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:
Richard writes at great length in his work about the effect of clustering, particularly in understanding why the mega-region is a seminal concept of the urban age. Clustering is vital at the micro-level as well. In Christian Norberg-Schulz’s Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture, he makes the argument that space and place create the context for gathering and that it’s only through gathering that things like culture and representative art can begin to happen.
My experience as a journalist and DJ echo his observations. When I first began to interview the artists that I grew up listening to, the thing that impressed upon me most was how interconnected their communities were – particularly the hip hop artists from the New York area. We couldn’t understand it properly as kids listening to the music from a distance, but from visiting New York and talking to these artists you begin to understand what the neighborhoods meant to cultural production. Before they were legends, they were kids who liked music or dancing or art, and lived down the street from each other, so they got together to do it.
Although artists formed separate groups professionally, before they were in the public eye they all went record shopping in the same places, hung out in the same clubs, painted on the same walls, bounced ideas off of each other, and shared a sense of community that was defined very much by the urban terrain upon which it was cultivated. As a DJ in a city that is pretty arts-intensive, I can see the parallels in my own environment. There are places where we go and cluster and as artists we get together to just hang out and exchange ideas.
I say all of that to underscore this: I was at an art gallery the other day and I saw a call for public art from the city along with a submission form. A street that traverses Little Italy is being torn up and repaired, and the BIA is taking proposals for designs on some of the the buildings/space before the street reopens. Having worked in an art gallery for a couple of years, it occurred to me that this was not the first time I had seen a form like this and, while artists do frequent galleries, that there might be more effective places to put these forms. A street intersecting the road under repair has become a locust for young creative business enterprise centered around the arts. Young artists forming co-ops and running cafés, or specialty fashion stores where creative people came to do their thing. In the week as I went about my business in and out of these places and checked around, there were no forms to be found.
It made me wonder – are cities aware of their creative geographies? Do they know where their artists cluster? If they need to address them, do cities have any real on-the-ground information, or do they guess at places like art galleries when the artists are hanging out right across the street?