Gentrification isn't just a word that's bandied about in public policy circles. It is a felt experience, a sense of longing, melancholy and even bitterness over a loss that can never be recouped. That loss usually comes when developers and policy makers see a place that is historically disinvested (often also rich in culture and community) as cheap real estate ripe for renovating and selling to folks (often white, but not always) in the middle and upper classes.

People in Santa Fe, however, "don't say the word gentrification," as Tomás Rivera, executive director of the Chainbreaker Collective, explains. The organization first began and continues its work as a bicycle resource center, later growing to become a voice for housing and transportation justice in Santa Fe. That includes works on gentrification, a term that comes off as a bit jargony. Still, most people can intuit what it means. Without saying the word, many instead "make a reference to what happened on Canyon Road, the epicenter of art in Santa Fe," Rivera notes.

Once a largely working class Latinx barrio, the stretch of densely untamed streets now has some of the highest real estate prices (and median incomes) in the city and, as a result, the lowest population of Latinx residents. Internationally, it is known for its rarified art market. Locally, it is synonymous with displacement.

And that's the word with which Chainbreaker wants to frame the conversation. The forthcoming "Art Without Displacement" forum on Tuesday Feb. 6 is one of four public events that comprise its Edge of Equity series—this one to address the relationship between the art world and gentrification in Santa Fe. Rivera says the themes for the series came from its members, mostly low-income people of color who, in Rivera's eyes, are the experts on major issues like transit. They, in tandem with other allies, also want to delve into art, housing and social justice. Part of the role of the panel, Rivera says, is to "help people make those connections [between sectors] for themselves."

The first two panels in the series covered health and education, while investment, the final topic, will cap the series on Feb. 20. Altogether, they count toward a bigger strategy by Chainbreaker to help people develop political literacy, as well as an "understanding of the depth of the equity crisis in Santa Fe," in Rivera's words.

Over the years, Santa Fe has become a known bastion of liberalism—from establishing a high minimum wage to refusing to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement, championing marriage equality and support for big-government programs that attempt to provide services that level the playing field.

Yet, the reigning perception and celebration of liberalism—that everyone deserves a seat at the table—camouflages a dark reality difficult to confront: Santa Fe is starkly segregated by race and class. The various waves of displacement, from Canyon Road out to the furthest stretches of the city, have engendered those fault lines like arroyos etched across the landscape. And like arroyos, most people only remark on the danger they pose when their flooding causes a chain reaction of erosion.

Estevan Rael-Galvez has studied gentrification and benchmarked anti-gentrification strategies in places like Chicago and Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, and moderates the upcoming panel with author and activist Demetria Martinez; papercut artist Valerie Rangel; Diane Reyna, filmmaker and media artist; and Jared Antonio Justo-Trujillo, owner of downtown gallery KEEP Contemporary.

During the conversations that forged the basis of a project called Culture Connects, which Rael-Galvez spearheaded for the city of Santa Fe, the former state historian and founder of Creative Strategies 360 often heard a similar phrase repeated over and over again: "Artists are the foot soldiers of gentrification."

Earlier on, it was the Santa Fe artists' colony that appropriated Northern New Mexico aesthetics toward their own ends, but waves came and went. Now, it is accepted wisdom that bohemians and hipsters willing to live and work in industrial or working-class areas—in Santa Fe and elsewhere—are the first in a series of changing tides. Sometimes they bear cold brew and expensive juice, other times a countenance of morose cynicism. Regardless of the beverage or the look, the problem arises when cold brew displaces cafecito, or when neighborhoods change to accommodate a wholly other and more privileged demographic at the expense of the working class.

Following this logic, when neighborhoods like Canyon Road begin to accommodate the art world, it comes at a steep price. The art world (and by that I mean the industry that pushes the creation and sale of art on a corporate level) is premised on exclusion. Nothing can say it better than the term "white cube," a title synonymous with the minimally adorned gallery space. Indeed, white cubes keep the din of the greater world at bay and, when they multiply, they give birth to a politics and economy of exclusion, which hinges, in part, upon real estate. Exclusion can come when a person once intimate with an area no longer feels welcome walking down a street lined by high-end galleries; it can also come in the shape that certain types of policies take to enable exclusion in the first place.

