David Miller
by David Miller
Fri Apr 17th 2009 at 9:13am UTC

WSJ on Artists vs. Blight in Cleveland, Detroit, etc.

Alexandra Alter of the WSJ takes a look at the activities of civic entrepreneurs and artists pushing for rebirth in parts of the industrial Midwest. There are many interesting bits in the piece, here are a few:

Last month, artists Michael Di Liberto and Sunia Boneham moved into a two-story, three-bedroom house in Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood, where about 220 homes out of 5,000 sit vacant and boarded up. They lined their walls with Ms. Boneham’s large, neon-hued canvases, turned a spare bedroom into a graphic-design studio and made the attic a rehearsal space for their band, Arte Povera.

The couple used to live in New York, but they were drawn to Cleveland by cheap rent and the creative possibilities of a city in transition. “It seemed real alive and cool,” said Mr. Di Liberto.

Clearly Mr. Di Liberto is not reading economic data as a sign of life.

“Artists have become the occupiers of last resort,” said Robert McNulty, president of Partners for Livable Communities, a Washington-based nonprofit organization. “The worse things get, the more creative you have to become.”

Artists and architects are buying foreclosed homes in Detroit for as little as $100. In St. Louis, artists are moving into vacant retail spaces in a shopping mall, turning stores that stood empty for more than a year into studios and event spaces for rents of $100 a month. Artspace Projects Inc., a national nonprofit development corporation, plans to create 35 live/work spaces for artists on vacant property in Hamilton, Ohio, after converting an empty car factory and an adjacent lot in Buffalo, N.Y., into 60 artists’ lofts last year.

Cleveland is emerging as a testing ground for the strategy. With the collapse of the manufacturing industry, the city’s population has plummeted to around 430,000 residents today from nearly a million in 1950. A wave of home foreclosures has accelerated the slide. The Cuyahoga County treasurer estimates that 15,000 homes sit vacant — roughly one in 10. City officials tore down 1,000 homes last year, and more than 12,000 buildings await demolition.

In neighborhoods pocked by vacancies, artists have started filling the void. Last November, Katherine Chilcote, a local painter, bought a boarded-up, bank-owned house for $5,000 in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, where one in four family homes has gone into foreclosure in the last three years. Thieves had stolen the doors, punched out windows and ripped out all the pipes, sinks and electrical wiring. Eight cats had moved in.

The 29-year-old artist and four friends spent months ripping up moldy carpet, laying down new tiles and hardwood floors, repairing walls and stripping peeling paint. She bought the empty, weed-filled lot next door for $500. She plans to build a sculpture garden there, with large, whimsical mobiles that twist in the breeze. She’s applying for grant money from the Cleveland Foundation to turn four more vacant houses in the neighborhood into artist residences and studios.

It will be interesting to see how this all turns out for Cleveland and others, especially with the great unknowns surrounding the auto industry and the recent “glimmers of hope” that some see in the economy.

BTW, don’t forget about Richard and Charlotta’s paper “There Goes the Neighborhood.” It is an interesting piece that puts some data to this phenomenon of urban pioneers.

10 Responses to “WSJ on Artists vs. Blight in Cleveland, Detroit, etc.”

  1. Marisol Says:

    The Arts are invariably important. Artists are indeed Creative Class people.
    Best of luck to “Arte Povera”

  2. anne Says:

    Great article and very hopeful, but isn’t there a difference between gentrifying a down and out neighborhood and gentrifying an entire town or city?

    Do the same gentrification principles apply at this scale? Industrial cities need companies with jobs to follow behind the artists. Can that happen?

  3. David Miller Says:

    anne i think it does happen and there are many case studies of where artist and other creative types have led to rebirth.

    your thoughts on neighborhoods highlight the daunting nature of reversing decay in major metros, but it is in fact done house by house, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood.

    most importantly it needs to be done by local leaders/residents. people who have a real attachment to a house, block, hood, or city will stay and fight to improve it. (see what our friends/partners in Dayton Ohio are doing with DaytonCreate — they are having a young persons summit this weekend I believe)

  4. Jana Says:

    Recognizing how important artists are to cities and then looking at how many houses are currently vacant, I have to wonder why cities aren’t developing programs to provide housing and studio spaces for artists.

    What Katherine Chilcote is fantastic, but why did she have to wait to buy a house until it had been vandalized. Imagine how much more she could accomplish if she didn’t spend that time rebuilding the house.

  5. Andrea Says:

    It’s true it may seem daunting to think that cities like Cleveland and Detriot can be reborn starting with a surge in artists to the regions, but I think there is no other place to start – art inspires diverse thinking and encourages people to be innovative. It also creates a sense of authenticity where those involved in creating the new story of a city use the arts to do it. I think it’s fantastic that an artists’ revitalization movement is what may turn some industrial towns into new centres for inspiration and innovation. Cities that try to follow this strategy should also think about what they can do to promote their regions to diverse groups of people with new skill sets that their industrial legacy may have left them wanting for, like young entrepreneurs, and if successful, indeed the companies and jobs will follow the innovative and motivated.

  6. hayden fisher Says:

    Excellent piece!

  7. Matt Says:

    The concept of neighbourhood pioneers locating affordable rents and exploiting them to create livable communities is not new, it is definitely interesting as a catalyst for the rebirth of an entire city. Typical examples of artistic/bohemian-led renewal of neighbourhoods occur within the context of a vibrant city whose pervasiveness of expensive rents has forced the search for alternative spaces.

    The idea that artists and hardcore creative types can spark the renewal of entire rust-belt cities is fascinating. The question for economic planners is how to best equip and empower such pioneers. In a landscape devoid of positive momentum, it is incumbent on regional leaders to embrace these sorts of grassroots initiatives, but to do so in a way that doesn’t interfere with the authenticity of what is being cultivated.

  8. Michael Wells Says:

    Something of this sort has happened to Portland over the last 30-40 some years. While not a basket case like Detroit, Portland in the 1960’s was an economic backwater, an overgrown lumber town. Maybe two art galleries, no good bookstores, no good restaurants, part time symphony. Few immigrants, closeted gays.

    What changed I think was because of Portland’s relative openness. While there was a definite Redneck logger culture, it had a “live and let live” attitude that slowly attracted creative types and let them experiment.

    The equivalent of today’s auto companies meltdown was the crash of the lumber/resource economy in the 1980’s. The recession that lasted a year or two in most of the country dragged on in Oregon for much of the decade, and at the end of it the monoculture economic dependence on resources (lumber and wheat) had diversified with high tech and other creative businesses. Georgia Pacific moved out, Intel moved in.

    I think the lessons are: 1) it didn’t happen overnight, it was decades in the making. 2) grassroots politics drove city hall and the state in what are now seen as visionary directions (stopping a freeway and using the money for light rail, making all ocean beaches public property.) 3) the openness I mentioned above, echoing Richard’s creative class work.

    For Detroit & Cleveland, it won’t be so much the artists themselves as the openness to the artists among ordinary citizens that will make the difference.

  9. Robert Shaw Says:

    Very interesting article and many ways to look at this subject. Many are closed in their thoughts and need to open up a little.

  10. Katherine Chilcote Says:

    Cheap homes in Cleveland are creating economic stability for artists. Check out new opportunities in the St. Clair, Westown, and Broadway neighborhoods of Cleveland.