The following letter to the editor was received on Thursday, March 7:
I am writing to express my outrage towards the display of Walt Whitman Mall’s architectural rendering of their forthcoming addition and renovation of new commercial space. The display depicts a “Before and After” comparison of the Mall, owned by Simon Property Group, and its expansion, with the words “Everything You Could Ask For…” above both images.
“Before and after” representations inherently suggest a state of change. Often used for marketing purposes, they sell the viewer an improvement, a development, or a renovation. However, “before and after’s” are of course, not always as idyllic, and can depict states of trauma, decline, or regression.
Consider recent images of Breezy Point, the Rockaways, and countless other Long Island communities after the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy.
The image used in the display is nothing short of blatantly racist. It not only harbors deeply prejudiced assumptions based on race and ethnicity, but also serves to promote an image of exclusion and white supremacy. It should be removed or corrected immediately.
The “Before” image, a documentary-style photograph, depicts 5 male minorities (4 Latino, 1 African-American) waiting for Public Transportation outside of the mall’s west façade, which ironically bears excerpts from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”. This image is paralleled next to an idyllic digital rendering of the mall’s renovation, depicting only white, happy, and evidently wealthy, shoppers heading to and from the building. Not a single person of color is represented.
Amidst a decorative fountain, a prospective bronze statue of the poet, Walt Whitman stands monolithically outside of Saks Fifth Avenue. Depicting him as though he was a colonialist conqueror, or the Columbus of capitalism, Walt Whitman’s effigy, seems contextually miles away from his egalitarian beliefs.
I would ask then, what kind of state-change does this “before and after” comparison suggest? Does this rendering represent Huntington as a town of equal opportunity, or, a non-egalitarian playground exclusively for white, wealthy consumers? The building is not only remodeled, but also literally whitewashed. Furthermore, the Walt Whitman Mall is geographically situated at the intersection of several socio-economic neighborhoods, many of them populated by Latino and African-American residents.
If Huntington Station is 64% White, where are the remaining 36% members of its community depicted in this image? As most renderings go, the renovation promotes only superficial change, with no room for a realistic representation of community. Sadly, the display shockingly recalls images of Whites Only/ Black Only water fountains during an era of racial segregation - photographs which should serve as reminders of a “Before” that we cannot return to.
The unsettling qualities of these images are not only the depictions of an idealized, and exclusively white consumer body, but also its pejorative and exploitative depiction of a minority population. The juxtaposition of these images begs an analysis of the racist, and economic implications of an improved “After” by removing, or literally rendering minorities invisible.
While segregation laws have since been abolished thanks to the struggle and work of the Civil Rights movement, to overlook this image, to leave it on display, is to contribute to a practice of racism, and to promote hatred and exclusion.
“OF Equality—As if it harm’d me, giving others the same chances and / rights as myself—As if it were not indispensable to my own / rights that others possess the same.”
- Walt Whitman, "Leaves of Grass"
What do you think? Are the images offensive? Are they racist? Tell us in the comment section below.