Appropriation of a given culture’s art, music, and space is often viewed as inappropriate appropriation when it is done disingenuously. Aspects of a given group in society can be culturally appropriated (i.e. music, art, traditions, customs) as well as spatially appropriated. Unwanted infiltration and appropriation of another culture’s “space” happens constantly in many urban, ethnic enclaves. For instance, Harlem’s gentrification has shown affluent citizens moving into the community, raising property value, lowering crime rates, and renovating buildings with the tradeoff of driving local citizens out displacing its current residents. The consequence of spatial appropriation is the taking of one group’s physical space and inhibiting it without regard for the original occupant’s ownership of that area. Catalina Neculai, author of Urban Space and Late Twentieth-Century New York Literature: Reformed Geographies, uses the term socio-spatial, to describe the changes that occur in a city during a time of urban transformation, namely gentrification. Socio-spatial refers to the interaction between physical environments and society. When spatial appropriation is happening in a city, the physical buildings and public spaces are being transformed, thus influencing the attitudes of the current residents. Neculai states, “Space is socially produced and social relations themselves are inherently spatialized”; therefore, when a city’s space is appropriated, the socialization from new residents creates a new social atmosphere; this can cause strife and tension between established and new residents. Spatial appropriation in a city has stronger effects than cultural appropriation because it can last over several generations, transforming the racial makeup and ethnic character. The comparison between cultural appropriation and spatial appropriation can be seen through white musicians appropriating blues music from the Harlem Renaissance and modern day residential gentrification in East Harlem.

From Bessie Smith and Elvis Presley

The Harlem Renaissance, which spanned from the 1920s to the 1930s, was a time when African Americans captured the nation’s attention through their music, poetry, writing, and performing. In a period during great racial unrest and tension, black artists showcased their ideas and talents on a platform that was previously impossible. Jazz, in particular, was a music genre that transcended racial and socio-economic boundaries.

African Americans who were not usually given the opportunity otherwise were able to empower themselves through artistic expression. For instance, Bessie Smith, who was a prominent African American blues singer created rich, soulful tunes, which attracted fans, both white and black alike. Standing six feet tall, Smith had an unforgettable commanding presence on stage. Crude, eccentric, and unapologetically bold, Smith challenged the stereotypes of her race and gender at that time.

Bessie Smith was greatly respected and achieved mainstream success and appreciation. She was able to perform in a way that connected with people, tearing down racial barriers that might have been there if she had not been a performer. Her music is authentic; as an African American, her artistry reflects that of her southern culture and the struggles of black people in the twentieth century.

While the Harlem Renaissance was one example where a marginalized group (African Americans) created art that was authentic to their experiences, hardships, and triumphs, times of inauthentic imitation occur when only a certain race’s customs and traditions are showcased in a disrespectful manner way, over emphasizing a single idea and simplifying the entire culture.

For example, early rock musician, Elvis Presley, although considered a musical legend, has been criticized of stealing black music; many African Americans felt that Presley copied blues’ rhythm and popularized the genre with a white man as representation rather than the black representation. While artists such as Bessie Smith profoundly contributed to the foundation of blues music, those who were not of African American descent used rhythms, style, and musical tone that has already been created. White musicians, such as Presley, capitalized on this new blues music movement. Presley bridged music with deep African American roots to a young white audience, who appreciated this unfamiliar genre. Presley, unlike Smith, reached unprecedented fame, which could arguably be contributed to his race. While this may not seem fair, this pattern has happened frequently. Presley made blues music appear acceptable and mainstream to a white audience. Cultural appropriation is similar to spatial appropriation in that both belittle and diminish a group or race’s authentic nature by claiming ownership something that belongs to that group as their own. However, the means of both appropriations are

distinctly different.

The Transformation of East Harlem

Another type of appropriation can be seen happening in East Harlem today. Individuals who are not of the predominant ethnic or socio-economic group in Harlem, have found themselves comfortably nestled among an already established neighborhood. Those gentrifying Harlem, mostly white, upper-class citizens, have not hesitated in surrounding themselves with stores and restaurants they desire at the expense of historical and cultural establishments.

