City Paper is not for tourists
Graffiti fails to sway the city on gentrification.
Foes of gentrification in Washington, D.C., have turned to graffiti to get their message across. A poll by the Washington City Paper, however, suggests that using graffiti to influence public opinion on this controversial matter is a losing strategy.
The poll was conducted on a Monday afternoon on Irving Street NW, between 14th Street and Hiatt Place. This block is the location of a particularly prominent anti-gentrification message, neatly written on a long white wall that hides a construction site, slightly apart from sloppier, nonpolitical graffiti tags. “RESIST GENTRIFICATION!” it reads, in letters roughly 2 feet high.
Of 25 passers-by polled, eight—or 32 percent—indicated that they did not know what “gentrification” meant. (It’s the process by which a decaying urban neighborhood is rehabbed into an upper-middle-class enclave, resulting in the displacement of the poor.) The remaining 17 respondents, or 68 percent, said that the graffito did not change their stance on the gentrification issue. Sixteen of the 17 indicated that they were opposed to the use of graffiti, even for making political statements.
“I just moved into the neighborhood,” said Columbia Heights resident Scott Crozier, 30. “I think it’s ironic to have graffiti in a neighborhood that is saying, ‘Don’t improve the neighborhood.’”
Most respondents expressed skepticism about the graffito’s ability to influence others.
“That sign won’t stop anybody from doing anything—people disregard all graffiti anyway,” said Karl Pitts, 43, an engineer from Southeast. “Wherever there is affordable housing, people will move in.”
“I used to live right around the corner. My landlord stopped paying the house note, and some guy from Florida came in and turned it into a four-unit apartment building,” said a Northwest construction worker who asked not to be identified. “A sign wouldn’t have stopped him.”
Though hardly galvanizing a movement against spiraling real estate values, the graffito does appear to have prompted some soul-searching among locals. Cathy Elbo, a 25-year-old newcomer to Columbia Heights, said that graffiti would not have stopped her from moving in. “[Gentrification] is what made it possible for me to live here,” Elbo said. “But I understand where they’re coming from—I definitely oppose it.”
The lone pro-graffiti respondent was Sally Hanlon, 66, who also lives in the neighborhood. “They’re just speaking the truth to power,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of interesting graffiti lately, like ‘Poverty Is Terrorism.’ They may not be able to say it in public, or put it on a wall in the daytime, but they can come out here at night and express what they’re feeling.” CP