Just a few blocks northeast of the Dekalb Avenue L stop in Bushwick, attached to the side of the La Iglesia de Santa Cruz Episcopal Church, sits a grassroots community-organizing center aptly named “Mayday.” Encircled by one of the most rapidly gentrifying areas in New York City, the organization was created in January of 2013 as a “home for radical thought and debate,” a space where local activists could start mobilizing the neighborhood around issues like immigrant rights, tenant protections, and the growing displacement of its residents.
And while gentrification is often described as a form of modern-day colonialism — the exploitation and plunder of low-income communities for land and profit — Mayday Space has, in many ways, become a command post for the resistance movement in the area. Earlier this month, roughly a dozen of Mayday’s core members and volunteers gathered on St. Nicholas Avenue to begin work on the group’s latest protest project, Mi Casa No Es Su Casa: Illumination Against Gentrification.
Working in collaboration with the NYC Light Brigade — a social justice organization born out of the Occupy Wall Street movement — the group has created illuminated signs, blaring provocative phrases like “Gentrification in Process,” “Not 4 Sale,” and “No Eviction Zone,” that it plans to install in homes throughout the neighborhood this week. Though the signs were created by weaving strings of white lights through punctured pieces of black plywood, they’re more an act of political subversion than a simple holiday arts-and-crafts project.
“People have been pushed out more and more and we have nowhere left to go, so this is our chance to kind of push back using the same tool that was used to displace us, which is art,” Pati Rodriguez, a member of Mayday’s programming committee, tells the Voice. A resident of Bushwick for most of her life, Rodriguez is referring to what she calls the “beautification” of Brooklyn — the use of art and culture as an excuse to raise rents in traditionally impoverished neighborhoods. “But our art isn’t going to be some hipster random art, which doesn’t really connect with the people who are here. We’re creating blunt signs.
“This is something that’s coming from the people of Brooklyn, for Brooklyn,” she adds. “We’re using the art for activism.”
Born in Ecuador, Rodriguez immigrated to East New York as an infant before settling in Bushwick at the age of nine. Her family has owned a home in the neighborhood surrounding Mayday Space for years, a multistory apartment building where Rodriguez and her daughter continue to live to this day. But more recently, as real estate in Bushwick has become an increasingly prized commodity, Rodriguez says she has been receiving countless phone calls and letters pleading with her parents to sell.
The incessant pressure from real estate developers has started to border on harassment, and Rodriguez’s initial plan was to cut up all of the unwanted letters and turn them into a “collage of shame.” But after coming in contact with members of the NYC Light Brigade earlier this year, illuminated signs stuck out to Rodriguez as a more effective way of conveying the neighborhood’s message of noncompliance.
“The project obviously is attacking real estate developers who are coming here and buying up all these houses and then reselling them for millions,” she says. In addition to volunteering with Mayday, Rodriguez does legal work for immigration rights. “They’re exploiting these people by offering them very little for their homes in the first place. But people are so poor and in desperate need right now because of the economic crisis that we’re all living under that they just take it. Part of [the reason for] this project is to build consciousness around how to own land is to own power.”
Mi Casa No Es Su Casa effectively serves two purposes: First, the project provides a platform for low-income residents of color to be heard, voices that are typically underrepresented when it comes to discussions concerning gentrification and displacement. Second, it seeks to awaken newcomers to the area out of their naïveté about the true definition of gentrification, which usually means more than just the new café or condominium complex that’s opened up around the corner; it’s the families who were uprooted from their homes in order to make room for the developments and can no longer afford to live or shop in the neighborhood as a result.
“Many people who are new to the neighborhood, they choose to ignore those realities because it’s not affecting them as much as it’s affecting us. We’re the ones who are losing our homes, the homes that we were raised in,” says Will Giron, a core member of Mayday and a lifelong resident of Bushwick. Giron found himself in the news earlier this year after an artist mounted a crochet mural of a Wes Anderson film to the side of his family’s building without permission. The episode sparked outrage in the community and became a symbol of the area’s escalating battle against gentrification. “I don’t think people understand how emotionally exhausting it is to constantly see your community being erased. When I see cafés pop up that a lot of people can’t afford, when I see businesses directed toward one type of people, when I see condos going up geared toward one type of people, just sort of the erasure of our history here, it conjures up feelings of anger but also of hurt and pain.”
Though the holidays afford the perfect opportunity to unveil the illuminated signs — juxtaposing the season’s good tidings and cheer with the constant fear surrounding displacement and eviction — the signs will stay in residents’ homes well into the new year, and as long as it takes for developers, landlords, and New York City to get the message.
“You can’t ignore these signs,” says Bruno Daniel, another core member of Mayday. As a child, his family was evicted from their home in Bedford-Stuyvesant after being taunted and ridiculed by their landlord. Through his work with the organization, he hopes to make sure other families never have to suffer the same experience. “It’s waking people up, it’s putting it in their face and letting them know that there is a human side to this. People are in danger. People are losing their homes.”