As a native New Yorker, I am naturally assertive and proud of the rich history and diversity that makes up New York City. Living in the city itself is an acquired lifestyle—one that many cannot handle. It’s possible––and at the same time impossible––for non-natives to assimilate into the unique hustle and bustle and the melting pot of cultures that exists. New Yorkers are very sensitive about how their city is represented and can be extremely territorial. So New Yorkers everywhere squirmed when Tennessee-raised country singer-turned-pop-queen Taylor Swift was recently named New York City’s “Global Welcome Ambassador” for 2014-2015 by the city’s tourism board. Some turned to social media to voice their opinions, and others turned to art.
Local graffiti artist Antonio Garcia––better known by his persona “Chico”––took to the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side to paint a semi-ironic “memorial” for Swift that reads “R.I.P. Taylor Swift” and tagged in his infamous yellow, big and blocky letters “CHICO” signature. The street memorial went up after vintage clothing store La Petite Mort owners Kara Mullins and Osvaldo Jimenez commissioned Chico to paint the image on a gate outside their store on the LES.
The couple posted the image—a somber, black and white depiction of a glamorous and pouty looking Swift surrounded by hearts and a cityscape—on their Instagram account “lapetitemortnyc” with an explanation behind the commission.
Although the couple expressed their love for Swift, the caption read, “While we realize and appreciate that New York is ever changing, when a starving artist once representative of the New York spirit is replaced by the modern 19 million dollar condo owner who drinks lattes, we have to shake our heads.”
They went on to claim that the idea of Swift––a 24-year-old who indeed just purchased a reported $15 million apartment complex in Tribeca––as the face of New York is “dead.” The tourism campaign is a part of the singer’s big move to New York, following the release of her latest album 1989 which revolves around her newfound love for the city with happy pop songs like “Welcome to New York.”
The art does make some valid commentary on the gentrification of the city—a process that has been happening slowly but surely in various neighborhoods such as the once predominantly Orthodox Jewish communities in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the Greek community in Astoria, Queens and the Hispanic community in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The problem lies with the fact that many New Yorkers may not identify with Swift, who in her campaign video describes New York City just as any other tourist would.
“It’s unlike anywhere else in the world,” she said. “I was intimidated by the fact that it was bright and bold and loud … there’s so much happening.” This couldn’t be a more cliché, basic statement. Swift represents the whitewashed culture that seems to be taking over the city, pushing out local residents who are struggling with the harsh reality that popular urban areas face high rent increases, competition in the job market and crime. Chico himself has even been “priced out” of his own apartment and has been forced to move to Florida upon the completion of the memorial.
Swift’s sudden fascination with the city seems all too sudden, but completely predictable. For New Yorkers such as myself, it is almost an insult to have Swift––a product of the entertainment industry––simply moving to New York because it is what is currently “trendy.”
What does Swift truly know of the real New York—its nitty-gritty spots that tourists don’t travel to, authentic neighborhoods and underground music and arts scene? I am surprised at the company’s choice of spokesperson, since there are so many other qualified and celebrated native New Yorkers who have made much more of a contribution to preserving the valuable qualities of this great city.