Take Your Shoes Off at the Door

Your Feelings About Le Bok Fin Are Not an Act of Activism

O what a pretty view! Photo by Dawn McDougall.

For the most part, the conversation about Le Bok Fin has been exhausted. The 8,000 square-foot pop-up bar, which closed its doors to the public this past Sunday, has served as both a primary target and centerpiece in conversations about gentrification. Yet the overall commentary falls flat, providing a binary summary of the situation, occasionally sprinkling in a few fundamental facts about Philadelphia’s public school funding, inconsistent building appraisals, and overpriced booze.

Philly Mag’s Holly Otterbein summed up the discussion well, writing, “On one side of the debate are people who argue that the project is tone-deaf, that the school never should have closed, and that it should be repurposed with long-term residents — not craft beer-drinking hipsters — in mind. On the other side are those who say that the revitalization of a blighted building is something to be celebrated, and that the larger issues of poverty, affordable housing and education funding should be addressed by the public sector, not individual developers.”

One of the most jarring aspects of the debate is the sudden reverence we (collectively) have for a building that the majority of those sounding off have no actual connection to. Whether you have been to Le Bok Fin, protested going, or just forgot to make plans, you have an opinion. It’s those of us who generate the conversation, who use the power of discourse, and in our free time attend pop-ups in up-and-coming neighborhoods, who echo the loudest objection while seated pretty on a throne (granted, a much smaller throne) next to the developers. What’s different about Le Bok Fin? We can’t ignore the major problems of our city when we are literally sitting on them.

Philadelphia has over 40,000 vacant/abandoned properties. The Philadelphia School District faces a deficit of $80 million this year. Schools cannot maintain current facilities. Teachers are not being paid just wages. According to the center for literacy, “In Philadelphia, over half of the adult population—an estimated 550,000 individuals—are considered low illiterate.” Most alarming is our glaring poverty statistic, which is among the top ten highest in the nation with an overall poverty rate of 26.3 percent.

Le Bok Fin may have been executed in poor taste, but a similar criticism could have been applied to the inaugural Hidden City Festival in 2009. Hidden City—who has remained oddly silent during the debate—is known for bringing attention to abandon and lesser-known spaces in the city through discourse and events. Hidden City’s festivals have attracted thousands of visitors to heritage sites where local and national artists performed and created site-specific work. The early concept brought art and bodies into these “hidden” sites, but has since branched out to encourage long-lasting usage. After the first festival South Philly’s Shiloh Baptist Church was used as a practice space for local dance companies. The Drop Forge building at Disston Saw Works acquired a tenant. The difference between Le Bok Fin and Hidden City is stark, but a parallel remains: the two bring attention to properties that would have gone unnoticed otherwise.

Hidden City has explored more neighborhoods that live outside of the expanding gentrification bubble. “There hasn’t been much ‘gentrification pressure’ on most Philadelphia neighborhoods, which has left old buildings to age naturally,” Editorial and Research Director at Hidden City Nathaniel Popkin told philly.com last March. There are plenty of buildings that could use some love, but what affects us the most about this building is that it hits close to home. It is a part of a neighborhood that you could live comfortably in, it’s not too far from the places you already occupy, and most importantly it is a place you want to be at. Do you feel uncomfortable sitting on chairs that students once sat on, and chairs that student could theoretically still sit on? YES, but debating the ethical nature of a single standing pop-up is not an act of activism.

Image by Dawn McDougall

Amanda is an artist and writer living in Philadelphia. Her work has been displayed at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art, featured at festivals, and in events with Fait Du Vide Collective. Amanda has published with Philly.com, the Philadelphia Daily News, Art Attack, and VICE Media. In her spare time she likes to drink and draw naked ladies.

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