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Artists and Urban Renewal

by Miriam Axel-Lute on July 17, 2014 · 0 comments


Conventional wisdom says that artists and gay people are tend to be pioneers in distressed neighborhoods, signs that change is ’a coming. While there have been some funny, and likely apocryphal stories about unlikely conservatives awkwardly wondering in public meetings if “we could get some of those gay people here” to boost a struggling town, that understanding hasn’t exactly been something people have tried to parley into an economic development strategy.

Artists, on the other hand, are a hot commodity, with special artist housing and art spaces cropping up as part of many places’ revitalization plans.

There are good things about this, and bad things. Certainly recognizing the crucial roles of art in creating community, challenging oppression, and bringing beauty and identity to places that have been short on it, and therefore deciding that cultivating and supporting spaces for artists to affordably live and work is an appropriate public/charitable goal makes a lot of sense.

However, we need to be aware of a couple troubling trends underneath these celebrations of the transformative power of art. First, we have to ask who are they transforming an area for? And at whose direction? Because, as the excellent, if sobering, article “The Pernicious Realities of Artwashing” on CityLab.com details, too often the presence of artists is becoming a deliberately engineered move to increase the cache of a building or area, until prices rise and the artists themselves are priced out, along with the original lower income residents of an area. Reporting from London a story that happens in this country plenty as well, Feargus O’Sullivan concludes, “Developers who try to burnish their product with artwashing need to be called out. They are not promoting artists or their work. They are using them as a human shield.”

And even when the process isn’t premeditated, developers are quick to spot an area where artistic energy and revitalization is humming, and target it for speculation and luxury development. Often the realization that both the artists and their low-income neighbors are going to be pushed out dawns too late for those who care.

And of course, the other question is, who is defined as an artist who gets support? Are we ignoring the fact that artists already exist in neighborhoods targeted for redevelopment? Are we privileging certain forms of art over others? Are we aggressively targeting local graffiti artists for punishment while importing “street artists” from other neighborhoods or other cities to make murals with permission? (I do like a lot of the Living Walls results and wouldn’t dismiss the whole thing out of hand, but as was pointed out at the time, there were some fairly insulting results as well—like the massive dead rat in Sheriden Hollow.)

It’s a tough dynamic, but it doesn’t have to mean that cities have to abandon the power of the arts for creative transformation and community building.

Rather than trying to “attract” artists, focusing on cultivating home-grown artists, like so many wonderful Capital Region organizations do—Grand Street Community Arts (and their Youth FX program), Sanctuary for Independent Media—can amplify the community-building aspects of supporting artists. It also breaks that insidious assumption that revitalization requires importation of new and different kinds of people. (Mind you, in an area with a lot of vacancy, it might eventually mean more people, but not because of any deficiency in the people living there.)

And then, developing permanently affordable artist space, combined with permanently affordable housing, as is being done in the Valley Arts District in the small city of Orange, N.J., is a great answer to the transitory nature of most artist-led revitalization strategies.

There are a number of models out there for permanent affordability—the land trust model, where a land trust holds the land permanently and leases it out to the building’s owner—and deed restrictions, as employed by many of the inclusionary zoning programs in the country. (Inclusionary zoning is a requirement that market-rate development set aside a certain number of more affordable units, usually in exchange for extra density.)

As with so many things about neighborhood change, putting this in place requires anticipating change and expecting and planning for success when it hasn’t arrived yet. I don’t think we’ve seen this in action too much in the Capital Region yet—which is why this is a perfect time to make sure we’re thinking about it.

If we’re going to talk about equitable revitalization, clearly that means not just improving the cache of the built environment in a long-neglected area. It means creating cities, and regions, were everyone has opportunities, can achieve their creative potential, and contribute to the greater community. Art and artists can play a powerful role in that, but allowing “artwashing” of real estate values is a move in the other direction.


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