Artists Fight Urban Blight: Casualty of the Recession?


urbanblightThe 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:

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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.

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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,

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…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:

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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:

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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:

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Our chief goal is ownership. We don’t want the neighborhood to gentrify them out.

Good! So what, then, is the current state of affairs regarding artists colonizing blighted areas with their money and sweat equity, and what is the current state of affairs in terms of ensuring the artists’ investment?
My first stop was to revisit (electronically, that is) with Richard Florida, who is always my go-to person for the theory that creativity drives fiscal development. I read, for example, his brilliant piece in The Atlantic, “How the Crash Will Reshape America.” Consider New York:
“…the financial crisis may ultimately help New York by reenergizing its creative economy. The extraordinary income gains of investment bankers, traders, and hedge-fund managers over the past two decades skewed the city’s economy in some unhealthy ways. In 2005, I asked a top-ranking official at a major investment bank whether the city’s rising real-estate prices were affecting his company’s ability to attract global talent. He responded simply: “We are the cause, not the effect, of the real-estate bubble.” (As it turns out, he was only half right.) Stratospheric real-estate prices have made New York less diverse over time, and arguably less stimulating. When I asked [preservationist Jane] Jacobs some years ago about the effects of escalating real-estate prices on creativity, she told me, “When a place gets boring, even the rich people leave.” With the hegemony of the investment bankers over, New York now stands a better chance of avoiding that sterile fate.”
So perhaps there is reason for optimism — that the recession hasn’t destroyed the creative class in New York with such thoroughness that the days of artists gentrifying Harlem and the South Bronx, in fact, aren’t over, but just in its opening stages. Then again, Florida asks,

So how do we move past the bubble, the crash, and an aging, obsolescent model of economic life? What’s the right spatial fix for the economy today, and how do we achieve it?

The solution begins with the removal of homeownership from its long-privileged place at the center of the U.S. economy. Substantial incentives for homeownership (from tax breaks to artificially low mortgage-interest rates) distort demand, encouraging people to buy bigger houses than they otherwise would. That means less spending on medical technology, or software, or alternative energy-the sectors and products that could drive U.S. growth and exports in the coming years. Artificial demand for bigger houses also skews residential patterns, leading to excessive low-density suburban growth. The measures that prop up this demand should be eliminated.

Ouch, that’s rough. I want to own a home. I want artists to have roofs over their heads to call their own. And why, in the case of artists specifically, should measures incentivizing homeownership be removed? How, politically speaking, would it be possible to remove them while preserving them for artists? No chamber of commerce would ever sign on to that. No, I feel there’s a chasm between what might make sense macroeconomically, per Florida’s view, and what might be possible politically, what with tens of thousands of people being foreclosed out of their homes, and tens of thousands more just about one federal bailout away from lynching anyone and everyone who hawked those awful jumbo mortgages that got us in this mess in the first place. (Mind you, people who got mortgages they couldn’t afford get no sympathy from me. But it still makes little sense to ignore their outrage.)
But then again, even if times get so bad for artists that literally all the funding, all the purchasers of their products dried up, there’s always Detroit. And by this I am referring to this op-ed in the March 7 New York Times, penned by Sharp Teeth author Toby Barlow. This is how bad things are — and how much potential there is for artists to radically “reset,” to use a Florida phrase, our economy. At a party, Barlow writes, he met various guests. Two of them were

“….a couple in from Chicago, had also just invested in some Detroit real estate. That weekend Jon and Sara Brumit bought a house for $100.

…A local couple, Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, started the ball rolling. An artist and an architect, they recently became the proud owners of a one-bedroom house in East Detroit for just $1,900. Buying it wasn’t the craziest idea. The neighborhood is almost, sort of, half-decent. Yes, the occasional crack addict still commutes in from the suburbs but a large, stable Bangladeshi community has also been moving in.

So what did $1,900 buy? The run-down bungalow had already been stripped of its appliances and wiring by the city’s voracious scrappers. But for Mitch that only added to its appeal, because he now had the opportunity to renovate it with solar heating, solar electricity and low-cost, high-efficiency appliances.

Buying that first house had a snowball effect. Almost immediately, Mitch and Gina bought two adjacent lots for even less and, with the help of friends and local youngsters, dug in a garden. Then they bought the house next door for $500, reselling it to a pair of local artists for a $50 profit. When they heard about the $100 place down the street, they called their friends Jon and Sarah.

…Now, three homes and a garden may not sound like much, but others have been quick to see the potential. A group of architects and city planners in Amsterdam started a project called the “Detroit Unreal Estate Agency” and, with Mitch’s help, found a property around the corner. The director of a Dutch museum, Van Abbemuseum, has called it “a new way of shaping the urban environment.” He’s particularly intrigued by the luxury of artists having little to no housing costs. Like the unemployed Chinese factory workers flowing en masse back to their villages, artists in today’s economy need somewhere to flee.”

So the question is where are these $100 homes? And what are the pitfalls of buying them? And is this really the answer to everything — let the artists save the nation?
In an essay in the Detroit Free Press, Andrew Herscher, “an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Michigan and founding member of the Detroit Unreal Estate Agency, an international group of architects, artists and activists exploring Detroit’s alternative urban cultures,” offered his take on Barlow’s piece (and he referenced Florida, too):
With the renewal that gentrification brings comes not only property development and rising property values, but also the displacement of those for whom ungentrified neighborhoods possess their own particular advantages-these are not only artists but also the working class, recent immigrants and other marginalized communities. Through their facilitation of gentrification, then, artists start a process that eventually leads to their own eviction and to the destruction of precisely the environment that attracted them and allowed their creativity to flourish.
It might seem utterly bizarre to decry the future effects of gentrification in Detroit, a city that is now desperate for investments of any sort and hopes of any kind. And yet, what might be even more bizarre is how just this same desperation and hope once characterized SoHo itself. In 1962, the City Club of New York published a report entitled The Wastelands of New York, which focused on the area that is now known as SoHo. The report described that area as an “enormous commercial slum” with disastrously low property values. A few decades later, of course, the problems facing SoHo became entirely different-the problems of a massively overdeveloped enclave of and for the wealthy.
So what is the right mix? Should there be legislation to protect the gentrifiers? Sure, I guess, but wouldn’t legislation of this kind discourage greater real estate development — and therefore, wouldn’t property values not rise at all, or not the way they used to? (Perhaps not such a bad idea, actually.) And would, perversely, such legislation to protect artists’ sweat equity not disincentivize artists to gentrify?
And how does one deal with new construction made economically feasible by the gentrifying work of artists — should there be a percent-for-art law everywhere or just in some places?
And finally, to what degree is it fair to burden artists with the task of saving the nation from financial ruin? If we’re a nation of artists, that’s a beautiful thing, sure. But we must be a nation that produces, too, that innovates. And not all innovations can be borne on the backs of our artists. I’m all for the creative economy. I just want a diverse economy as well.