Real Estate Development Signs and the Capitalist Reality They Will Deliver by Brett Bloom

Gentrification is too polite a term for the violence that takes a neighborhood away from one group and delivers it to another. The term suggests that a neighborhood is being made genteel – that the new inhabitants are improving the area, civilizing it, rather than savaging it. A more appropriate image is of one animal eating another, like a snake, devouring a creature many times its size, whole, and slowly digesting it. If people with more money—therefore more power—than you consume your neighborhood, then you can no longer afford to live there. Having your house taken is not a pleasant experience; you and your family lose more than just a place to live. You lose years of friendships and associations borne of close proximities. You cede social and bodily knowledge of a landscape, patterns of movement through spaces that are written deeply in your psyche. Neighborhoods, like everything else in a capitalist free market, are open to visceral, bloody consumption—being eaten alive. This Social Darwinism is constructed: people must be convinced that taking the neighborhood is good, harmless, and inevitable.

Real estate advertising is a part of this process and offers, at first glance, a seemingly benign depiction of happy people living in nice places. However, it insinuates a set of social relations that alienate the individual from the collective, making it harder for the social cohesion necessary to fight things such as neighborhood consumption. Getting new inhabitants to see that they are implicated in and responsible for this process is difficult. This is related to how capitalism structures social relationships. Competition—for housing, health, education, food, everything—puts one in the chronic position of feeling like everyone else is trying to take something from one. This unease somehow absolves one, disconnecting one from responsibility to anything other consumption vectors. This feeling of isolation or that one’s relationships to others is always defined by who can buy what is reinforced by a steady barrage of advertising imagery. There is always someone who has more than you, so you can’t be the one responsible for something as miserable as making housing unaffordable in your neighborhood. It is always someone else’s fault.

This essay attempts to understand how advertising shapes city spaces and influences the struggles to control and profit from them. Real estate advertising presents narratives of the city that are exclusionary, privileged, and that insist on one particular social reality over many other possibilities. These ads desensitize people to the violence that is luxury housing and displacement of others; they are a subtle form of propaganda that function when people take them as natural and not a forced image of themselves and the society they live in.

Eating Buildings

Developing a neighborhood is consuming it. Consumption is ingestion with resultant expulsions. You take something in to produce something else—eating food results in power and shit. This seems like an apt way to think about what happens when commercial developers’ appetites are writ large on a neighborhood.

An enormous convention center came to Hamburg’s Karolinenviertel [Karolinen quarter] in 2007 and ate this building. Its partial digestion left behind a cold disjointed urban space behind, uninviting and unwelcoming. It is a giant warning sign, proclaiming that wealthy people and their interests will devour your neighborhood—and they will do it with shitty architecture that pretends savvy integration with pre-existing infrastructure! It taunts you to stop them. Rich people ruin everything. They don’t fully understand the cold, hateful contempt that their greed and taking lodges in the people who have had their chunk of the city chewed away from the bone. This same convention center ate a Bauwagen Platz, an encampment of construction wagons converted to homes, called Bambule. A fierce battle between the city, Bambule, and their supporters ensued: The ultimate dispersion of the Bambule folks cleared the way for the sterilization of the area that this hideous architecture cum neighborhood destruction symbolically boasts.

Whether or not this building is historically significant or not is moot. In cities like Chicago, this is what “historic preservation” looks like. Often, only the façade of a building will be preserved. A much larger building is built that incorporates the historical façade into its new narrative. Presumably, both developers and preservationists are satisfied. The result is more like the one pictured here: empty, pathetic, and at the service of private business interests; the shoddy history a capitalist society deserves; the type of city space real estate signs promise.

The sign found in the lower left-hand side of the second image typifies the portrayals that often accompany large-scale, new development in cities. Neue Messe Hamburg [New Fair Hamburg], the make-over and expansion of a convention center. This image shows an airless, sunny landscape with men and women in business attire moving slowly toward their next meeting or presentation. The cars on the street are all brand new. There is no traffic nor anyone who doesn’t belong. The sky is empty of clouds creating a strange stillness and artificiality. This is a safe haven for business interests and money. The image asks us to activate the fantasy by behaving accordingly. Cities are full of behavioral guides like traffic lights, bike lanes, and other public furniture reminding us to obey even when authorities are not around. These development signs have a similar effect. It is a projection of how those with money and power want you to believe and behave–as if their development were benign and ultimately beneficial. Where are the Bambule in this image? Where are people who are not of European descent? Where are the homeless people, or just the people who live in the area whose rents are going up? The graffiti, smog, and trash are missing. It has all been written out of this story.

