Tory Bullock calls his latest project, “The Gentrification Game,” “A life-sized game for a life-sized problem.”

On Oct. 25 and 26 and Nov. 1 and 2, from 4 to 7 p.m., he’ll transform a former bank that’s now Dudley Neighbors Inc. at 572 Columbia Road, in Boston’s Uphams Corner neighborhood, into a game space of cardboard-box buildings. Participation is free. Drop in and play for five to 10 minutes.

“You have two cardboard communities. One side is just beat up old boxes, not a lot of care is put into them,” garbage, Bullock explains. “A neighborhood in transition, a neighborhood people might get interested in buying property.” The other side offers “a pristine path” with carefully detailed buildings.

One neighborhood is home to a liquor store while the other has a wine emporium. One side has a check cashing business and a torn-down theater, while the other has “an actual bank” and a pristine theater. Bullock asks, “Can you survive in my fictional transitional neighborhood?”

“The Gentrification Game,” Bullock says, “will let you feel what gentrification feels like to people who actually live in that community.” And it aims to let folks on the wrong end of gentrification know “that feeling that they’re feeling is real, it isn’t something they made up.”

The 29-year-old resident of Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood studied theater at the Boston Arts Academy high school. “That unlocked my creativity,” he says.

But, he says, “While doing theater, I started to see it was kind of fake to me.” Specifically, when he was performing, the audience might embrace high ideals, “but the second we would come out into the lobby, everyone was back in their social group.” He wanted to make art that more directly fostered change.

“That started a mission where I just started doing things,” Bullock says. The things involved fun stunts, pop-up guerrilla performance art, “quirky” viral videos fueled by his motto “love people, make art.”

A few years back, he offered the “No Excuses Giveaway.” It was sparked by seeing an online fundraiser for a student going to Berklee College of Music seeking a laptop.

“Instead of people having to make up these excuses—I want to make my art but I don’t have the tool to make my art”—Bullock just gave people computers, guitars, a midi controller, notebooks, pencils. “Then people actually started donating stuff to give to local artists,” he says. He invited nominations of local artists in need, then picked winners using a spinning game show wheel.

Another time, he traveled to different neighborhoods around greater Boston, set up a couple chairs and offered “free conversations” with a game show wheel of topics: Boston, race, favorite songs. He’d play “The Price Is Right” theme song as he waited for participants.

For the coldest day of one winter, Bullock transformed himself into a “Cold Buster” offering games, hot chocolate and hand warmers “to bring warmth to the city of Boston by any means necessary.” Another time, he invited people to a “Glow in the Snow Ball Fight” during one blizzard.

During an overnight event at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in September 2016, he offered the 3 a.m. “Insomniac Olympics,” which challenged attendees to video games, Nerf gun marksmanship, duck duck goose.

And he made videos for social media. His “Mid Day Dance Off Challenge” dared viewers to out dance him. Sometimes the spark is “I’m frustrated with something, let me make a video.” He pondered chivalry, argued that “the ‘Lion King’ is the greatest Disney movie of all time,” criticized lackluster black businesses.

He had a viral hit with his “1st Snow Day of 2016!!!!” video in February that year, in which he freestyled “Boston Public Schools you’ve got a snow day” over the “Rocky” theme song. Facebook said it attracted 67,836 views and 964 shares. And it was featured on the website of NBC’s Today show.

He increasingly began to “shine a light” on serious topics with what you might call his “real talk right now” videos. “I’m still the fun guy,” Bullock says, “but the climate that we’re in—there are some serious things and we need to talk about them. There are some things that are wrong in our community that someone needs to talk about … in a refreshing way, in a way that acknowledges that we have a short attention span.”

A video about breaking up with the MBTA attracted 25,000 facebook views and 429 shares. He interviewed Boston mayoral candidate Tito Jackson during last year’s city election.

Two years ago, Bullock posted a video called “Dear Boston Luxury Condos.” As in many of his videos, it starts with him pulling up in his car and talking to the camera, then walking around Boston talking to the camera.

“Who are these apartments for?” he asks, gazing around one Boston street. “Because they’re not for us. Everywhere I go I see brand new luxury apartments, luxury condos popping up everywhere, as far as the eye can see, but none of us can afford this.” Because of these luxury apartments and condos, he says, “the rent is going through the roof” for everyone else. According to facebook, the video was viewed 557,550 times, shared 8,958 times, and attracted 1,000 comments.

“The housing crisis and gentrification,” Bullock tells me today, “has been on everyone’s mind recently.”

Tory Bullock's “The Gentrification Game." (Courtesy)
Tory Bullock’s “The Gentrification Game.” (Courtesy)

“The Gentrification Game,” supported by a Design Studio for Social Intervention grant, aims to continue that serious discussion—and make it an in-real-life, participatory, fun experience. For the Uphams Corner presentation, Bullock says, “it’s designed from my experience, what I experience in this neighborhood.”

One subtext of the project seems to say that some folks around here don’t really understand how gentrification is affecting people—and that’s a problem. “It’s weird. The easy answer is white people don’t understand it or the gentrifiers don’t understand,” Bullock says. “But there’s a lot of people who live in these communities who don’t understand it.” And then, he says, folks in a traditionally black neighborhood wake up to one day see white folks jogging by.

Bullock says the city government’s “Imagine Boston 2030” master plan, which was released in July 2017, imagines Uphams Corner as a hub for arts, but right now most artists can’t afford to put on productions in the Strand Theatre there. (He launched a petition last year to create a 40-seat black box theater inside the Strand with a video that got 104,000 views.) “It’s frustrating.”

Bullock says his research for the project “made me realize that a lot of things that drive gentrification are plans that were put in place 10 years before anything happened. … By the time the rallies start and the protests start, it’s too late because the deals already have been signed.”

“People are actively trying to move people away so they can make all this money here,” Bullock says. “It’s really about who has the money and who doesn’t. Historically the people of color don’t have the money to defend where they grew up at.”

“Gentrification is not a black/white issue,” Bullock says again, “except in certain neighborhoods it sure does feel like it.”

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Categories: Activism Art