By Annie Armstrong

"This neighborhood has changed" has become a clichéd "thing New Yorkers say" in 2016. The phrase echoes from Bushwick's graffiti-covered walls to the gallery-lined streets of Chinatown. But when we check out exhibitions and street art in these "up-and-coming" neighborhoods, we often fail to recognize an important part of the problem — "art washing." Coined by The Atlantic in 2014, the term refers to the superficial cultural narrative that new art spaces and non-native artists bring to gentrifying communities.

It might not seem obvious, but a newly commissioned mural of Biggie in Bed-Stuy can be just as much a signifier of gentrification as the LaCroix wall at Williamsburg's new Whole Foods. Gentrification isn't just the influx of fancy condominiums, it's also the art a community chooses to show, and who creates it. New York City has always been a welcoming destination for young, struggling artists, but how those artists live in and interact with their new neighborhoods also needs to be questioned.

Artwashing is a symptom of the mass gentrification of many major cities in the US. In Los Angeles, anti-gentrification activists have been speaking out against the wave of new art galleries cropping up in the rapidly changing Boyle Heights neighborhood; Atlanta's public art-heavy BeltLine project has redefined the city's infrastructure, making it even less accessible to low-income families; and in London, the city's abandoned buildings have been transformed into either art spaces or luxury high-rises instead of low-income housing, despite public outcry.

In New York City, this issue is often glossed over by both city officials and the city's growing population — to the detriment of long-standing local communities. In Chinatown, local artist Elizabeth Moy mapped out the galleries in the six blocks surrounding Mott Street. The map shows 91 galleries located in the area, and 60% of them opened in the last three years. This kind of growth mirrors that of Chelsea, which changed from a strictly residential community into one of the city's cultural centers after Dia:Chelsea opened in 1987. Today, as galleries are now being priced out of Chelsea, New York's art world is migrating southeast.

Betty Yu, a local artist fighting to keep the "local" prefix, tells i-D, "People see Chinatown as cheap art space that is now in a hip, central neighborhood with cheap coffee. And they don't give a damn if locals in the area never come in, because they're looking for that sale. The two sales they get for $5,000 each are good enough for them for the month. That's really problematic. The perception right now is that Chinatown doesn't actually have its own real culture. People think it doesn't have anything historical to preserve in culture or in art. There have been elected officials who are more or less saying that." 

"So how do we deal with these art galleries that are cropping up in the neighborhood?" asks Yu. "They need to become more community-oriented, no doubt. Unfortunately, way back when, the city council elected to preserve the East Village, but they gave up on Chinatown." Several official organizations dedicated to preserving the East Village, Greenwich Village, and Lower East Side have received funding from the city council, such as Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and Lower East Side Preservation Initiative. But efforts to preserve Chinatown have been left to grassroots initiatives. 

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