Artists and gentrification

I just came back from the Creative Capital annual retreat, where I taught a workshop in professional development for their new grantees. Someone asked me to write down what I said there about the Creative Economy – a great discussion came up about it at our workshop – and so I’ll give it a whirl here.

There’s been tons of research done to prove that the arts – specifically the non-profit arts that – have a profoundly positive economic impact on cities. Arts activity in a neighborhood makes that neighborhood more appealing to non-arts people for a variety of reasons (safety and hip cache being two), those non-arts people move to the neighborhood, property values go up, and then all of a sudden your roads are being paved more regularly, there’s better produce at the grocery store, and you’ve got some kid with a nose ring pulling Fair Trade capuccinos at your beck and call at the spot on the corner that used to be one of the many chicken places. The Salsa/Merengue jukebox has been replaced by obscure Elliot Smith and De La Soul recordings, the tattoos are different, and there’s wifi.

The downside of course is that some or many of the people who were living there before the artists moved in are no longer able to live there because prices have risen too much. Very often those original residence were poorer, often they were of color. Eventually the artists who are renting apartments are also not able to afford to stay. Forward to next neighborhood and repeat.

This is not a new story but I think it might be time for a deeper awareness of the cycle. Gentrification is A) not entirely bad, B) partly brought on by artists, and C) part of what seems to me to be an inevitable cycle in many cities. The question is how to interact with that cycle in the most constructive ways.

A) It’s generally good to have safer neighborhoods with more services and better food available. Does it have to come at the cost of the original residents’ ability to stay?

B) Artists sometimes see ourselves strictly as victims of gentrification – that we make a neighborhood appealing to yuppies and their dough forces us to find the next not-yet-cool neighborhood. But a lot of artists forget that there were people here before us, that our relationship to the neighborhood impacts the security of their housing, and that we often have choices we don’t recognize, both about the work we do and about where we live.

C) It’s also important to just say that cities change. Their economies grow or shrink, new populations move in, people in government, business and every other strata make decisions; more importantly, individuals are constantly making choices about what to buy, where to live and how to get ahead, which causes an ongoing ebb and flow to the city that no one of us controls. Saying this change is “good” or “bad” leaps past the fact that the change is inevitable and relatively uncontrollaboe by any one of us.

So: The more we as artists take responsibility for our role – not to beat ourselves up about it, nor champion ourselves – the better neighbors we can be, the better citizens.

I am working with the brilliant Esther Robinson on a project she has begun called ArtHome, which is a first time homebuying program for artists, modeled after similar programs around the country for low-income residents. ArtHome is predicated on the idea that the funding structure for the arts is broken, that artists need to investigate new ways to create stability for themselves long-term, and that artists who buy their homes are often able to create that stability more easily. In addition, those artists often become more integrated into their neighborhoods, and can help shape the path the neighborhood takes, rather than simply feeling at the whim of forces completely beyond our control.

For further reading:


Also Google for yourself: Jane Jacobs
and buy her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Any discussion of city economies needs to start here.

And Richard Florida – The Rise of the Creative Class – a problematic but influential tome on just this subject.

I should also say that I don’t own my house, yet, that I have been part of the gentrification process in the East Village, Carroll Gardens, Williamsburg, and now Prospect Lefferts.