Commonplace 15: Who’s Got the Power?

I found this flyer on a junction box in Tenleytown while getting dinner, and it seems to express a common frustration with much of the class so far. Picture by me.

While I admit City of Rhetoric is quite arguable around its central thesis, I feel the book’s greatest achievements lie in it’s discussion of various methods of “urban development” and the problems thereof. While many local politician will often argue that mixed income housing or redevelopment plans are ultimately a boon for the community, they often overlook the effects on the poorest residents- something that has as of late become an acute point among the more socially conscious urban dwellers. DC in particular has a horrendous problem with housing, having homelessness rates twice the national average, something not helped by the gigantic amounts of gentrification experienced in traditionally lower and middle income neighborhoods as of late. While I can’t say for certain the exact position of the poster of this flyer, as their website appears to have gone down, this has a lot of rhetoric to unpack, not only in content but in location.

This flyer is meant to highlight and shame several officials the authors see as complicit in the gentrification of DC. The figure who first pops out as you, and seemingly the one they aim to direct the most vitrol to, is our mayor Marion Bowser. The rest of the people pictured are appointees, directly or indirectly by Bowser, which makes her position of prominence make sense. These lesser figures are all, as you might expect, involved in urban planning and zoning- two groups with the most control over the rate and manner of city development. The one thing in particular that I very find interesting about this flyer is the center piece, evidently a photo copied sticker. While the “motto” of “GENTRIFY” is pretty standard, the use of stereotypical pioneer imagery brings several dimensions into this. The most obvious one is the subtle racial connotations of the pioneers- people who, if we look past the gloss of historical nostalgia, are best known for displacing and slaughtering innumerable native American tribes in the pursuit of profit. A comparison seems to be made between the gentrifying forces’ displacement of predominantly minority homeowners and the American pioneers displacement of Native Americans, quite an interesting angle.

However, the rhetoric of place of where this flyer is presents more dimensions. Tenleytown is a quite upper-class neighborhood, almost bordering on suburban, with high housing prices. Most residents likely do not have vitrolic feelings about gentrification, or may even see it as a beneficial act benefiting their city. This seems to suggest that such a flyer is not targeted at the residents, but rather at American University’s students, many of whom are quite socially conscious. It becomes a hair more ironic when you realize how many of our students are themselves from upper-middle class backgrounds, who tend to be the driving force in modern gentrification. While having allies is important, one can begin to question the legitimacy of such people in their feelings, or at least their last of reflection. However, ultimately a proper analysis of this may be impossible without viewing their website- but it’s a salient piece of public rhetoric nonetheless.

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