When Murals Are More Than Memories

A few words on the fight for memory in the face of gentrification,
summed up in the battle over a Biggie mural.

Photo Credit: Brooklyn Vegan

“And I got to thinking about the moral meaning of memory, per se. And what it means to forget, what it means to fail to find and preserve the connection with the dead whose lives you, or I, want or need to honor with our own.”
- June Jordan

This is the one funny thing about memory that I’m beginning to appreciate
more as I move towards being that “old head”. The things that one feels they
can rely upon to always be there, sometimes are the things that others want
to take away. Sometimes it’ll be called “progress.” Or “beautification.” The
idea of memory and the willful obliteration of it or the attempts to jab at me
sometimes like one of your boys who wants to get your attention by trying to
slap-box with you. This idea of memory and what one holds dear and tries
to hold onto has intensified over the past few years. I’ll feel that from having
discussions with my parents, who’ll often remark with surprise if we drive
past a certain block around the way where houses have been torn down and
replaced with a nest of scaffolding or another condo apartment building. I
find myself dwelling upon memory when I hear about an elder relative and
their struggles with dementia. How memory can be taken away from you
bit by agonizing bit. It hits me whenever I hear of one store or another closing down. Here in New York City, there’s a veritable list of local spots and stores that have croaked due to high rent and other factors. Places that were part of the fabric of this city and its culture. Places now gone to memory, ripped off the surface of the city and replaced with sleek and shiny structures like torn flesh in a patch of rose bushes. Being a person of color in NYC, you feel that sting more than most. And then you realize that there are others who don’t mind one bit that you and your communities WILL feel it before they do. If ever.

We’re in a time where you have a serious debate going on over realtors vigorously attempting to rename Harlem. HARLEM. If that’s not an E.Honda
hundred-hand slap to the face of the people up there AFTER they lost the
iconic Lenox Lounge and are possibly getting a Sephora in its stead, you
want to rename a global Mecca for Black folks with a term that sounds like
you can’t get that last chia seed from a Hale & Hearty sandwich out of your teeth?!!

Memory, at least in the minds of those still calling New York City home, is
in some cases the only luxury they have. For those who have left the city
for all points south and in some cases west, these memories are bittersweet.
I find myself being the bearer of bad news when it comes to folks asking
me about certain spots at times. And in a city where development just up
and skyrocketed as Rudy Giuliani was mayor and then Michael Bloomberg
stepped in, certain things made you feel like you were being stepped on.
Gentrification is a weapon wielded by those who are hungry for profit and
prestige. It’s a massive snake with a bevy of fangs. Look at the High Line.
An old railway reclaimed and revitalized to now be one of the city’s premier
attractions. It was meant to be a symbol to bring together the well-off that
live in the Chelsea neighborhood and those working folks and other low-income folks that also call Chelsea home. But there are still some struggles,
shown off to sobering but brilliant effect in the HBO documentary Class
. It makes you wonder what the end game is. It makes you wonder
if memory truly matters in the face of luxury condo listings, hipster-ized
boutiques and bistros. If memory in the eyes of developers and overbearing
landlords is nothing more than a harried bet at an OTB window streaked
with cheap cigar smoke residue.

That’s where the mural you see above comes in.

As much as there have been hurtful moments all across this city in terms
of what’s been taken away (*cough* 5Pointz *cough*), there are some
victories that memory can still claim here in NYC. That mural of the late
and great rap legend The Notorious B.I.G. stands at Bedford Avenue and
Quincy Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. It’s a brisk walk north from
Fulton Street in an area that has seen its population swell up and rents do
the same as a result. Biggie murals aren’t uncommon around the planet
of Brooklyn — there’s at least three others. This one in particular though
was at the center of a heated battle between the community and the owner
of the building. The owner was upset about the two-story high mural done
by Naoufal “Rocko” Alaoui and Scott “Zimer” Zimmerman and aimed to
put in windows to boost the property value. It took a massive effort from
the combined forces of the artists and the local community to get others
involved such as non-profit arts groups and the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets before
the owner changed his mind. Reading the news made me happy as hell.

For someone who grew up immersed in rap music and hip-hop culture
on a whole, it hasn’t been lost on me how much that culture has either
been whitewashed in this city or stripped away to not be such a reminder
of the color of the city that stood out in previous years. It’s still a struggle
that can be seen all over — I hung out with a friend of mine and her
boyfriend this past weekend and we talked about her old apartment
being down the road from a former ‘ho stroll and weed spot. And how
the old factory across the street has now become some high-end yoga
studio. (For full disclosure that corner had a high-profile shooting
incident last year.) Granted, change is inevitable. But forced change
is an entirely different animal.

I’m not totally naive. I do realize that the success in keeping the Biggie
mural up at Bedford and Quincy is a small victory. But in a time where you
have a clown-in-chief aiding and abetting all of the grifters in the country
including himself and his family, these are more than small moments.
When communities get certain things taken away from them, can’t live
in homes that have always been there for decades because someone wants
to build townhouses or highways or stadiums, these moments where
memory and the respect and love given to it winning out? Absolutely damn
golden. The little bit of volunteering I’ve done in recent months with
regards to my own area of the city has helped open my eyes to just how
deep-rooted the idea of stripping memories away has been when it comes
to this city and its infrastructure. And how much many have fought to
preserve them. For someone in a community of color it’s even more stark
and with less victories. But memories, the ones we value, the ones that
can be seen in murals like the one at Bedford and Quincy, or in centers
like the Loisaida Center and the Schomburg Center — these are memories
that are supposed to be permanent if not eternal.

And they are worth fighting for and held onto tightly for as long as we
can do both.

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