Saturday March 28, 2015

Neighborhood. Not “Ghetto.”

By Kiersten Remster '17

I sit in class and hear my fellow peers discussing their plans for the upcoming weekend: “What address are you going to in the Ghetto?”
“The cops are going to be everywhere in the Ghetto!”
“Ghetto was crazy for St. Patrick’s Day!”

Our instructor proceeds to ease the students into beginning class, asking us if anything exciting happened last weekend in “the Ghetto.”

I cringe in my seat.

I cringed hearing my peers repeatedly use the word but especially felt a reaction to one of my professors even referring to our student neighborhood as “the ghetto." 

Over the course of the past 10 years, I was desensitized to referring to Dayton’s student neighborhood as “the ghetto.” My oldest sister attended U.D. in the early 2000’s and thus, I grew up hearing this term tossed around. When I came to U.D., I eventually realized it was not the best, politically correct term to be using, yet I continued to use it despite the reality and offensive denotation the word possessed because every student called it that and being the typical freshman that I was I wanted to fit in.

But over the past few months, my mind and sensitivity to referring to our neighborhood as a “ghetto” has changed.

In December 2014, the directors of ArtStreet approached me and inquired if I had any interest in assisting in the creation and design of a highly controversial and provocative upcoming exhibit to open in February. Sparking my interest by how much potential this exhibit had, of course I agreed excitedly to help in any way possible.

GHETTO: A Retail Art Installation was set in the works. A team made up of U.D. faculty and staff as well as community artists worked with the ArtStreet directors, lead artist Rodney Veal and a group of students to bring this new vision to campus. GHETTO was designed to tackle this historically heavy word through a materialistic lens. We intended to take this controversial word and transform it into a socio/political/economic commentary.

Focusing on three historical ghettos —Warsaw, Soweto and American urban ghettos— the consultants and creative team sought to present a luxury-style retail store that appropriated and reclaimed the cruel circumstances of those oppressed in ghettos. This was not to be commentary similar to Urban Outfitter’s recent mockery of the Kent State Shooting or the upside down pink triangle worn by gays in concentration camps, but rather, GHETTO became proof in revealing that use of the term and appropriating it is still consequential in today’s society.

Crafting a faux history behind the legacy of the GHETTO brand, I was able to provide a background that fabricated a global, expansive market for luxury retail products over the past centuries. This faux narrative paralleled the actual history of the word “ghetto.” The history served as a roadmap for the exhibit— allowing our “customers” (visitors) to connect the dots to actual historical occurrences as we commented on each “Phase” of expansion across the globe.

In the exhibit, GHETTO features five outfits that model various appropriations of using the term:

Exposed embodies Charlotte Rampling’s signature style in the film The Night Porter. Rampling’s character plays a survivor of a concentration camp who comes into contact with her ex-torturer turned lover. Through this disturbing relationship inspired by Nazi ideologies, a masochistic affair that stems from anti-Semitism develops. In this look, a sheer tank top exposes a woman’s chest while a leather cufflink tightly closes around her wrist. Not only is the model physically exposed, but the idea of surveillance and feeling both emotionally and mentally exposed takes place within this look. At a closer glance, the cufflink has a seven digit serial code printed into the leather, reflecting the serial number given to those that entered the Auschwitz concentration camp complex. Although the garments are not actually for sale, Exposed is “priced” at $13,000.00, representing the Warsaw Ghetto and the 1.3 square miles residents were forced to live within its boundaries.

Vandal, priced at 2,500,000 Rand, represents the 50% of households that struggle to survive on less than 2,500 Rand per month ($214.30) in Soweto, South Africa. Vandal manifests the ghetto street aesthetics into a head-turning cocktail dress. The vibrant colors in the graffiti design underneath a clustered chain-like skirt represents the marginalization of the people of Soweto. Trapped in this overcrowded, poverty-stricken environment, those that are stuck in Soweto have no way out. 

The third look incorporated into the GHETTO exhibit, features Empire –a look associated with Detroit’s Eight Mile Road and other dividing lines between ghettos and the rest of the world. Incorporating the idea that “every woman needs a little black dress,” GHETTO sought to take this a step further with a version that subjugates the power of the empire –the American empire that is. Moving as a sinuous line across the dress, a pattern of silver geometric shapes strike across the body of the garment. A gaudy necklace made up of bullet casings bring this look together, as a symbol for both the physical and mental boundaries that exist between the powerful and the powerless. Those that are marginalized within these boundaries created by the empire cannot escape. Empire is priced by “levels of attractiveness” that is to be judged by the “personal sales consultant.” Each price based off of physical characteristics symbolizes the graduation rates of high schools in Ohio, students enrolled in pre-K through high school in Dayton and the percentage of students to graduate from Dayton Public Schools.

