Reimagining the city. Against the gentrification

In his project The Frozen Neiborhoods, Olalekan Jeyifous explores Crown Heights, in Brookling, New York, where he lived for 20 years, and which was rapidly gentrifying. The new gentrifying inhabitants and the longtime residents literally occupy the exact same streets-rarely do they interact.

He imagines an alternative reality where the community was become a “Frozen Zone”, cut off the rest of the city, considering it as if it had not been gentrified so rapidly. His eco-futuristic afro-and-agro vision will make you think.

This project was part of the exhibition at the MOMA Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America (27.02.2021-31.05.2021); and also part of a free online course I made Reimagining Blackness and Architecture, imparted by Coursera & The Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition is an investigation into the intersections of architecture, Blackness and anti–Black racism in the American context, but extrapolated to the whole world.

Jeyifous creates a fiction story lin for his project. He adresses climate change to imagine a futuristic world, with supernatural circunstances, alternative realities and imagined settings and elements. He studied architectue and his practice is based on visual design. He says: “Architecture is my medium, but I’m really a storyteller.”

A rendering showing two men sitting on stairs with VR visors on. A vertical garden grows in an alleyway with transparent pods on the walls
Olalekan Jeyifous. Bed-Stuy Urban Bubble Farm. 2020. Digital collage.
A rendering showing drones carrying canisters, a vertical farm, and futuristic infrastructure
Olalekan Jeyifous, Rooftop Rainwater Harvest, 2020. Digital collage.

A rooftop turned into a lush farm with two people sitting in a robotic harvesting device
Olalekan Jeyifous, Aeroponic Roof Garden. 2020. Digital collage.
A rendering of an aerial view of apartment buildings with a futuristic garden in the courtyard
Olakekan Jeyifous. Crown Heights Bodega EcoHaven. 2020. Digital collage

You can visit his instagram profile: https://www.instagram.com/kidcadaver/

or his website: http://vigilism.com/

KEY TERMS: Gentrification: The process of change experienced by a neighborhood that was previously undervalued and neglected by institutions of power and social services. Gentrification can be either a rapid or slow process, but almost always involves the displacement of a marginalized community through the settlement of non-marginalized groups.

“What really inspired my conceptual thinking is the sci-fi book “The City & the City”, by China Miéville. It is basically two cities that occupy the exact same space, and like the occupants of each city, they walk by each other and they pass each other, but they are in completely different cities. They dress slightly differently, they move slightly differently, and it is illegal for them to acknowledge the person in the other city without going through a rigorous Customs border-crossing. This book has always been a perfect allegory for me for the kind of interaction between a lot of the sort of gentrifying folks in my neighborhood and folks who live here for a very long time. Walking up and down the street every day, I see such a complete disconnect between the two communities of the Black folks sitting on the steps chilling and then newer gentrifying folks spilling out of bars. They may walk into the same bodega, but there’s like zero acknowledgment, you know? So it’s an interesting thing. Jeyifous says.

This is sad, but it happens in all the gentrified cities/neighborhoods. We can talk about gentrification when some part or all the population of a popular neighborhood is replaced by a higher class population, due to the increase of the housing’s prizes. It can be caused because public and private builders want to regenerate the area, or because there are new social areas, or tourist activity. This neighborhoods may be in a process of denegration or can be the best spots of the city, but the purpose is always the same: invest money and speculate, taking advantage of the improvements of an area made with public money or the situation of the best popular zones.

There are some phases in which this process occurs in which sometimes you do not even realize it. First, the cultural, artistic and leisure offer increases; so young and creative are going to live in that area of the city. Later, the neighborhood began to transform and revitalize, which is why the middle classes are attracted to it and that is when they decide to move to the area. That’s when speculators and investors spot these new areas of opportunity, creating inequality and social segregation forcing longtime tenants in these neighborhoods to leave. “al carallo”.

It may be that an art gallery, a museum, new hotels or tourist apartments appear, or new places for the leisure and creativity of young people. At first the prices of houses and stores are affordable until prices are increased…

You can fight against gentrification, and for this it is key to know what the processes have been in each neighborhood, analyzing the type of owner, the social classes and ethnic groups they have… Is there a level where society and culture mix in a neighborhood and gentrification is no longer possible? When is it considered impossible to return to the previous state of the neighborhood?

It is possible that if the coexistence with the people who have always lived in the neighborhood with the new neighbors is good, in the sense that both live mixed and have a good relationship, in which the cultural and the social are mixed; manage to enrich the values of that neighborhood and prevent real estate and construction companies from contributing to speculation? Without increasing the prices of goods or rents, without substituting traditional local businesses for large multinationals, without removing the neighborhood from its people, and by associating and uniting to defend the neighborhood.

Rent payment for families with few resources is necessary, since everyone has the right to decent and hygienic housing, the right to urban neighborhood life as Jane Jacobs said, and The tight to the city, by Henri Lefebvre.

Based in the book: Política y Arquitectura. Josep María Montaner & Zaida Muxí. 2020.