Kwende Kefentse
by Kwende Kefentse
Thu Apr 23rd 2009 at 4:51am UTC

The Value of an Artist

After returning from the whirlwind that was the CHRA’s Annual Congress (with keynote speaker Richard Florida to boot) and DJ-ing at Urbana – a charity gala put on by a local housing developer to end homelessness in Ottawa – my mind is abuzz with housing issues. While at the congress, we took a tour of Regent Park’s redevelopment and, as with any redevelopment project, there was much talk/concern about gentrification with respect to community renewal.

Meanwhile, on the internet, some blogs were also abuzz with housing issues related to gentrification. From the Clyde-Fitch Report I fished out this Wall Street Journal article about the much-discussed and debated role of artists in community renewal and the gentrification process:

Artists have long been leaders of an urban vanguard that colonizes blighted areas. Now, the current housing crisis has created a new class of urban pioneer. Nationwide, home foreclosure proceedings increased 81% in 2008 from the previous year, rising to 2.3 million, according to California-based foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac. Homes in hard-hit cities such as Detroit and Cleveland are selling for as little as $1.

Drawn by available spaces and cheap rents, artists are filling in some of the neighborhoods being emptied by foreclosures. City officials and community groups seeking ways to stop the rash of vacancies are offering them incentives to move in, from low rents and mortgages to creative control over renovation projects.

But looking at the artists profiled in the WSJ piece, I couldn’t help but notice – they all seem to be, for lack of a better term, white hipsters doing, again, for lack of a better term, white hipster art. I’m forced to wonder: what do we really mean when talking about artists? What are we valuing?

Here’s another perspective on gentrification from the always sublime blog Model Minority:

Gentrification has very little to do with white hipsters moving into the ‘hood and everything to do with process of people who earn higher incomes moving into neighborhoods where folks reside who are earning comparatively lower incomes.

A more sustainable, honest and comprehensive conversation about gentrification would involve a discussion of the income of the gentrifiers and not just the race of the gentrifiers.

And that’s what the WSJ piece seemed to elucidate implicitly – beyond race or even occupation, the artists valued in the gentrification discourse seem to be more important as an economic entity than as a creative one. Because these blighted areas like the Bronx or Detroit actually generate some of the greatest abundances of high-potency art and artists in the world. Hiphop culture and that entire industry emerged from the 1973 Bronx, and artists are still coming out of the BX at high rates. Detroit breeds some of the world’s best street artists with a lopsided ratio of good music emerging from the 313. What is the difference between them and the museum curator who buys the $100 house down the street? Only that the street artist from the Bronx or the D are actually from the area and are often creating from a position of poverty it seems.

So are the artists we refer to in the gentrification and renewal discourse really more of an economic model – liberal people with fixer-upper money, within a limited margin? Why doesn’t it seem that local street artists who are embedded in the community, often telling the story of the community, don’t have the same renewal/gentrifying value as the sculptor or the graphic designer who move in? And how can we create that value?

And now, as always, some topical music. Video Style:

12 Responses to “The Value of an Artist”

  1. Kwende Kefentse Says:

    I’m compelled to also include the second installation of Locusts, put together by local Detroit artist Invincible. It’s got some great interviews about how redevelopment is affecting The D, and how people are addressing the issues creatively.

    Cool stuff:

  2. Marina Havard Says:

    Interesting in Bensonhusrt, Brooklyn, in the past twenty years there have been so many changes. When i was a kid there, it was predominantly an Italian neighborhood and since has become a Chinese, Mexican, Russian-Jewish neighborhood. My point is neighborhoods change and evolve or devolve depending on whose perspective it is. I think its all part of changing cites.

    The Bronx is changing because many people actively choose to move to Jersey, long Island, and other suburban areas. I think communities can be allowed to change. I still miss the Bensonhurst of old, but not being Italian I am happy to see the changes.

  3. Buzzcut Says:

    Kwende, check this out. They’re not “white hipsters”. They’re “SWPLs” (as in the simply brilliant blog “Stuff White People Like”).

    And SWPL is not really “White People”, it’s “Liberal White People”. White hipsters.

    But don’t worry, SWPLs care. They won’t let gentrification take the real out of “keeping it real”.

  4. Buzzcut Says:

    I can’t resist. I have to tell this story:

    I was at a dinner for my wife’s MOMS club, and a couple of the dads were standing around talking. One dad was talking to another, talking about how he was having trouble connecting with his wife (MOMS club is for stay at home moms).