The Fantasy look serves as the apex for the GHETTO spring collection. Based off of the Diana Ross film Mahogany, Fantasy takes the sexy and glamorous look of Ross. In Mahogany, Ross’s character is a trapped and oppressed woman who escapes the shackles and barriers of the ghettos in South Chicago, using fashion as a vehicle. Ross learns that all that glitters is not gold and is forced to pay for the price of “success.” Fantasy, “priced” at $12,300.00, comes from the census from 1975 that concluded 12.3% of the U.S. population lived below the line of poverty.

Occupying the center of the GHETTO exhibit with numerous spotlights reflecting on the look is Detained. In this garment, a large ball gown look with black and white stripes serve as the skirt of the dress with a splash of red lacing dripping down onto the bodice. Reflecting the imprisonment of those marginalized during the holocaust, this look creates fashion out of the Nazi concentration camp uniforms. The red lace ornamentation symbolizes the blood that has been shed across the world and throughout time. Detained is priced at $11,000.00 for the 11 million lives extinguished during the Holocaust.

Within the GHETTO brand stemmed a line that related to universities in America and the marginalization of minorities who still live in these stereotyped “ghettos.” Titled Akademy, this university line commented on the typical collegiate trend of clothing and manipulated it into a luxury style. Embracing the brazen urban street style attire and infusing it with “prepsters” flair, Akademy represented a line of fashion that was true unequivocal “ghetto style.” Akademy tee shirts and baseball caps consciously recreated the 21st century through the transcendental voices of ghettos such as “I Can’t Breathe” and “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” As Karlos Marshall, graduate assistant at ArtStreet, pointed out, “it is aimed at GHETTO’s collegiate consumer as it materializes threads from recent events in Sanford, Florida, New York City, Ferguson, Missouri, Cleveland and Beavercreek, Ohio, among other contemporary bastardized neighborhoods of America.” The threadbare clothing line politically engages those that challenge the term ghetto, presenting this twist as a coveted, luxury interest for the upper class.  

Other accessories created in the GHETTO exhibit include a line of jewelry made up of bullet casings priced at $626.00 for the 626 children killed in 2014 in the U.S. from gun violence. The famous GHETTO bag was also a creation as a bespoke luxury item for upper class accumulation. In 1845, the Great Potato Famine led to a mass immigration of Irish to New York City, thus the bag is priced at $1,845.00.

Nearing the point of purchase in the exhibit, a final marketed item is GHETTO’s brand lemonade, “an unequaled lemonade produced with water meticulously crafted with pure human tears harvested at optimal serotonin and endorphin levels for peak bitter-sweetness, balanced with the zest of Eureka lemons and the full body of the finest sugar imported from Antigua.” The lemonade icon serves us as a reference to the stereotyped “ghetto lifestyle” as well as the concepts of turning lemons into lemonade.

The use of the term through an upper class mouthpiece served as a symbol in portraying the class distinctions of oppression that continue to this day. Luxury brands continue to create fashion out of marginalized stereotypes.

GHETTO is an exhibit that has been the talk of campus over the past month. Students have critiqued and bashed the commentary on using this term around campus, though they are not entirely sure what the exhibit is truly about. GHETTO is a visual provocation. It is here to serve as a gesture of conversation— perhaps questioning the use and history of the term itself. The word “ghetto” is a term heart-heavy with appropriation and reclamation referring to areas of barriers for those that have been and continue to be marginalized. In ghettos, there is no escape.

After thoroughly researching the term and understanding the actual offense of what ghetto” carries with it, I have realized how inappropriate it is that we refer to our student neighborhood as this.

For those of you that claim “historically” the houses once made up a “ghetto,” that is incorrect. Our student neighborhood once housed the workers of the National Cash Register (now known as Fitz Hall). The vision for the neighborhood was a type of utopia vision— that all workers of this company regardless of factory line jobs or managers were to live in this communal atmosphere. The workers did not suffer oppressive, restricted, or any barriers. They were not marginalized and there was never an appropriated environment.

They did not live in a “ghetto,” just like we do not live in a “ghetto” now.

GHETTO: A Retail Art Installation is on view in ArtStreet's White Box Gallery through March 31, 2015. 

Kiersten Remster is a sophomore Art History and German student at University of Dayton and is the student arts writer at ArtStreet.

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