There are ruins, and then there are ruiners. Urban areas in the western hemisphere no longer develop organically—or with regard to geographical features or agricultural or even industrial needs—but rather largely respond to bureaucratic necessities: zoning laws, permits, deeds, and so forth. There are developments, planned communities, sometimes prefabricated or custom-built within a particular framework of compromised choices. Naturally, though these methods seem innocuous, and may be sold to us as neutral, they carry with them (like rats on a ship) the prejudices, fears, and irrational received ideas of the larger society. Sometimes the ruining is deliberate, as in practices like redlining, in which banks or other institutions mark certain neighborhoods as undesirable lending areas, leading to their destruction, or blockbusting, in which real-estate agents theatrically heighten the impression that a previously Caucasian neighborhood is rapidly diversifying in order to fan the flames of white flight and snatch up properties at lower prices. (They might do this, for example, by paying a black woman to walk down a sidewalk with a stroller in a predominantly white neighborhood.) With these practices in mind, I devised a performance to expose and counteract such everyday violations of common decency in the housing sector.
Buying a home is not a casual process. In addition to causing personal stress, it has significant ramifications for communities, but it can be an opportunity for raising awareness about social issues. Purchasing a home can serve as an important crossroads that puts people—especially white people—in the position of making choices that reflect either their commitment to diversity or their fear of the Other. What if someone were to stand with home-seekers at such a moment, guiding them toward the moral good, toward the inclusive America they have taken for granted, showing them the larger social implications of the choice they are about to make? What if someone were there to allay or discredit those racial fears? Would some prospective buyers react with hostility? Or would some have an epiphany? Can the real-estate experience be used as a tool for social change?
In his project called New Babylon, the Situationist Constant Nieuwenhuys placed his idea of the utilitarian society in opposition to what he called the ludic society, one in which citizens move through his urban utopia in a mindset focused on creativity rather than productivity. In this vein, I envision employing a group of actors in a performance project appearing as a nonprofit real-estate firm. Like a real firm, its name should maintain the coded language of today’s real-estate market—”Elite Properties” or “Exclusive Homes,” for example. For maximum impact, the office should be located in a neighborhood where the population is mostly white and where there is a high potential for walk-in clientele.
The experience a potential homebuyer should have upon walking into this Elite Properties office should be no different than what they would have upon entering any other mid-to-upscale real-estate agent’s office. For the décor, the model is The Corcoran Group: brightly lit, clean, modern, and stiffly corporate, with a distinct air of wealth. In preparation, the actors should visit several urban real-estate agencies and observe the employees so that they are well versed in their mannerisms and demeanor. It will be especially important to learn the lingo of the profession. In an ideal scenario, the actors would become certified real-estate agents.
Though this Elite Properties will diverge from a “normal” real-estate agency in several important yet subtle respects, the agents at this company will eschew the usual assumptions that real-estate agents make regarding the attitudes of their walk-in clients. They will not enter into the usual unspoken covenant that perpetuates segregation and greed by steering white people into ever whiter, more affluent neighborhoods and by steering blacks and Latinos into ghettos. Instead, they will attempt to lead the potential homebuyer toward a decision based on a collective moral good rather than one based on fear and the desire to maximize profit.
In the same manner that a “normal” real-estate agent assumes that his client selects a home for its exclusivity, the Elite Properties agent will assume that his or her clients want to live in diverse neighborhoods among people of different backgrounds and that these neighborhoods are the most desirable. The agent will presume that the client does not think of predominantly black neighborhoods as bad or dangerous, and the agent will take for granted that the client knows that schools in racially mixed areas are sometimes as good or better than those in presumably safer, white neighborhoods.
The agent must be well versed in the types of language and the avoidance techniques that clients may use to reject a neighborhood or a property in a way that conceals their less-than-enlightened racial attitudes. Before beginning to show properties, the agent will be trained to ask leading questions that encourage the client to connect her choice of home to its wider social implications. The agent should be able to deftly make the client aware of the reasons for her choice. It may be necessary during the course of a consultation for the agent to draw on information regarding the ways in which fiscal inequality has historically been maintained between blacks and whites and to touch upon statistical evidence to support this position. Consultations must be handled delicately, however, so that they never devolve into hostility. It would be best if each client is exposed to several agents who share these values, so that the attitude becomes normalized.
In the interest of the larger framework of the piece, the participants should assume that their efforts to persuade the client to follow his principles and help foster diversity will succeed. In the truest Situationist ethos, this phony real-estate agency should be able to close a deal. The artists should be aware that they have the power to make real changes in the status quo. Whether the agency could sustain itself remains to be seen. After the performance project officially ends, the agency should continue as best it can. Who knows? It could become the new norm.