Sciencewashing the Neighborhood

by Free Radicals

An illustration of city denizens trudging past newly minted laboratory and research spaces. A billboard advertising a “bioscience corridor” looms on a rooftop. Illustration by Kristian Talley.

It’s not just art – science also contributes to gentrification

November 16, 2017

La Conxa, in Boyle Heights, is a very charged place to give a presentation about science and colonialism. The space is run by a group of collectives that has been at the forefront of the fight against gentrification in their neighborhood. So, when we talked about how scientists justify the construction of a thirty meter telescope on sacred land in Mauna Kea on land that is “empty” or “underdeveloped,” that the scientific knowledge the telescope will produce will benefit “everyone” — we hit on a parallel with the situation on the ground where we were standing.

The movement in Boyle Heights has been focused for some time on the concept of “art-washing.” Projects like the galleries in the area between the Pico Aliso houses and the river, and the new 6th St. Bridge, for example, are part of a speculative project to accelerate the inflation of real estate prices here. These projects are justified in the liberal imagination of boosters on the City Council, in the Mayor’s office, and their supporters throughout the city by presenting art as a universal good. When the existing population complains that these projects are already driving up rents and causing massive displacement, they are accused of being “backward,” of resisting the altruistic goal of “bringing art and culture” to an otherwise “empty,” or “blighted” landscape. Like pink-washing — which justifies imperialism by pretending concern for the human rights of queer folks — or green-washing — justifying mass consumption by pretending concern for the environment — art-washing pits an abstract ideal against the material conditions of speculative real-estate development. In this context, we have to ask: Is “sciencewashing” a thing?

Sciencewashing in action

Science is often presented as an ideal. When a university wants to invade an adjacent neighborhood to create a science complex, the arguments are often strikingly similar to what we see in art-washing.  In principle, science benefits everyone, as an expansion of our knowledge as a species, as the basis for practical innovations that save and improve lives, etc. Development projects that create lab space for scientists are imagined as creating an invaluable public good. In this imagining, anyone taking a strong stand against “bringing science to” their community is putting their own interests above those of society at large. Because, in principle, everyone benefits from science.

But there are a lot of problems with the argument that science is a public good (which Free Radicals has written about here, here, here, and here). Many scientific projects lead to byproducts that most often harm already marginalized people. Meanwhile, those with wealth and power enjoy more of the benefits from science as they dictate which areas of scientific research receive the most focus and funding. But what about when arguments are based on a very specific and concrete benefit, for example when the President of Columbia University argued that it would be an ethical use of eminent domain to level 17 acres of Harlem because Columbia scientists were hot on the trail of a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

What kind of monster would stand in the way of Alzheimer’s research?

Manhattanville: A Case Study

Although scientists, non-profit functionaries, and developers position themselves as pragmatic and reasonable, in reality they are presenting a false choice between demolishing a neighborhood and finding a cure for Alzheimer’s. It assumes that research is so intrinsically valuable that it trumps any consideration of material harm to the people in the to-be-demolished neighborhood, or in the surrounding areas who are sure to see their rent and cost of living rise dramatically as a result of development projects.

Imagine the factors a university president considers in choosing to build a major research infrastructure along the northern border of campus — where the median income is $33k/year — rather than along the southern border, where the median income is $170k/year, and where many of the buildings are condominiums or co-ops. Why not use eminent domain to take over multimillion dollar condos, whose owners can afford to live practically anywhere? What kind of political push-back would you expect from a community of professionals who own their homes as compared to a community that mostly rents? How would the project have to be adapted to accommodate the pre-existing and historically significant housing south of campus, compared to the “blighted” region north of campus? What would the impact of buying land and building south of campus be on the balance sheet for the university’s current real estate portfolio, as compared to building north of campus?

It is clear that the value of whatever research toward a cure for Alzheimer’s the project would produce is finite, and must be measured against the University’s financial and political considerations. At the same time, residents being pushed out of their neighborhoods are unlikely to experience the benefits from Alzheimer’s research due to the high cost of cutting edge treatments and lack of access to new academic knowledge. It is hard to picture a university president high-handedly telling a group of lawyers and financial advisers refusing to sell their condos that they are standing in the way of scientific progress. And yet this is exactly the way Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University, routinely addressed people protesting against the university’s development in Manhattanville. Whereas wealthy people are cajoled into making donations, and publicly recognized for their contributions, poor people are brow-beaten into making anonymous sacrifices.

The fight against Sciencewashing

It is not surprising that otherwise “enlightened,” or liberal leaders behave this way. Commitments to abstract and supposedly universal public goods — art, science, athletic excellence, free speech, the rule of law— are hallmarks of liberalism. When we look at how these commitments are deployed in order to ignore or justify economic and physical violence against marginalized groups, it is not hard to understand how liberal cities whose mayors declare themselves to be part of the #TheResistance are also sites of accelerating inequality and violence against marginalized people.

An antidote to letting a commitment to an abstract good destroy your city is to prioritize your commitment to the lives, well being, and self determination of marginalized people in your city above other concerns, or at least extend the same consideration to them that you would to property owners. This is what anti-gentrification activists in Boyle Heights are doing when they chant “we don’t need no galleries, we need higher salaries!” We have to resist real-estate speculation dressed up as grand scientific projects in the same spirit and with the same ferocity that we say “no” to gentrification, to the Olympics, and to any project that prioritizes the vanity of elites above the material conditions of poor and marginalized people in our city.