Skip to content

The No Face of Gentrification

nofacewall.trenton.2017.sagecoalitionI came to Trenton on a short trip to see my daughter and to tie up some loose ends a few days ago. It was indeed a quick trip (less than 36 hours). Before I headed back to Vermont I decided to take a wall for ol’ times sake. This idea had been incubating since the fall and was prompted by many issues that had been developing, some of which had influenced my need to move. So many things were going awry. My home was in foreclosure…my organization, SAGE Coalition, was at a crossroads…and my quality time with my daughter was constantly compromised. I was dealing with a lot. During the fall, after spending time with Jennifer Herrera, associate director of the Anderson Freeman Resource Center at Middlebury College in Vermont, I was reintroduced to Hayao Miyazaki films; one in particular being the masterpiece, “Spirited Away”. A character in the film called No Face really stuck out to me. The design was simple yet powerful. No Face is a spirit in the Japanese anime film. He is shown to be capable of reacting to emotions and ingesting other individuals in order to gain their personality and physical traits.

I wanted to represent this character on a wall. At the time, I didn’t know in what context. After being educated about the different appearances and forms No Face can conjure by University of Vermont (UVM) undergrad and self proclaimed “Spirited Away” expert, Alexa Herrera, I proceeded to show No Face in a more aggressive form, given that the theme of the wall was gentrification. I chose to represent No Face as a metaphor for the aforementioned; swallowing up everything around him in a selfish greedy frenzy. Gentrification is a multi-faceted phenomenon that can be defined in different ways. According to wikipedia, gentrification is defined as: “A process of renovation and revival of deteriorated urban neighborhoods by means of influx of more affluent residents, which results in increased property values and the displacing of lower-income families and small businesses”

The building that was selected for the endeavor is as dilapidated as it gets; paint chipping…garbage everywhere. It was a supreme eye sore…but it was also placed in the middle of a city block with tons of traffic passing by, which made it ideal. Onlookers and passersby cheered as Earlie Harrell and I primed and began to layout the wall. Jennifer documented the process via iPhone and even the local city police showed up in support. The officer arrived after someone called in to report that the building was broken into and being vandalized. After a brief conversation, I assured him that I was not trespassing inside, but helping to ease the stress of looking at the building that was obviously not upkept or properly maintained by whoever owned it. The officer went on to say: “I rather see this art than the ugliness that’s currently present”. Needless to say, I was given a pass…and I continued to paint.

The mural only took two hours to produce. As quick as the mural went up, is also how quickly gentrification can spread; not in a literal sense, but defiantly in a metaphorical one. Ironically, artists like myself are used to seed the process of gentrification; we make the areas in distress more palatable for the masses. Like most low income residences and small businesses gentrification affects (click here to know more about it), we are swiftly moved out and out-priced as well.

There are talks of an impending “arts district” on E. Hanover St. in Trenton, NJ, the same block Sage Coaliton made famous with our frequent gallery shows, community gardens, and music showcases. Unbeknownst to us at the time, we were laying the foundation for “urban development”…and the possible displacement for the blocks inhabitants. We were the first to feel the affects of “urban renewal”.

It was never our motivation or ambition to pass judgment on who deserves what. As SAGE, we just spread the possibilities that can come from living an artistic lifestyle. Gentrification was lying in wait for us too. We became just as much victims of the process as anyone.

As the quote by Vietnamese communist politician, Khang Kijarro Nguyen, which capped off the wall reads: “Excessive gentrification destroys the biodiversity and ecosystem of a community.”…and if we are not careful, it will do the same to the city of Trenton, NJ. Gentrification is not coming…it’s already here.

As Nina Simone said, “an artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” This mural does just that.

-William G. Kasso -S.A.G.E. Coalition Inc.