Internationally, Canyon Road is known for its rarified art market. Locally, it is synonymous with displacement.
Internationally, Canyon Road is known for its rarified art market. Locally, it is synonymous with displacement. | Peter Sills

The relationship between art and displacement isn't immediately causal, or even clear-cut, but it does beg a good hard look at why art (or the art machine) and displacement are almost always threaded together. What happens, for instance, when an arts corporation gets municipal funding at the same time that the city struggles to provide essential services for the most vulnerable populations? In a city that dedicates 2 percent of its capital-improvement bonds to art acquisition, what would dedicating 2 percent to equity look like? Or, if we continue as a city to invest in arts-based tourism, when that money finally trickles down, who does that make the city better for?

This was a question posed by Devon Walsh Lang, a longtime member and volunteer at Chainbreaker, who is also working on a social media campaign on equity that will launch after the mayoral elections in March. The question of whether (or how) art can contribute to displacement is exactly that: a question that bears many complex answers, and perhaps even more hair-pulling questions.

For Rael-Galvez, it is only through the "process of engagement that the answer gets revealed." The key is that "those from the community should be at the table." Doing this is simply another way of "acknowledging, valuing and nurturing local talent and skill," as opposed to helicoptering in outside social practice artists or consultants from elsewhere, as is the current trend across the nation.

In addition to moderating the "Art Without Displacement" panel, Rael-Galvez is working on an oral history project about Canyon Road and the Hopewell-Mann neighborhood. Each, he sees, operates along a continuum toward a similar end: thinking about and implementing what he terms "ethical redevelopment," a framework that jives with Rivera's belief in "legislation that allocates resources equitably."

"It's not like we want to live in an artless society," Rivera makes clear. "We love art, we live art, we are artists ourselves." To rid Santa Fe of art or artists is not the solution. It's about making decisions that affect everyone from an "equity lens." "We want a city that values people and protects against displacement," Rivera continues. And sometimes that means making "politically inconvenient decisions." It perhaps comes as no surprise, then, that Chainbreaker is an organization built upon education.

Chainbreakers began as a bicycle resource organization and has grown into a social justice activism engine.
Chainbreakers began as a bicycle resource organization and has grown into a social justice activism engine. | Courtesy Chainbreakers

When people walk in to get their bike tuned up during the organization's Sunday bicycle resource center hours at 1515 Fifth St., they'll also encounter an entire grassroots environment where learning how to replace a tube could lead to suggestions about how to become engaged in politics. Juan Velarde, the self-described greeter who hails from Chihuahua, makes one point clear: "We are the raza and we can all make a difference together. We offer strength in numbers."

With an intergenerational team of about 19 people who are considered the organization's leadership, Chainbreaker has begun canvassing across Santa Fe. According to SonyaMaría Martinez, who is leading the effort, volunteers plan to knock on 10,000 doors to increase voter engagement and introduce the nonprofit to a wider network of people.

Much of this work is taking place against the backdrop of a high-stakes mayoral election with five candidates facing off. Early voting in the March 6 election begins on Feb. 14. The goal is that people will walk into the voting booths fully informed, and long after will continue to hold their elected officials accountable, Martinez says. Art is part of this web and, as such, not immune from criticism.

Just the same, art can also be the means for redress, accountability and education.

On that note, Rael-Galvez counts himself as an idealist. "I believe in my bones," he says, "that art and creativity, what we do with our hands, hearts and minds has the capacity to transform our community."

Alicia Inez Guzmán grew up in Truchas and currently lives in Santa Fe. She holds a doctorate in visual and cultural studies, and writes analyis about contemporary art, cultural workers, and Chicanx and Indigenous histories of land use.

5:30 pm Tuesday Feb. 6. Free. Wise Fool New Mexico, 1131 Siler Road, Ste. B, 992-2588; chainbreaker.org/edgeofequity