The influx of affluent residents with a mix of (what some may call) the ignorant-urbanite is transforming Harlem’s long history of cultural restaurants, parks, and shops. Trendy boutiques and healthy cafes have forced an unwanted urban renewal to the disgust of native residents. The vivacious culture of Harlem’s African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and remaining Italians are masked by the culture of the trendy, middle to upper-class lifestyles.

For example, Louise’s Family Restaurant, a “culinary survivor”, is an original establishment, characterized by limited seating, and “unapologetically heavy, friend, salty and fattening” foods. The inexpensive, family-run restaurant serves soul food such as butter beans, country fried steak, hog maws, oxtails, and chicken livers. This restaurant is a staple in Harlem; it is an absolute favorite among the elderly residents. As Harlem is becoming gentrified, a trend towards new eating establishments, specializing in vegetarian and organic delicacies has skyrocketed. Charging as much as double and triple the prices of Louise’s Family Restaurant, local Harlem residents are unable to afford the newer places. The healthier restaurants have put soul food restaurants at a disadvantage as the newer restaurants have, “… increased pressure from the city to offer more nutritious meals (Williams)”. As Harlem is becoming gentrified, there is an increasing amount of friction between those who have lived in Harlem for generations and current, predominately white residents. The attitudes that the newer residents have of Louise’s Family Restaurant reflect that gentrification of ideals and attitudes acts as a side effect of physical gentrification. Can artistic infiltration be viewed the same way as spatial (physical) gentrification?

When there is a lack of opportunity to acclimate to a new group, then the group’s new ideas and customs are not generally welcomed and met with resistance. It is easier for someone to criticize the appropriation of one’s culture; while it is far more difficult for one to respond to spatial appropriation. The differences between cultural and spatial appropriation are found in the response that occurs when each of them happens. Artistic ideas taken by another group can be more easily protested through the Internet, books, and various other mediums, however when a space is being gentrified in its housing and businesses, the local residents are almost powerless. It is far more challenging for those citizens who have lived in Harlem for generations to handle this spatial gentrification.

Today affluent residents and large corporations are gentrifying the housing and office space in Harlem. For instance, Vornado Realty Trust, the Kimco Realty Corporation, and Apollo Real Estate Advisors represent the majority of the real estate domination of East Harlem on 125th street. An increase in landlord harassment claims reveals the unethical standards that companies including Kimco have resorted to, such as “employing harsh tactics in an effort to drive rent-regulated tenants out” (Hernandez). Companies are continuously searching for new office space, seeking opportunity in Harlem, and they are prospering at the expense of established residents. Gentrifying East Harlem adversely affects the housing market for lower-socioeconomic groups; a shift in social and economic class emerges due to the overturning community. In the case of gentrification in a city, local citizens do not have the resources and finances to oppose the impact that affluent residents and companies have.

Appreciating a culture’s style and appropriating their customs are two radically distinct actions, yet often in a culturally diverse nation it is difficult to define and draw the line. Was Elvis Presley sharing his knowledge of blues music in the respectful way? He was often criticized for dancing sexually when performing his songs. He was creating a reputation and association for the public when he sung with a blue’s influence—a reputation that was not always praised by African Americans. As well, spatial appropriation in a city, as seen in Harlem, has detrimental effects on the existing residents, businesses, and cultural atmosphere; the group that has their culture or space appropriated is left without a voice.


  • Hernandez, Raymond. “Real Estate Developers Are Major Rangel Donors.” NY Times. New York Times, 27 July 2008. Web. 23 Nov. 2013.
  • Neculai, Catalina. Urban Space and Late Twentieth-Century New York Literature: Reformed Geographies. N.p.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Print.
  • Williams, Timothy. “In Changing Harlem, Soul Food Struggles.” NY Times. New York Times, 5 Aug. 2008. Web. 23 Nov. 2013.

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