Aesthetic Activism and the Quest for Authenticity in a Time of Crisis

"The City is Covered in Our Dead Friends Names," Oakland, CA, May 2020. Photo by the author.
The global pandemic has exposed fissures of race and class in Washington DC. Brandi Summers examines how the aesthetics of blackness have been co-opted in the gentrifying city during a period of crisis.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a dossier on “Lockdown Aesthetics and Gentrification.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

In my chapter in Aesthetics of Gentrification, I discuss the ways in which authenticity is both produced and leveraged to structure the built environment and social relations. Specifically, I consider how representations of blackness and diversity are deployed by the state and private actors in the pursuit of authenticity in the gentrified city. Racialized expressions are more marketable in the emerging “creative city” that emphasizes cultural consumption and creative, aesthetic practices. Creating authenticity is an integral process to the socio-spatial organization of gentrifying cities. I focused on a gentrified commercial corridor in Washington, DC and documented how discourses of cultural diversity undergird neoliberal governance practices that create urban conditions favorable to capital reinvestment – hence the proliferation of boutiques, pet spas, and cafés alongside the practice of branding neighborhoods in terms of distinctive cultural identities. The quest for authenticity reflects a nostalgic longing for a constructed history that serves the present by offering a particular version of the past. Authenticity structures a sense of belonging by producing, protecting, and celebrating (certain) spatial narratives.

My work situates blackness as a central analytic lens to understand how racism shapes Black life and how liberal proclamations of race neutrality and calls for diversity only serve to marginalize and displace Black people in the United States. In this way, blackness is intermittently and simultaneously pathologized, celebrated, and sanitized for capital, and is subsequently subsumed under a capital-friendly umbrella of diversity. I locate what I call an aesthetic infrastructure of gentrification in the ways that craft-brew masters, high-end eateries, city planners, and corporate retailers all deploy an aesthetics of blackness to help landmark and brand the spaces around their investments. It is through the use of aesthetic strategies that “diversity” hides the displacement and erasure of Black people in abstract representations of a vibrant city.

Over the past year and a half, since the onset of the global pandemic, I have wondered about the ways COVID-19 has made legible what often gets hidden through the violent processes of gentrification, neoliberal urbanism, displacement, and dispossession. The impact of the pandemic has shifted our sense of the world, the architectures of encounter, and our relationship to urban space. The aesthetics of gentrification throughout various cycles of lockdown have intensified and are centrally concerned with questions of mobility. The crisis has made room for designers, architects, and planners, with the support of local governments, to curate the streetscapes in ways that enable sociality while mitigating contagion.

Calls for the 15-minute city, open streets, and slow streets draw on urbanism and sustainable planning and design to make the city more accessible by providing services to all people within walking or biking distance. Restaurants started to deploy innovative design features on sidewalk and street spaces that were previously designated for cars. Some of these solutions, like the “quarantine bubbles” in San Francisco (many of which sit alongside homeless encampments), visibly expose the ways that the state will advocate for the opening of cities, prioritizing the health of the economy, while the city’s most vulnerable inhabitants continue to struggle. Precarity, inherent to a capitalist labor market, intensifies in times of crisis, and in this case, the tech-facilitated gig economy has made it so that precarious laborers, those who have been designated our most “essential,” are forced to bid against each other.

The global pandemic and subsequent lockdowns exposed the fissures of racial and class inequities globally, as marginalized groups continue to be disproportionately impacted. Amid this layered crisis came protests in response to intransigent antiblackness and a politics of austerity that have led to the shrinking and privatization of social services in cities around the globe. The inequities that result from these measures have only exacerbated growing inequalities in the transmission of COVID-19. All of these elements combined resulted in a strong reaction with widespread social unrest and public demonstrations, many of which were violently counteracted by militarized law enforcement agents.

In particular, Washington, DC has been the site of contestation over public space during the lockdown, especially while President Donald Trump remained in office. It was in DC where Mayor Muriel Bowser engaged in a political battle over use of the capital city’s space. Most notably, in June 2020, Bowser commissioned a 40-foot tall street mural, the first of its kind, emblazoned with the words “Black Lives Matter,” directly in front of the White House. In a way, the mural was supposed to make a statement about DC being a Black city alongside proclamations that Black lives [should] matter, despite the incidents of state-sanctioned violence that precipitated the global protests in the first place. At the same time, the racial politics of the moment and the increasing use of blackness as part of an aesthetic infrastructure emphasize toponymic solutions over substantive change.

These aesthetics of blackness are often adopted by city leaders, developers, and corporate brands in times of crisis in order to demonstrate their commitment or alignment with progressive racial politics. It is not profitable to be racist anymore. Instead, there is more potential for increased consumption if you show your commitment to the cause. Neoliberal capital is flexible enough to incorporate and even recirculate radical/insurgent messages. What that means, of course, is that these brands focus more on the aesthetic forms of activism, supposedly “authentic” expressions of solidarity, that instead promote a capitalist agenda rather than finding solutions to account for the racism within their own organizations.

The violence of gentrification gets exacerbated in moments like this as the activists confront political leaders who express their solidarity with the cause, but continue to promote policy and direct funds that counter the very meaning of the protest. Evoking aesthetic practices, tactical urbanism must be accompanied by clear solutions that confront and dismantle institutions and processes, like gentrification, that perpetuate structural inequality.

Thinking into the future, especially as it relates to various business landscapes, I believe the long durée of the pandemic will produce new opportunities for us to interact and for businesses to make a profit from the new organization of public space and public life. In this way, the authentic city has become the green, accessible, mixed-use, sustainable city. The authentic city is the habitable city, one within which people can linger, but which people? The city will continue to draw on the aesthetics of diversity in similar ways as before, but not think about true (class) diversity, because there is not enough space for everyone. This city will inherently rely on “essential workers” who will most likely not be able to afford to live there. And it is idealistic, perhaps naïve, to think that the wealthy will want to mingle with their poor and working-class neighbors, despite early reflections on COVID being the “great equalizer.”

Brandi T. Summers, "Aesthetic Activism and the Quest for Authenticity in a Time of Crisis," Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 6, no. 3 (June 2021).
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