For one room, DeVille fashioned a huge section of an American flag out of tarp. “You know, the Star Spangled Banner is about the War of 1812,” she says. During the conflict, the British pounded Fort McHenry, which flew a massive 30-by-42-foot American flag that survived the bombing. The man who would write the anthem—Francis Scott Key—watched from a ship anchored nearby, and in the morning he saw the flag was still there. “Of course it was still there!” Deville says laughing. “It was 30 by 42 feet!”
She finds a certain humor in the myths and narratives the United States tells about itself, so often do these stories of triumph obscure the conflicts that endure in this country, that are woven into the very fabric of its creation. During my visit, she told me about a “drive-by” that occurred when Hudson sailed up from the bottom of Manhattan, where he was based, to the top, which was controlled by Native Americans. The first time he made the trip, Hudson had unsuccessfully tried to kidnap some of the indigenous people. When Hudson ventured uptown again, “there was this clash, this scuffle that happened near 125th Street, but on the river,” DeVille said. “They shot at him with bows and arrows.” In 2016, the divide between the top of Manhattan and the bottom continues, as the money generated by Wall Street fuels the development of pricey real estate and, simultaneously, the displacement of people in Harlem.
And as these spaces gentrify, DeVille worries the ensuing homogenization will upend communities and cultures that have been developed over decades. White America is often eager to champion its embrace of immigrants and outsiders, so long as they assimilate. But in places like New York, those who move into communities of color or “lower” economic class are quick to bring with them a sea of pharmacy chains and banks at the expense of local businesses. “A Whole Foods including local vendors is not assimilating to a community,” DeVille said. “A community is independently owned businesses where people know each other’s names and talk to each other.” DeVille mentioned a piece she recently read in the New York tabloids by a woman who is “pissed about the noise in Dyckman Street. And I’m like ‘yo, who told you to move to Dyckman Street?’”
European settlers called the Americas the New World. Had Hudson spoken in the language of 2016, he might have dubbed Manhattan an “up-and-coming” colony. The real estate jargon deployed over the last 400 years has changed, but it’s not all that different. Again and again, prospectors see land that is full as land that is empty. And in that land these newcomers tell their stories, loudly and without regard for those who first called it home. Once one is armed with an ear for these histories of erasure, perhaps then there will be the potential to say, “not this again, we want something else, something different.” Perhaps we can imagine a world where DeVille’s Half Moon, which chronicles violence, loss, and displacement, isn’t only an artwork that speaks powerfully to our present moment, but also one that helps to galvanize a movement to disrupt the process of gentrification.