In addition to deploying mechanisms of control, city infrastructure erases or waters down contested histories and the struggles that always happen where there are large numbers of people. Cities present the current manifestation or state of control as natural—as if we arrived here on an unstoppable teleological trajectory, precluding other narratives and possibilities. And they won’t give you permits to tell your side without a protracted struggle. An aide in this process is the propaganda of real estate and development advertising, which I think is useful to refer to as “capitalist realism.”

Capitalist Realism – Truth in Advertising

Advertising has been eating up our city spaces for years. Think of these intrusions and how they clutter every imaginable surface. “Innovative” ad men and women devise increasingly invasive places for ads to dwell. The advertisement in the picture above catches you off guard. Its “creative” use of site specificity, to mimic the actual façade that is being repaired, distracts you from what is going on. There are several illusions working here. The first is the literal illusion. The advertisement covers the entire building and presents itself as the actual façade. We believe this illusion first. We have to in order for the next illusion to work. The first illusion is broken by the giant shape that breaches the façade causing the bricks to ripple outward. This reveals both an inane message (a commercial) and a person who is in turn pealing back some other underlying surface. I caught myself being seduced by this ad. I took the photo after all. However, once I realized what I was doing, my perspective shifted. We would be able to celebrate this image a lot more if it had no message at all—if it were done for creative purposes only rather than trying to get us to buy more shit we don’t need or can’t afford. The message displaces the “site specificity” of this “intervention” in the normal functioning of the building in its place in the city. Like a Windows operating system employing endless pop-ups to mask its protected source code, we have no hope of unmasking the functions of money and ownership in this situation. This is the “truth in advertising” of capitalist realism—shifting surfaces of value that mean one thing one moment, but have a different value another. Here our direct perception or gestalt of the city is disrupted by this ad. It makes for a thoroughly disorienting situation to say the least.

I was raised on the notion that, “capitalism is good, everything else is bad.” The world was broken down for me into stark binaries that would make Ronald Reagan proud. Later in life, I was taught by college professors and classmates to laugh at images depicting socialist realism because their statements betray—so clearly to us it seemed—government attempts at forcing everyone to think in the same ways. These images typically are of people sharing resources, from collective farming to worker-run factories, and building up society together. We are taught to think these images are naïve or that they are lying to us. We see them as blatant propaganda for authoritarian regimes that use the images to distract their populations from the mechanisms of power and the control the state exerts over them. Yet we don’t apply the same skepticism and disbelief at our own capitalistic imagery images of equally propagandistic force and design.

There are some important differences between capitalist realism and socialist realism in how they construct the subjectivity of their intended audiences. In the latter, the image is intended for everyone in the society, or more precisely, it hopes to include every individual, to get her to see herself as a part of something larger. You frequently see individuals or small groups that stand in for or are bolstered by their connections to the larger collective. In the image, The Power of Peace is Invincible, we see a young Estonian woman—a youthful, vibrant individual in plain yet strong clothing and posture, carrying a red flag—standing at the front of a large peace march. In fact, she is surrounded and completely absorbed by the collective. Their bodies are a part of her body and give her a monumental presence. Clean linear perspectival space—a pictorial device present in most socialist (and capitalist) realist images—is forcefully substituted by a distorted figure/ground relationship that leaves no distance between the woman and the collective. The people in the march are multi-ethnic and are holding signs in Estonian, Russian, Spanish, and English calling for world peace, abolishing nuclear weapons, and other messages. This image is strong and enticing—who wouldn’t want world peace? But what is so insidious about such images is what they exclude. The Soviet Union forcefully invaded Estonia, “liberated” its people, and violently purged dissenters. Artists who refused to make socialist realist images were either forced to leave, stop working, or worse. When this image was made, the Soviet Union was aggressively locked in an arms race with the United States—hardly a peaceful activity or cause for celebration.

In the terms of what is excluded, the development signs that pop up in our neighborhoods are equally troublesome. Both kinds of imagery tend to exclude those narratives that they are against. Capitalist realistic images exclude multiplicity, complexity, and dissent. Where the posters to the left are trying to sell political unity, real estate ads are trying to sell us consumer goods. Disruptions to either narrative are banished as they would get in the way of the desired goals.

