institutions in the struggling suburbs and small towns where the current wave of urban refugees are being deposited. What fruit will be borne when the urban poor unite with their rural comrades?


  1. Bedoya, Roberto. 2018. "Spatial Justice: Rasquachification, Race And The City | Creative Time Reports". Creative Time Reports."
  2. Smith, Neil. 1979. "Toward A Theory Of Gentrification A Back To The City Movement By Capital, Not People". Journal Of The American Planning Association 45 (4): 538-548. doi:10.1080/01944367908977002.
  3. Harvey, David. 2008. ""The Right To The City"". New Left Review II (53): 23–40.
  4. Mondragon Corporation. 2012. "Annual Report 2012"
  5. Davidson, Carl. 2011. "Mondragon as a Bridge to a New Socialism"
  6. Howard, Ted, Steve Dubb, and Sarah McKinley. 2014. "Economic Democracy". Achieving Sustainability: Visions, Principles, And Practices. Macmillan Reference USA.
  7. "The Strong Relationship Between Economic Democracy And Income Equality". 2018. Democratising The Economy.
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