Counter-Scripting El Barrio: The Changing Function of (Political) Murals in Spanish Harlem

Authors: Florian Deckers*, University of Duisburg-Essen
Topics: Ethnicity and Race, Latinx Geographies
Keywords: Scripting, Gentrification, Art, Resistance
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/7/2021
Start / End Time: 11:10 AM / 12:25 PM
Room: Virtual 30
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


My presentation focusses on the changing functions and appropriation of social practices of resistance, namely the painting of murals, in New York City’s neighborhood Spanish Harlem. Those practices, or as Jeffrey Hou calls them “[u]nsanctioned, unscripted, and seemingly “undesirable” activities” have, as he remarks, “long been a part of urban life.” Their functions, however, have undergone drastic alterations in the last decades. Having started as a place-making technique of Latinx artists of Puerto Rican descent – a way to inscribe ethnic identity of marginalized groups into their neighborhood and claim the space creatively – by now those murals are at the center of narratives of ethnicity and ‘authenticity’ of various stakeholders situated in- and, more often, outside of El Barrio. The spatial markers still serve as inter- and intraculturally educational texts, neatly fitting into Michel de Certeau’s category of urban “tactics,” as renegotiations of the urban space by the general public. Their reinterpretation and application in narratives of outsiders trying to sell a ‘hip’ vision of the area, however, has added functions that can be diametrical to the murals’ original script. From being ‘texts’ exclusively for and by the local population, they are now also catering to tourists and investors longing for the ‘authentic’ Latinx experience. Thusly re-scripted and incorporated into institutional and private “strategies,” the artworks also benefit on-going processes of gentrification. While these processes might reduce results of infrastructural disinvestment of the municipality, they also propel displacement of the original population perverting the inherent intent of the art.

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