    Dad 1 :”Yeah, I get off the train, come home, and I want to talk about the latest Krugman column, and she wants to talk about the toilet habits of the kid.”

    Dad 2 :”Yeah, I totally know what you mean”.

    Buzzcut said: “That’s Number 91″.

    Dad 1: “What?”

    Buzzcut: “Krugman is number 91 on Stuff White People Like. You guys are a couple of SWPLs.”

    Then I broke out laughing and went to join a conversation on how the Bulls are doing. THAT’S keeping it real.

  5. Kwende Kefentse Says:

    Appreciate the reads and responses,

    Marina, I definitely agree with you that neighborhoods have to be permitted to be more fluid than static. When they transform, often the ‘original’ group feels that they are more suited to the space. In many ways it is a game of perspectives, but that’s really the root of my question: what perspective determined that one kind of artist is a gentrifier, and the other is not? Or are we really talking about artists at all??

    And Buzz, as a proud owner of the Stuff White People Like book, may I say that that’s a very SWPL thing to say! If one were keeping it REALLY real, they’d know that #91 is actually the city of San Francisco, and that Krugman’s not even on the list. Maybe he should be? You tell me.

  6. Buzzcut Says:

    No s***, Kwende. I don’t actually have the list memorized!

    How about reading the New York Times even when you’re not in New York? That’s awful SWPLish. #46.

    Krugman-fandom is total SWPL.

    Slightly more seriously, #7 on SWPL is diversity. But this love of diversity is theoretical. They might want a token of diversity, but not much more than that.

    This came to me as I was watching the last episode of “This Old House” in Brooklyn. The homeowners are total SWPLs. They had a party at the house to celebrate the conclusion of the project. Despite it being in a “diverse” neighborhood in Brooklyn, they were ALL SWPLs. If there was any melanin, it was from a tanning bed.

  7. IB Says:


    I always appreciate your posts. One of my concerns is I often feel the discussion on gentrification are at times limited and turns into an “us” vs. “them” amongst groups that might be more naturally inclined to work together. Of course, since I am white I certainly have a different point of view on the topic (although as someone who was raised in the Far West Village of NYC, previously a bohemian paradise, and now one of the most expensive areas, I have been “gentrified” and am very much concerned about the topic.

    Here’s a piece I wrote very much related to work here titled, ‘Revisionist View On Ending Gentrification: Increase Tolerance’

  8. Kwende Kefentse Says:

    Well I’m learning all kinds of things here. Buzz, I hadn’t heard of the show “This Old House”, but I looked it up and we definitely seem to be seeing the same things here. I’m surprised that Christian Lander hasn’t added this show on the list yet.

    IB, you make a good point about how quickly a complex issue can turn into a simple dualistic us vs. them. That was why I thought that it was so interesting and important that in her Model Minority blog M.Dot makes the point that gentrification is not a black vs. white issue and can’t be considered in that or any other limited binary light to be understood properly. Towards the end of the post she goes on to make a great example of the real #91 on the Stuff White People Like list, the city of San Francisco.

    Now we would all assume that San Fran would score high on the diversity index due to its high levels of tolerance, associated with its gay population. Without overstating the semiotic weight of blacks in the U.S. with respect to the term “diversity”, San Francisco has the largest urban population with the smallest black population. The city has a very interesting housing history, detailed in this USA Today article

    The point that M.Dot makes, and that I was trying to poke at a bit, is that there are always deep rooted, and over arching historical and economic factors that contribute to an area being “gentrification ready”. These stories are different area by area, but they all speak to several issues: a somewhat unsustainable faith in the market, an economic model based around popularizing and pushing the suburban lifestyle, a looming anti-urban sentiment, an architectural and planning campaign to re-imagine and repopulate the urban core that did not go as expected, and yes – a major race factor that played a major role in the way that cities were demographically reorganized after the slum clearance campaigns that ran from the 30’s through to the early 60’s in the U.S.

    Much of what’s going on here seems to be that now that the economy is resetting and even changing the way that we think about space, the areas that were undervalued have acquired value but only because those who have the resources want them. It gives the impression that those with limited resources have maintained in these spaces only because those with more resources have had their eyes elsewhere.