But capitalist realism has the an opposing goal from that of socialist realism: rather than fostering a collective or group identification, its images reinforce one’s individuality as a consuming monad. The images may show nice street scenes and people getting along in peaceful harmony, but this coded image denies the opportunity of everyone to project themselves into it. The price tag for the luxury homes in these ads undercuts the forced unity they suggest. These images are not trying to amass a populace together in collective solidarity. Rather than unity forged through solidarity, these images create “connection” only in the fulfillment of the investment desires of the developers of the property. It is this profound emptiness that this image embodies that makes you shiver at the future it promises.

In Chicago one can readily find numerous examples of utopian images that prefigure the arrival of money, power, and privilege into your neighborhood. Images like the one above project tranquil scenes of a vaguely multi-cultural populace calmly enjoying their environs, free from strife and bad weather. Who wouldn’t want this? In these depictions, the buildings are in excellent condition having just been, or soon to be, renovated or constructed. Hardly anyone in this picture is interacting. They are all in their own little bubbles of consumption and reflection. There is no trash strewn on the ground. The depicted road is twice as wide as the existing one. The image of new housing and new neighborhood offers a false sense of space vast enough so you do not have to interact with anything other than your own condominium. You get to dwell deep inside your own consumer desire.

It takes a lot of money to print one of these signs and it is those with monied interests who make them. Images like these efface a number of factors that give texture and meaning to Chicago’s city spaces. They erase any class or race struggle implicit in the transformation of affordable apartments into luxury condominiums. There is no garbage or particulates in the air or an uneven distribution of city resources to in areas where poor people of color live. These images tell you nothing about the tripling of the rent for apartments in the past fifteen years. Instead, we get a carelessly rushed sales pitch.

None of the inhabitants of these landscapes belong in the same time-space continuum. In the Boulevard Court image, lazy digital manipulation creates an impossible quantum mechanics of simultaneous worlds coexisting on the same plane for as long as it takes to make a sale. The two people in this detail are cut from their own realms. The young woman in the foreground is lit with a dramatic chiascurro from the right side. Her shadow is longer than the man’s who seems to be approaching her. He is also lit from the front and his shadow has a different foreshortening than the woman’s. And, he is of a smaller scale: if he were to actually reach her, she would dwarf him. They are frozen in their impossible unreality. She looks past him and he gazes into the distance of another photo. We can’t make out her ethnicity; maybe he is Puerto Rican. This is purposeful vagueness: Currently, this neighborhood is still predominantly Mexican American, but that is not what the sign says or who it is for.

Sometimes these images show people interacting, but never in large groups. We don’t see cookouts, garage sales, birthday parties or communal celebrations of any other kind that are so common throughout the city. These are advertisements for individual and single-family consumption. These signs have an effect on the psyche of the people who purchase the expensive housing. They discourage any thinking about the collective impact that this new housing has on the area. They encourage individuals to selfishly think of their own situation and to dissociate it with that of their new neighbors. How could you as an individual possibly be responsible for gentrification and displacing poorer folks? These images reify the fake gestalt of individuated consumption—portraying it as depoliticized and having no consequences beyond one’s own happiness.

The sign for “Westhaven Park” promises New Condominiums, New Neighborhood. It tells us absolutely nothing of the history of this now vacant lot before. The image above shows one the The Henry Horner Homes, which once housed thousands of poor black people in this area. The imagery of “Boulevard Court” covers an even more egregious demolition, which sent its residents of these buildings packing. Approximately one-third of those displaced from the H.H. Homes will be invited back to live in new mixed-income housing like “Westhaven Park.” The majority are unaccounted for and will have to find housing for themselves, which often means living in cars, crowding into relatives’ already cramped apartments, moving far away to the suburbs, or to other stressful situations.

Not only do these ads obscure the difficult struggles in the city, they also perpetuate simplistic ideas of race that don’t reflect the complexities and frequencies of how people in the city mix. For example, when the buildings are marketed to middle class families with children, depictions of traditional families that break down according to race, like those depicted in the image, are most common. Images of mixed race couples are only used in ads where the buildings are marketed to an upscale 20-something crowd who in the U.S. have more relaxed attitudes towards mixed couples than older generations.
These ads are effective. To see that what they threaten will eventually become a reality, unless it is resisted, visit a neighborhood where these signs once functioned in a similar way. When there are no more run down or old buildings to develop and things hit a saturation point, the neighborhood’s diversity disappears and begins to spatially mimic the advertisements that promised this future. With it come higher property taxes, chain stores of all kinds, high-end boutiques and a numbing sameness. The landscape has changed and the developers’ colonization is complete. On to the next neighborhood to make new signs. Or just perhaps to make signs like this last one, put out by the North Clybourn Group, that don’t try to hide the violence at all.

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