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Violence and Profit – Gentrification from Louisville to Salt Lake

By Ian Van der Merwe The following piece is a part of Progressive City's Planning for Decarceral Spaces for Collective Action series, which addresses how planners and activists can actively engage in designing, creating policies, and/or advocating for the creation of decarceral spaces which promote safety, reduce harm, and are accessible.

Following the murder of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police, Taylor’s mother filed a lawsuit against the police officers involved. The lawsuit ties the police raid against Taylor’s home to an ongoing urban renewal project led by the city of Louisville, calling it an act of gentrification. As Taylor’s mother’s lawsuit asserts, gentrifying neighborhoods, especially in the early stages of the process, experience an increase in arrests and similar police activity. In Louisville, this process culminated in the police raid on Breonna’s apartment and her murder and just two months later, a similar story unfolded in Salt Lake City.

On May 23rd, 2020, at the corner of 300 W and 900 S in Salt Lake City (SLC) Utah, Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal was murdered by SLC Police. Today, across the street from where he was killed, Bernardo’s face adorns the wall of a former industrial building, one of over a dozen murals painted to remember victims of police violence from Utah and across the country. The murals, and the memorials which sit before them, were the creation of artists, community members, and activists in the wake of the George Floyd Uprising. As the protests began to wind down, artists, activists, and others came together to turn what was once the site of police murder into a monument to struggle and a memorial to those lost to racialized police violence. Planting trees, building benches, and giving new life to the previously empty walls and barren dirt, the site of these murals was transformed from a rundown artifact of the neighborhood's industrial past to a community-produced symbol of struggle. While today the murals still stand tall, a reminder of a time when thousands marched against state violence, they are threatened by the forces of city-backed redevelopment and encroaching gentrification.

Since 1994, the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency (RDA) has designated the greater area the murals are located in as the Granary District, an RDA project area. The Granary District, alongside two adjacent RDA project areas, has led to massive public and private investment nearby. The block the murals now stand on has long been the target of redevelopment, although these projects have not yet broken ground. Surrounded by successful redevelopment efforts and large public capital projects, including two extensive road reconstruction projects and a planned “green loop,” the murals face demolition by the city in favor of the same type of private, profit-driven development that characterizes neighborhoods in SLC and other cities undergoing so-called urban renewal.

Today, pressure to build yet another profit-oriented 5-over-1 at the site is mounting. Earlier in 2023, an informational document compiled by the city’s Department of Community and Neighborhoods for SLC City Council outlined the city’s plans for the site. Splitting the nearly block-sized parcel into four sections, the city plans to sell or lease over half of it to be privately redeveloped into “income-generating [land] uses such as residential, office, and mixed-use.” The proceeds of this sale/lease will fund a small public space in the southeast corner of the block, the city’s attempt to appease community opposition to the demolition of the murals. Like police departments kneeling in faux-solidarity with anti-police protestors, the city’s proposal appears performative. Quick to highlight the property’s dollar-value (over $3 million), the city seems bent on reclaiming the space for capital and dismantling the memory of the anti-police movement embodied by the murals. Describing the site as “underutilized,” the city sees the murals as space to be capitalized through the one-size-fits-all solution of profit-driven capitalist urban development. Seeing land only as a potential means to create profit is what architecture critic Kate Wagner describes as the core logic of gentrification. For Wagner, “the root of the problem is that housing is treated as an instrument of profit, one in which the exchange value is prioritized over its use value.” While her argument focuses on housing, we should understand that this logic is just as applicable to office, commercial, and mixed-use spaces as well. In the case of the murals, the difference between the community’s use of the site and the city’s plans for it are stark, demonstrating how it continues to be a site of struggle between status quo privatization of space enforced through police violence and the community-led fight against it.

While the city has paid lip service to the social movements that spawned the murals, even making efforts to talk with the families of some victims of police violence remembered in the murals, it continues to perpetuate systems of violence. Following the creation of the murals and surrounding memorials, the site was used by people without homes to camp during the cold winter months. Instead of turning against the campers, the activists and community members who worked to produce the space welcomed them, organizing outreach and regular meal distribution. For months, food was shared nearly every night, the space continuing to stand in opposition to systemic violence. However, the campers were eventually evicted by the SLC Police, once again turning the site into one of police violence.

Recognizing the relationship between gentrification and police violence casts new light on the murder of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal across the street from where the murals now stand. Bernardo was murdered on a street bordered on either side by city-designated redevelopment areas—sites where the city is actively courting private capital. Like in Breonna Taylor’s murder, the particular situation that led to Bernardo’s murder was one of increased policing due to the area's ongoing gentrification. With this understanding, the murals take on additional significance; not only is it a space produced through social struggle, but its very location stands against the city’s redevelopment efforts. It is not, as the city claims, “underutilized,” but rather provides a glimpse of another type of spatial production, one capable of being oriented against the systemic violence of the racialized capitalist order; a product of community action, not the profit-motive. As of today, the future of the murals is unclear. City planners continue to facilitate their destruction, aiding city council and developers in their efforts to capitalize such a large and opportunely situated plot of land. But it may not be fair to pin all the blame on the staff planners who prepare the documents and plans used in gentrification. Planners, like many members of the working class, are not afforded full autonomy over their work. Decision-making power continues to reside in the hands of political figures whose interests are intertwined with local capitalists. Today, it appears unlikely that planners, no matter their position on gentrification or police violence, will be able to determine the future of such spaces. While calls for architects to not practice in occupied Palestine offer a glimpse of how planners empowered in their workplaces could cease work on harmful projects, that vision is far removed from the current reality of the profession. But while empowering planners is a worthwhile goal, it is only through building relationships with the tenant and neighborhood associations which are already fighting against harmful development projects and urban inequality, that we will have the strength to build a more just city. Engaging with these and other urban social movements is necessary not only to mobilize for change, but also will provide insights into the day-to-day realities of the projects planners work on and help us build a better planning practice.

Ian Van der Merwe is a planner in the Salt Lake Valley.




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