Professor Marr's research on Urban Poverty in Japan and the US

Professor Marr screens documentary in Kamagasaki, Osaka to stoke debate about art and gentrification in global cities.

On July 30th, 2014 in the Kamagasaki district of Osaka, Japan, FIU Asian Studies and Global and Sociocultural Studies Professor Matthew Marr screened “Right to Wynwood,” a documentary about art and gentrification in Miami. The film, directed by Camila Alvarez (FIU BFA ’13) and Natalie Edgar (University of Miami Alumna), draws on interviews with residents, artists, gallery owners, and developers in the Wynwood District. It presents views and experiences of how an arts movement popularized the neighborhood and attracted developers, leading to displacement and alienation among long-term residents of what was once a working class Puerto Rican enclave. The film also features urban scholar Marcos Feldman (FIU Global and Sociocultural Studies Ph.D. ‘11), who draws on his research in Wynwood to provide theoretical explanation of how urban redevelopment in the global era often requires cultural redefinition of marginalized neighborhoods. In the transformation of Miami’s Wynwood, Feldman argues that developers used their ample capital to subvert local participatory politics, co-opting local community organizations in many ways. Professor Marr, who has been conducting fieldwork as a Social Science Research Council/Center for Global Partnership Abe Fellow in Kamagasaki since May 2014, proposed to show the film in a local public forum in Kamagasaki when he noticed similar changes encroaching on this neighborhood. His fieldwork is part of a comparative research project on neighborhoods where street homelessness, subsidized housing, and supportive services cluster. In addition to Kamagasaki (also known as Airin), he is studying Tokyo’s San’ya, Los Angeles’ Skid Row, and an area in Miami spanning Wynwood, Overtown, and the Health District. Kamagasaki has long been a neighborhood where poor and marginalized (mostly) men could come to find day labor, cheap housing, and other economic and social resources. It has been viewed as a no-go zone for nonresidents who only know the area for twenty-four riots exploding on its streets since the 1960s, mostly over police mistreatment of laborers. Due to large-scale economic change and aging of day laborers since the early 1990s, unemployment, homelessness, and welfare receipt has increased in the district. In response, private nonprofit organizations have increased the stock of subsidized housing and supportive medical and other services in Kamagasaki.

However, since Kamagasaki, a small neighborhood within Nishinari Ward, is located close to the urban core and is seen as a concentration of social problems related to urban poverty and aging population and infrastructure, Mayor Tōru Hashimoto has taken an aggressive approach to redeveloping it. The Nishinari Tokku Kōsō (Nishinari Special Ward Design) has brought in researchers, public sector workers, single room occupancy hotel owners, and community organizations to create and implement a plan to clean up the neighborhood in an effort to revitalize it by attracting young families and private investment. Informal roten or street stalls, have been cleared from many streets, “anti-crime” cameras have proliferated, and elderly and marginally housed residents have been provided a few days of work per month picking up trash and monitoring illegal dumping. The Airin Labor and Welfare Center, long an economic and social anchor of the day labor community, along with a few hundred units of public housing attached to the center, are slated to be re-located away from the area’s primary train station and major thoroughfare.

At the same time, there is a proposal for a large-scale “wall art” project opposite the center’s current location. Popular rapper Shingo Nishinari, who hails from a neighborhood adjacent to Kamagasaki, has backed the plan in social media, describing it as a way to liberate the neighborhood from its sepia shades by painting it in bright colors. Seeing the wall art project coinciding with the relocation of the center as potentially a dramatic shift in the social, economic, and cultural landscape of the neighborhood, Professor Marr decided to screen the documentary “Right to Wynwood” to promote public debate about gentrification in Kamagasaki. The film was subtitled by Professor Marr and shown at the Kamagasaki Machizukuri Hiroba (Kamagasaki Neighborhood Creation Plaza), which has been held monthly since 1999. About 30 to 40 people attended the showing, including representatives of neighborhood organizations, local ward government, students, activists, researchers, residents, and media. Professor Marr provided some context on Miami and Wynwood before showing the film. After the film, he presented his research findings from interviews of people living on the streets and in shelters around Wynwood and Overtown, showing how they struggle to find affordable housing, often feel marginalized and neglected in their own neighborhoods, and sometimes are policed out of spaces. Professor Kazuo Fujino, of Kobe University’s Department of International Cultural Studies, provided more theoretical explanation of the links between neoliberal economic globalization, art, and gentrification, with examples from European and Japanese cities. Marr concluded with a policy recommendation to prioritize use of public and private resources for affordable housing over the wall art project proposed in Kamagasaki, prompting heated debate. Promoters of the project argued that there is no direct connection between wall art and resident displacement, and the dramatic transformation of neighborhoods like Wynwood in American cities would simply not happen in Japanese cities. Long-time labor activists worried about the potential of Kamagasaki’s community organizations being co-opted into redevelopment of the neighborhood in a way that excludes and marginalizes day laborers, welfare recipients, and persons eking out subsistence in the neighborhood’s public spaces. Debate continued after the conclusion of the event in a local bar, where a producer for NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) lauded the screening for presenting an opportunity to discuss an uncomfortable but important issue in the community. Although many residents and activists worry about a year-end deadline to decide the fate of the labor and welfare center imposed by the Hashimoto municipal government, periodic participatory public meetings planned for the fall suggest that the “messiness of politics” subverted in Wynwood may have an opportunity to play out in Kamagasaki.


Scene from “Right to Wynwood”


Screening of “Right to Wynwood” at the Kamagasaki Machizukuri Hiroba

Image After the film, Professor Marr presents findings from fieldwork in and around Wynwood and Overtown


The Airin Labor and Welfare Center (right, with public housing on top) and area proposed for a wall art project (left)