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Queens Chronicle

Artist puts housing crisis in historical perspective

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Posted: Thursday, June 25, 2009 12:00 am

Stepping inside a giant wooden bust of Frederick Babcock, the pioneer of real estate appraisal, may not be the usual way to learn about the housing crisis, but to artist-designer Damon Rich it’s an effective way of putting the complex issue into historical perspective.

Everything in the Red Lines Housing Crisis Learning Center, Rich’s new exhibit at the Queens Museum of Art, is designed to present important but lackluster real estate issues in a playful and eye-catching manner.

“One of the themes of the overall show is how what we see every day, where we live and where we work, is related to a lot of invisible things like finance, mortgages and loans,” said Rich.

Visitors can read informational chunks about issues such as disclosure and investment on a series of light boxes that are placed throughout the exhibit, view pop culture items like a pair of salt and pepper shakers that read “God Bless Our Mortgaged Home,” watch video interviews with everyone from community activists to investment bankers, and marvel at interest rate highs and lows depicted in the form of 40-foot plywood cutouts.

“When people go to buy a house, it’s usually the most expensive thing that they’ll ever buy in their whole life,” explained Rich. “Very few people have that money in the bank or in the mattress, so that means they have to go out and get a loan. The politics and the power around loans and what we’re seeing today is just another chapter in that.”

Several residential maps on one wall depict “red lining,” a discriminatory practice in which a red line is drawn around low income neighborhoods where banks won’t invest or provide loans. In the 1990s, after having been red lined, many of those same neighborhoods, now primarily populated by African Americans and Latinos, became the targets of further abuse when banks provided high interest and subprime loans to people who were not in a financial position to repay them.

“This is not just a show about how bad things are, but about how it happened, and people want to know how it happened,” said Tom Finkelpearl, the executive director of the Queens Museum of Art. “If we don’t understand it, then we are going to repeat it. I think people are looking for reasons, and this is just one part of that whole picture.”

Perhaps the best illustrations of the subprime meltdown are the 1500 pink markers representing foreclosed homes, which have been placed on a giant architectural map of New York City. The 9, 335 square foot panorama, built by Robert Moses for the 1964 World’s Fair, is part of the permanent collection at the Queens Museum of Art and acts as the perfect vehicle to compliment the Red Lines exhibit.

“That’s really a map of tragedy,” said Finkelpearl. “That’s people losing their houses. That’s three families on each of those blocks, minimum, and who knows where those people have been displaced to.”

Numerous glossy photos of homes and real estate offices, as well as For Sale signs pepper the exhibit.

There’s also the S&L Railroad, a toy train which visitors can play with, and which goes around one of two tracks depending on whether the operator wishes to learn about regulation or deregulation.

“It’s a lot more economics than you usually see in a museum,” said Linda Nechamkin, a resident of Westchester, who enjoyed learning about blockbusting, a tactic employed by real estate agents to get white home owners to sell their property cheaply for fear that incoming black residents would lower property values.

Another visitor, Renee Epps of Brooklyn, said another aspect of the exhibit resonated especially well with her.

“I really like the way that they have broken it down so that it is very easily digestible, so that you understand where your place is in the whole process,” Epps said. “It’s really great, friendly and fun.”

Red Lines Housing Crisis

When: Wed.-Fri. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. noon-5 p.m. Through Sept. 27.

Where: Queens Museum of Art, New York City Building, Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

(718) 592 9700

Suggested Donation: $5

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