Artists Fight Urban Blight: Casualty of the Recession?
The process by which neglected and depressed urban areas are revivified by artists, who are always seeking cheap rents and spaces in which to do their work, has been written and examined so closely and for so long that I’m unsure if there’s anything else to be said about the dynamic beyond the writings of Richard Florida, whose marvelous and visionary Creative Class Exchange is the first, last and final word on this. Indeed, at the height of the real estate boom here in New York City, it became rather a parlor game: What would the artists colonize and gentrify next? Would it be the South Bronx or would it be Harlem? Funny — the New York Times did that story, more or less, in October 2006.
Meanwhile, this is all pre-crash, pre-Obama, pre-recession talk — who knows what the story is in the South Bronx and Harlem these days. It more than likely depends on what metrics you use, but my strong suspicion is that most of the metrics are not encouraging. If there are very hard times underway south of 96th Street, it probably means there are excruciatingly horrible times to the north of it. How we might yearn for a time when a reporter might begin a story with these three sunny paragraphs:
For weeks, Holly Block and Patricia Cruz have been trying to BlackBerry a dinner date. Friendly from the downtown arts scene, they’re near-neighbors in Chinatown. And now they also have a kind of shared identity: they are the new headliners uptown.
In July Ms. Block, 47, started as director of the recently expanded, architecturally enhanced Bronx Museum of the Arts. Two weeks ago Ms. Cruz, 59, executive director of Harlem Stage/Aaron Davis Hall Inc., opened the Gatehouse, a performing arts space at 135th Street and Convent Avenue, the first new one in Harlem in 20 years.
That means they are poised to become two of the most visible and influential forces in the creative revitalization spanning Upper Manhattan and the Bronx, a movement that has been attracting audiences both locally and, increasingly, city- and worldwide. Joining such other force fields as Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem; Jonelle Procope, president and chief executive of the Apollo Theater Foundation; Rosalba Rol√≥n, artistic director of the Pregones Theater in the Bronx; and Kate D. Levin, New York’s cultural affairs commissioner (who arranged $19 million in financing for the Gatehouse and $16 million for the Bronx Museum), they stand at the center of northern New York City’s artistic development.
My purpose here is not to wistfully recall the pre-bust boom days of yore. Rather, it’s to call your attention to this piece in the Wall Street Journal. Called “Artists vs. Blight,” it examines the artist = urban development equation anew. For the most part it affirms the Florida view — with one important caveat that made me want to do some research and write a piece. That caveat suggests that the aforementioned equation could, should circumstances warrant, become one more victim of the recession, one more piece in the radically reordered economic chessboard.
The Journal piece begins with a look at an artist couple who moved from New York City to a very rundown swath of Cleveland called Collinwood, “where about 220 homes out of 5,000 sit vacant and boarded up.” That, by the way, is a bit less than 5% of the total number of homes, which is startlingly large number. Things are bad.
And this means that economists, urban planners, city elders and Florida acolytes are collectively looking to artists more than ever as a kind of grand salvation for neighborhood blight and atrophying real estate values. In areas of the country most hard hit by the recession, according to the Journal,
…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.
…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.
Sounds terrific, right? I mean, I have relatives not far from Detroit. I’ve got $100. Why not? After all, the worse the economy gets, the more things plummet toward financial depths unseen since my grandparents were still knocking around in their knickers (well, not quite), the better they will be for artists, right? Certainly one would think so in the aftermath of reading these three graphs:
Over the next 18 months, Cleveland plans to spend $500,000 to fund 50 citizen-led pilot projects to reclaim vacant property. The Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, part of Kent State University’s College of Architecture, launched an initiative called “Pop Up City” a year and a half ago, which brings performance artists into empty lots, vacant buildings and unused urban infrastructure. In Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, two theater companies have teamed with the local development organization on a $30 million drive to rebrand the former factory hub as an entertainment and arts district, with a new community theater and independent-film house.
“At first, the strategy was [placing artists in] old warehouses, now it’s whole neighborhoods,” says Bob Brown, director of the Cleveland City Planning Commission. “The next phase is capitalizing on the presence of artist and art-related businesses and using it as the lever for high-density development.”
This September, Cleveland’s Community Partnership for Arts and Culture will host its second conference, titled “From Rust Belt to Artist Belt,” with artists, city leaders, local banks and real-estate agents to discuss ways to transform Cleveland into a regional arts hub. Tom Schorgl, the group’s president, said it’s creating a Web site for artists that will include a searchable database of cheap properties. His group is also helping artists find vacant properties through the newly created county land bank — a bank of distressed properties the county will manage until they can be redeveloped.
But here’s what piqued me. It’s a case of “Not so fast, bub” and it’s right there in the Journal story, too:
The strategy is controversial. Some urban planners warn against treating the arts as a cure-all for urban development, particularly since low-income residents are often forced out when artists move in. “Artists have had the effect of gentrifying neighborhoods that were working for the existing communities,” says Dana Cuff, an architecture professor at UCLA and founder of cityLAB, an urban-design think tank.
Some artists are also wary of being branded as agents of development. “I could never afford the neighborhoods that I’ve helped contribute to,” says Bridget Ginley, a 38-year-old painter, who says she was priced out of Cleveland’s trendy Tremont and Ohio City neighborhoods once the galleries and restaurants arrived.
To be sure, I can’t imagine an urban planner, mayor or anyone, really, in an authoritative position advocating that artists’ sweat equity — or their safety or that of their loved ones, depending on the neighborhood — should be called into question. But there does appear to be, at least in those three preceding graphs, a tacit acknowledgement that it is the driver of the gentification, the artist, who typically gets short shrift when the boom times inevitable come. If that weren’t the case, Brian Friedman, executive director of Northeast Shores Development Corp. over in the Collinwood neighborhood of Cleveland, would not have furnished this quote to the Journal:
Our chief goal is ownership. We don’t want the neighborhood to gentrify them out.