Bushwick of the previous decade has rapidly transformed from New York’s “forgotten” neighborhood into a synonym of hipness and trendiness. We can only hope that the adverse effects of the neighborhood’s speedy development have been outnumbered by the newly created opportunities, which still don’t lift our moral obligation to inhibit the negative effects of gentrification. In any case, contemporary Bushwick has a lot to reflect on, and so historically first TEDxBushwick conference, which was designed to examine transformation, came in an arguably good time. The event was at the very least partially successful to meet community’s high expectations and the need to pause and to reflect.
This past Saturday, March 21, from 9am to 5pm, Livestream Public (195 Morgan Ave) filled up with about 100 attendees and 11 speakers. The theme Translating Transformation was applied loosely and the invited speakers spoke on a variety of subjects pertaining to transformation–from meditation, tech and design to very Bushwick-centric topics.
Getting a TEDx License is not easy
TEDx are local, self-organized events in the license of global conferences TED. Held under the slogan: “Ideas Worth Spreading,” several TEDx conferences have been held in the citiesa around the world as well as in New York neighborhoods (TEDxChelsea, TEDxGowanus, etc.)
In order to be able to organize a TEDx conference, you must apply for a license and abide by a set of stringent rules set forth by the mother organization. It’s not always easy to get the license, and Minda Aguhob, TEDxBushwick licensee and co-organizer could talk about that. She applied for TEDxBushwick license in December 2013, and waited over a year to get it.
Ms. Aguhob told us back in October 2014 that she fell in love with Bushwick while conducting a research at Bushwick’s Woodhull Hospital. “There is an amazing level of innovation in Bushwick,” she said. Ms. Aguhob has been splitting her time between New York City and San Francisco where she was in a startup accelerator. At the end of TEDxBushwick conference she announced that she is relocating permanently to San Francisco.
Co-organizer Patrycja Slawuta is a Polish born resident of Hell’s Kitchen, an academic researcher, and a PhD. graduate in psychology is interested in a field that is arguably very TED: the collective moral emotions; the language of propaganda, linguistic metaphors; and how the perception is shaped by the language we use. She came on board of TEDxBushwick as an individual and a friend who has been organizing similar series of talk events out of her apartment as well as a series of self-improvement workshops.
Organizers: not Bushwick-centric enough
The critics have been voicing their concerns that the connection of the organizers to the neighborhood wasn’t strong enough to be able to truly embrace what Bushwick needed to talk about at this moment of time. The hostess of the event, News 12 journalist Kristen Pope, didn’t really help to overcome this issue when she cheerfully announced that this was her first time in Bushwick.
Nevertheless, it was Slawuta and Aguhob who whose priority and qualifications helped them to receive the TEDxBushwick license and who successfully held the event this past weekend. Fortunately for the organizers, as everything Bushwick, TEDxBushwick received plenty of press and so the women were able to eventually reach Bushwick community and fill five of 11 speaker slots of through an open call.
The bar for speakers was high
While everyone was able to submit their talk proposal, not everyone was able to get in. The organizers set the bar pretty high: “We are looking to really organize a world-class event,” told us Ms. Aguhob in October. “We are hoping that at least five talks from TEDxBushwick will be selected for the main TED.com website as not all TEDx talks are,” added Ms. Slawuta.
The speakers were not announced until five days before the event, and as Ms Slawuta revealed to us some of the speakers were auditioning until the very end of the rehearsals. “We had somebody quit just the day before,” she said.
Hours of coaching and rehearsals was quite a significant commitment that perhaps not everyone applying to be a TEDxBushwick speaker considered before. Never the less, I believe that it was the Bushwick speakers who delivered the more interesting talks and who touched upon the truly burning issues of our community.
Latino gays also want to benefit from new Bushwick’s freedom
The conference opened with a hard-hitting talk of Emanuel Xavier titled “Bushwick Bohemia.” The talk of Bushwick born and raised poet, was filled with contrasts similarly like Bushwick of today is. He talked about Bushwick before iPhones and hipsters, which he loved but which was also filled with machismo, forcing Xavier to grow up “as a boy ashamed that he liked other boys.” Knowing that there was a world out there “where soft spoken boys could speak boldly,” Xavier left to return to Bushwick as a successful published poet and an LGBT icon. He realized that Bushwick transformed into a home of artists and people who were different. Celebrating these changes with the freedom they’ve brought, he was also acutely aware of being Latino–someone to be priced out and a “savage” as he called himself in the talk.
In fall 2005, Xavier was brutally attacked by a group of teenagers, “kids of kids who use to bully him at school,” he said, leaving him permanently deaf on one ear. Xavier called on the artist community and “gentrifiers” to look out for people like him too, not only for one another. “Bushwick’s LGBT community also deserves a safe space,” he said. He called on the community of newcomers to share their digital skills as well as art festival where everybody from the entire world seems to be invited except his abuela.
Similarly, Modesto Flaco Jimenez, a Bushwick poet, recited three poems unraveling in the changing neighborhood where he grew up.
“Artists cause gentrification”
In this connection the talk “Art Causes Gentrification” by gallerist Ethan Pettit left me puzzled. Pettit who has been involved with the New York art scene since the 1980s opened his talk: “Art causes gentrification; artists cause gentrification.” Flashing through a number of slides of public art installation he’s accumulated throughout the years, he tried to draw correlation between these projects and the aesthetics of condo towers erected in Williamsburg of 2000s coming back to his “artists cause gentrification” statement several times.
Gentrification is a term loaded with heaviness of emotions that follow the negative impacts of urban renewal that so often leads to displacement of the occupying demographic. While I personally don’t doubt that gentrification often follows artist migration, I believe that claiming that art causes gentrification is not only incorrect but it also participates to growing resentment of the existing community towards similarly powerless creative class. Furthermore, the statement distracts from the real issues that cause gentrification and that contemporary American society has to face: immigration reform; nationwide housing crisis; racial and class inequality.
Let’s just protect culture makers by law
Rah Crawford, an artist and publisher of Wickbush, perhaps attempted to bridge Xavier’s and Pettit’s talks. As a Bushwick resident of a five years, he acknowledged that him as well as many others creatives have been drawing their inspiration from the colorful neighborhood of Bushwick. “How can we protect locally inspired people, cultural contributors to our neighborhood? What if cultural contributors were legally protected from being priced out from their own neighborhood?” Crawford asked in his talk. But as much as this was a crowd-pleasing idea, it is a lot easier said than done. Crawford didn’t attempt to propose any solutions on how to achieve this protection by law status, or who exactly would be protected (Curators? Artists? Or their muses such as the mariachi band he mentioned in the talk?). Crawford talked about roundtables of established and new residents his publication has been organizing.
TEDxBushwick organizers didn’t respond in time before publication of this article to my inquiry about the future of the event especially given that Ms Aguhob plans on permanently relocating. We can only hope that if the organizers decide to repeat the conference also next year, they will reach deeper into Bushwick community and create an event that truly touches upon and answers the most burning questions of our community.