    In many ways it seems to be an argument more about the politics of power with respect to space. That’s a lot stickier than us vs. them but seems to be a lot closer to what’s going on. The ways that power, soft or hard, is exerted over urban space is pretty complex. Especially when we consider that urban space had gone largely undesired for quite some time. Interestingly enough, it was white populations who felt a lot of the early gentrification as more settled groups moved into areas occupied by newer European ethnic groups. The urban areas “left for” blacks in places like Detroit are just the last to go and its residents are only that much more entrenched.

    All of that is to say that this seems to be a complex process based around the phenomenon of neighborhoods where people who earn lower incomes emerging in areas that were undervalued, and as values shift those with comparatively higher incomes exercising their power over the space to align themselves with those values that has been going on not only around the nation, but around the world for quite some time now. First out into the country, and now back into the city. Don’t forget – exurban farmers were gentrified too. Suburbs didn’t come from nowhere.

  9. Buzzcut Says:

    You know, including Detroit or Cleveland in the discussion just clouds the issue of gentrification. Nobody has gentrified those cities. So let’s ignore them for now.

    Try Chicago instead. The north side of Chicago has certainly been gentrified over the last generation. As Kwende said, it was poorer indigenous whites who felt gentrification first. The black areas of Chicago were not gentrified in the first wave.

    Now that gentriication on the north side has gone pretty far, other areas are actually closer to the city core, and make more sense to gentrify. The neighborhoods are older, and contain more of the industrial type buildings that SWPLs love.

    So the west side is developing, which seems to be pretty hispanic. Gentrification has not really moved southward into traditionally black areas.

    Oh, you have your South Loop, but that was more industrial land or warehouses. The development there is more clean sheet building on a massive scale than gentrification.

    Then you have certain neighborhoods like Obama’s Hyde Park, that have always been a white oasis in a black sea. Mayor Daley’s old neighborhood of Bridgeport is similar.

    But traditionally black neighborhoods on the South Side have seen a mere fraction of the gentrification. This is doubly strange, because the end of Chciago’s high rise public housing has forced former residents out of the city entirely. These neighborhoods are a lot better than they used to be. And the housing stock is often outstanding. Chicago’s version of the brownstone is the greystone. They’re largely located on the South Side.

    I think that it largely comes down to security. The Chicago police are somewhat of a joke. You’re pretty much on your own in these neighborhoods. If you’re going to be a pioneer, you’re going to be fighting off the indians yourself. That’s different than the north side, where even if the neighborhood was gritty, crime was still rather low. The north side of Chicago never had the same level of white flight that Detroit had, or even that the south side had.

  10. Says:


    Thank you for the link. As an writer who writes primarily
    online it is great to see how folks respond to my work.

    My essay is up over at Racialicious.

    The commenter’s, from Atlanta to Shanghai have revealed the extent to which gentrification has impacted their communities. Gentrification needs to be renamed, Capitalismed.

    Thank you for your comments and for sharing.

    You know, including Detroit or Cleveland in the discussion just clouds the issue of gentrification. Nobody has gentrified those cities. So let’s ignore them for now.
    Detroit is highly symbolic of a few things and needs to be placed square in the center of gentrification conversation.
    Gentrification requires entire swaths of land to be available, hence Detroit’s relevance to the conversation.

    No yuppie or Arty Black person wants to move
    to the hood and live in the ONLY nice building on the block. The ENTIRE area needs to be “NICE”.

    Detroit is what happens when Corporations say Fuck you.

    U.S. Capitalism no longer needs Detroit, so Detroit
    is left to rot.
    U.S. Capitalism no longer needs Black male labor, so Black men are left to rot. When U.S. Capitalism no longer needs Mexican labor, Mexican folks will be left to rot too.

    Now I am off to write my piece on Asher Roth, Pimps, Thugs and Black Masculinity.

    Have a great Tuesday.

  11. Buzzcut Says:

    All of that is to say that this seems to be a complex process based around the phenomenon of neighborhoods where people who earn lower incomes emerging in areas that were undervalued, and as values shift those with comparatively higher incomes exercising their power over the space to align themselves with those values that has been going on not only around the nation, but around the world for quite some time now.

    That’s one sentance. Did you know that when you wrote it, Kwende?

    Just some constructive criticism: you write like an academic. Richard does not. One major reason that Richard has been so successful is that he doesn’t write like an academic. He is almost totally jargon free (except when he tries to write a hurried blog post on little sleep ;) ) It’s what I respect most about him.

    Academic jargon is all about excluding the unwashed masses from the conversation. I don’t think that’s what you want to do, otherwise you wouldn’t be posting here.

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