Art And Gentrification, Part 1: It’s Complicated

by William Skink

Artists have long been blamed for being unwitting agents of gentrification. According to New Urbanism guru, Richard Florida, “It’s an old story, the stuff of urban legend and conventional wisdom: First come the artists, then come the yuppies. But is this really the case? Are artists the “shock troops” of gentrification?

Richard Florida references a study that complicates the conventional wisdom noted above, but much more needs to be established before getting into the weeds of a city by city analysis of the arts and its complicated role in the process of gentrification.

I found a very insightful article from 2017 by Peter Moskowitz, titled What Role Do Artists Play In Gentrification? Here is some of the historical context the article provides:

The idea of the artist-as-gentrifier has staying power because it carries truth: Artists do often move into low-income communities of color, and bring with them gentrified aesthetics and commodities like $4 coffee. But the trope also hides nuance. Artists indeed participate in gentrification, but they are not its sole cause. To understand how art influences gentrification, and how artists can help fight against gentrification, we need to see a fuller picture.

The first piece of the puzzle to understand how art became so linked to gentrification is acknowledging that there were artists before gentrification: People of color and lower-income white people were living in cities and making art well before the term gentrification was coined by sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964. New York and San Francisco were seen as bastions of progressive and avant-garde art throughout the 1950s and ’60s, without much fuss being made about art’s effect on real estate values.

Two things changed that. Different kinds of people began moving into cities, and the art market grew tremendously, becoming increasingly professionalized and linked with global finance.

It’s at this point Moskowitz examines the post-WWII creation of suburbia, with its racist single family zoning. The “different kinds of people” referred to in the above quote are the progeny of suburbia, who started moving back to the city in the 70’s:

After World War II, the U.S. federal government essentially created suburbs out of thin air by subsidizing the mortgages of millions of Americans. But the mortgages came with conditions. Houses had to be single-family, and the mortgage owners in many cases had to be white: The federal government would draw maps of cities with red lines around neighborhoods with too many people of color to be eligible for mortgages. This process came to be known as redlining.

Redlining not only depressed the economies of inner cities, it created an entirely new kind of people in the suburbs—the white middle and upper-middle classes. For the first time in American history, the majority of white people were living largely privatized lives in single-family homes, without many community spaces or diversity, a lifestyle that reinforced the ideal of the nuclear family, with a stay-at-home mom and a working father. When the children of that economic and cultural experiment we now call “white flight” looked around, and decided they didn’t like what they saw, they began moving back to cities. In the 1970s, New York, San Francisco, and every other major urban center began experiencing an influx of a new kind of white person—one raised with the aesthetic, economic, and spatial values of the suburbs.

This influx of white, suburban artists fleeing the stifling conformity of suburbia was different from other types of people who came to the city for different reasons:

“Pre-gentrification cities were places people came to get away from the constricting values of American life,” Sarah Schulman, the author of Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (2013), told me over the phone. “The suburbs produced a different kind of person that brought a completely different ethic and value system to cities. You used to get the rejects and the resisters. Now you’d get the products of an unnatural environment of hetero- and racial supremacy.”

In the view of Schulman and others, suburbanization unleashed on cities a deluge of artists who cared more about marketable aesthetics than about art that could create social change.

Simultaneously, between the 1970s and today, art itself became further entrenched within capitalism. The art market is now worth $45 billion a year, dozens of times its size a few decades ago. And big-ticket MFA programs have become seen as near-necessities for success in the art world.

With this historical context in mind, what can artists do to become more aware of their role in gentrifying urban spaces? Here is an excerpt from an article, titled An Artists Guide To Not Being Complicit With Gentrification:

We write in hopes that more artists will finally break with their sense of exceptionalism and consider their roles in gentrification. We recognize that art is an industry with a structural reality that must be acknowledged in order for artists to challenge their complicity in the displacement of long term residents in low-income and working class neighborhoods and fight against this. It’s important that people see the devastating impacts of securing housing in working class and poor neighborhoods, and setting up investment properties posing as art spaces. How can this loyalty to the notion of art as a pure form of positive change be reconsidered, particularly when such sentiment encourages the destructive endeavors of parasitic developers and landlords?

As far as how we see our own position in these debates and struggles, we constantly reckon with and interrogate our personal culpability and contradictions as people who participate in exhibitions and have jobs in the arts, be it in nonprofit educational institutions or otherwise. We hold ourselves accountable by organizing with our neighbors for the human right to housing.

We are in a moment where the connection between art, real estate, and the displacement of longtime residents is undeniable. How might artists take responsibility for how we alter people’s lives, in terms of the impacts of real estate speculation and gentrification? How do we refuse co-optation and engage locally with our neighbors? How are artists, curators, galleries, and museums complicit with the same finance capital that gentrifies neighborhoods across the globe? We ask all of this as we involve ourselves deeply with tenant rights groups, to listen and learn from political and social urgencies. We refuse to accept that pointing at problems is enough. Rather, we look to create a collective analysis, to “act our way into thinking ” — a phrase borrowed from fellow organizer Leonardo Vilchis of Unión de Vecinos — which we’ve come to understand as the learning process that comes out of collective action, as opposed to relying on and residing only in theory. In this spirit, we share some of the lessons we’ve learned through our organizing and pedagogical work.

What follows this quote is a numbered list of what these artists have learned. I recommend reading them all, but number five stood out to me in particular:

5. We must choose between prioritizing our own individualistic artistic careers or prioritizing the dismantling of oppressive structures. There are no places without contradiction, nor places where we can be absolved of reinforcing oppressive structures. Instead, we must reorient our priorities so that we can be honest about what we are actually working towards. It takes time to learn how to point at a problem, yet too often we feel the work ends there. When it comes to art, there’s a certain cultural capital gained by criticizing capitalism, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are putting anything on the line to dismantle it. In far too many instances, the violence of the status quo is actually protected, guarded, and upheld in smug, self-assured condescension by artists with careers to protect when those who seek to rattle the cage more vigorously violate liberal taboos like “tone” and “unity.” If we get involved in anti-oppression struggles, listen, and are aware of privilege and the differing crises that surround us, it’s difficult to see an individual art career as something worthwhile. We’ve seen many artists with visibility (i.e. artists with gallery representation or those who have received major recognition of their work through awards or grants) who dismiss and criticize the artists and local organizers who choose to stand with the local neighbors of Boyle Heights in the form of social media rants and public media outlets (calling them misguided and naive). How might we tune our listening away from those with powerful art world platforms to those most impacted by gentrification?

Because the role of artists in perpetuating gentrification is a complicated one, I’ll be revisiting this topic over the next few weeks. Part two will examine a Missoulian op-ed in order to shift the focus to more recent local developments.

Stay tuned…

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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