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Mar 2, 17

Keep It Local: Gentrification and Art in Minneapolis

This past month Frostbeard Studio, a Powderhorn shop specializing in “homemade candles for book nerds,” had its windows smashed out and its walls tagged with anti-gentrification graffiti. Responses to this incident have varied, from citizens raging about the nerve of someone carrying out such an attack upon ‘community’ or ‘art’ to people stopping short of endorsing the property destruction yet acknowledging the negative effects shops like Frostbeard, whose candles cost $18 apiece, have on historically black and brown neighborhoods like Powderhorn. In what should come as no surprise to regular readers, we have this to say about the smashings: good. We’ll delve into reasons why we think attacks such as this one, as well as the recent vandalism of a local real estate office/art gallery, could help prevent Powderhorn and similar neighborhoods from becoming homogenized hellscapes like Uptown in a bit, but first we want to spend some time deconstructing the often-invoked but rarely examined concepts of ‘community’ and ‘art’.

As was argued in the anonymous essay ‘The Clash of Communities,’ written during the 4th Precinct occupation back in 2015, the concept of a static overarching ‘community’ that includes all people who live within a certain area or who belong to a certain group holds no weight when examined closely. Instead we would do well to think community as something that is constantly in the process of becoming, with different communities “flowing in and out of each other, forming conscious and subconscious bonds, exchanging words and stories,” and at times coming into conflict with each other. From this perspective, community can for some mean working together to police the neighborhood and protect private property and for others mean working together to safely carry out actions that decrease the ability of trendy businesses to thrive and thus attract further waves of settlement and development to the neighborhood. Criticizing an action on the grounds that it is anti-community flattens out this nuance, perpetuating the myth that those who live in an area and want the rent to stay low and those who own businesses or property in the area and want more capital to flow into it somehow share a set of common interests.

Like ‘community’, the word ‘art’ is deployed again and again to deflect criticisms made about the effects that different actions have upon our environment. Art is assumed to be a universal good and thus anything that is labeled art is beyond reproach. But just as there is no ‘community’, there is no ‘art’, only arts, and different arts clearly impact the world in very different ways. There is the art of beautifying capitalist restructuring and the art of exposing it for the shit-show it really is. There is the art of soothing society’s winners, assuring them that they are human after all, and there is the art of reminding society’s losers that defeat is never final. There is the art of convincing yuppies to buy overpriced candles and there is the art of throwing up tags in the middle of the night. Claiming to act in the name of ‘art’ does not excuse one from having to justify one’s actions on ethical grounds.

Of course if the necessity of justifying one’s actions on ethical grounds applies to artists opening businesses in Powderhorn then it applies to those who smash their windows too. After all, we are sure the owners of Frostbeard were being sincere when they asserted in a Facebook post following the smashing that they are “not a big corporation trying to gentrify the neighborhood (quite the opposite).” Isn’t strategizing to run them out of business a little cruel? Well maybe, from a certain standpoint, but the thing to remember is that gentrification is a structural problem, even as that structure is the outcome of thousands of personal decisions. The owners of Frostbeard don’t intend to gentrify Powderhorn; gentrification is simply an unintended consequence of fulfilling their dream of selling nerdy candles. Conversely, we don’t necessarily wish to see their dream fail (in fact we are fans of many of the books their candles reference), but if their dream succeeding takes us further down the path towards the neighborhood being broken apart then we are forced to take a side and it won’t be theirs. Ultimately the question we should ask in relation to attacks such as these is this: do they work? Because only a reactionary would argue that a few boutique businesses failing and some developers not getting their expected return on investment is somehow ethically worse than hundreds of people being displaced.

Whether or not these attacks work is difficult to determine, and we certainly don’t intend to claim that all that is needed to stop gentrification is to break windows, but in our opinion actions such as these have definite impacts. Despite how it is typically framed, gentrification is not inevitable. Sometimes neighborhoods reach the point that much of Minneapolis is at now and then continue along the road to condo hell, and sometimes they don’t. Much of what determines the success or failure of various development initiatives is out of our control, but not all of it. We have the power to make life much harder for developers. As anyone who has tried to open one will tell you, small businesses are incredibly precarious, especially for the first few years of their existence, and even more so when they are expensive specialty stores that much of the neighborhood can’t afford. For examples of this we need look no further than the multiple trendy restaurants in and around Powderhorn, such as Blue Ox Coffee and La Ceiba, that have gone out of business in the past year or so, not because of any intentional assault but simply because the neighborhood doesn’t yet have the density of yuppies needed to sustain places that charge $5 for coffee or $20 for an entrée. The accumulated costs of the broken windows, higher insurance premiums, and decreased business that could result from increased agitation against these shops could push things into the red for businesses like Frostbeard that have so far been scraping by. If more and more of these businesses fail, fewer and fewer people who desire to live in neighborhoods full of trendy boutiques will move in, preventing the landlords from raising the rent, or at least as much as they would otherwise.

While targeting small businesses will always generate controversy, it is important to recognize that this is a decisive time for Powderhorn and similar neighborhoods. Wait another five to ten years for less-controversial targets like Starbucks to move in and any resistance will be too little, too late. Unlike Frostbeard, stores like Starbucks have sufficient capital behind them to weather broken windows and boycotts if they are confident that they will eventually get a return on their investment. Next year’s Super Bowl also offers developers an opportunity to ramp up their activity across the city; it is likely that this event will have effects that will be felt long after the game is over and all of the drunk executives leave town. Another reason that we can’t afford to waste any time is the fact that various tech companies have their sights set on making hip, progressive, white, artsy Minneapolis the Silicon Valley of the Midwest, “Silicon Prairie” as they call it. The main thing standing in their way is that they are finding it hard to convince top job candidates to endure the winters here when they could get jobs in Austin or the Bay Area, but as the winters continue to grow milder this will hold them back less and less. Now is the time to act—let’s sabotage Silicon Prairie from the get-go.

Beyond the concrete damage done to gentrifying businesses by attacks such as these, in our mind they have an important impact on the semantic field upon which the social war plays out, exposing fault lines within the city that are typically covered up by the progressive image of Minneapolis that is continuously forced down our throats. Such an exposure can be messy, but in our opinion is ultimately therapeutic; certainly it is preferable to the refusal to acknowledge conflict like good Minnesotans. Once an attack like this takes place, everyone who hears about it is forced to take sides, to define their views and act them out, instead of continuing to exist in some progressive fantasy where they can shop at stores like Frostbeard yet claim to oppose gentrification. They may have an “All Are Welcome” sign in their window, but it should be obvious that “All” can’t drop $18 on a candle, much less withstand another rent hike.

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Conflict Minnesota is a tool for those building new worlds; a Twin Cities-based platform for those who organize and take action against this ongoing catastrophe.

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