What Role Do Artists Play in Gentrification?
Bushwick Avenue in Brooklyn, 2017.
In 2015, Los Angeles-born artist London Kaye hung a large, crochet depiction of three children inspired by Wes Anderson’s movie Moonrise Kingdom and the twins from the 1980s thriller The Shining on a building in Bushwick next to the popular Bushwick Flea (an upscale flea market). She captioned the corresponding Instagram post with the hashtags #yarnbomb, #streetart, and #bushwick.
A few weeks later, Will Giron, a lifelong New Yorker and tenants’ rights activist, came to visit his aunt in the neighborhood. It was her building that had been yarn-bombed, and Giron was angry. Kaye had not asked permission to hang her work and when Giron complained to her and the head of Bushwick Flea, Rob Abner, he was met with a strong response: Abner threatened to call the Department of Health on his aunt, who sells Salvadorian food outside of her building, and said Giron should be grateful, because the crochet art would likely increase the value of his aunt’s property.
To Giron, it wasn’t only about the art. He felt like his family’s neighborhood was being overtaken by white outsiders, lured in part by Bushwick’s new creative scene, which didn’t care about the desires of those there before them.
“It was really about agency,” Giron told me recently. “People come in and act like they can do whatever they want. Kaye wouldn’t have done the same thing on Long Island or in a white neighborhood.”
Giron’s aunt can afford to stay in Bushwick because she owns the building she lives in, but Giron has watched as his friends have moved on, priced out as average rents increased by 44 percent in 20 years (the only thing preventing them from increasing beyond that is the relatively large stock of rent-controlled housing). In their place has come a flood of outsiders, most of whom are white; dozens of art galleries; hundreds of artist studios; and everything else associated with gentrification—fancy bars, restaurants, and clothing shops.
Giron said he would have less of a problem with gentrification if it brought rewards for the neighborhood’s long-time residents, but if you look in the galleries of Bushwick today, it’s clear that “the voices they amplify are the upper-middle class people,” he said. “You have artists coming in, they use Bushwick as their portfolio, and then force us out.”
Giron’s story went viral in New York media because it encapsulated a seemingly new problem: artists in the city being vectors for massive rent increases and widespread displacement. Some Bushwick activists have even called gentrification a new form of colonization.
In 2015, Bushwick was indeed in the midst of an influx of gentrifiers, but the trope of artist-as-gentrifier goes back much further. In 1984, an essay called “The Fine Art of Gentrification” was published initially in the journal October, and covered many of the same issues in the East Village that Giron later experienced in Bushwick: galleries as white-majority spaces that gave developers reasons to buy up land; the fear of original residents being priced out; a local press fawning over the new “revitalization” of the neighborhood; and insensitive artists benefitting from it all. “Who cares” about gentrification, art critic Kim Levin is quoted saying in the article, “as long as they’re trying to show good art.”
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.
Meryl Meisler, Last Wall, Bushwick, Brooklyn NY, June 1982. ©Meryl Meisler. Meisler has published two books, A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick and Purgatory & Paradise SASSY 70's Suburbia & The City.
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.
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.
“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.
According to Schulman, MFA programs essentially sort artists by race, class, and aesthetic, determining “who will be allowed into the reward system.” When (mostly white) art graduates move to cities, they come with a mentality of needing to win in the art market.
“A young, white artist could move to New York and decide not to move to a gentrifying neighborhood, or decide not to move to New York at all, but instead they decide to impose themselves on a place like Bed-Stuy,” Schulman said. “It’s a currency move—they see it as a way to access power, because other white artists, and people who run the art market, live there.”
Rising real-estate values also create a feedback loop for the art market: You have to be wealthier to live in places like New York these days, so artists in gentrifying cities create art that sells for more money, which creates an art market less concerned with the social value of art and more concerned with aesthetics that appeal to the wealthy, which feeds into an MFA system that creates more market-oriented artists, who then move to cities and produce aesthetically pleasing but conceptually vacuous art.
Writer Rebecca Solnit calculated in her book Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and The Crisis of American Urbanism (2000) that someone would only have to work 65 hours a month at minimum wage to afford an apartment in San Francisco in the 1960s. That means people had a lot of free time to make unprofitable art. Today, it’s nearly impossible to find an apartment in San Francisco for less than $3,500, which equals about 350 hours of minimum wage work. That forces people who want to be artists to either rely on other forms of support (e.g. family wealth), or produce art that could potentially bring in a lot of money.
Chris Myers, 29, is a black playwright, filmmaker, and actor who grew up in New York, and is currently working on a comedy series about gentrification. He’s said seeing the gentrification of the uptown Manhattan neighborhoods he was raised in fills him with a profound sadness. But he said he’s not as angry at gentrifying artists as he is at the system that brought them to New York.
“They’re part of this education-industrial complex,” he said. “They get a BFA or an MFA, and move to New York. But most of these schools are mediocre and don’t prepare people to actually succeed in the arts or acting. They’re here taking up valuable space because they’ve been led, almost criminally, to believe they can succeed when they can’t. Their parents float them rent for a couple of years, and then they leave, or they end up working in a non-creative field. Meanwhile they’re taking up the housing of families that were here before them.”
But artists cannot gentrify on their own. While white artists from MFA programs are often in a relatively privileged position compared to the working class populations of U.S. cities, they do not have the power to build condos, change zoning laws, and give tax breaks to corporations. State intervention is the often-forgotten part of the artist-as-gentrifier puzzle.
Researchers have long identified four distinct stages of gentrification. The first is when the artists, so-called hipsters, and other individuals move into a low-income neighborhood and start repairing its often vacant structures. The fourth is when gentrification is mostly carried out by developer conversions and an influx of business or managerial middle class. But in my recent book, How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood (2017), I argued there’s nearly always a stage 0, when a city opens itself up to gentrification. The authors of “The Fine Art of Gentrification” found that government grants and tax breaks to developers were a necessary component of the East Village’s gentrification-by-art in the 1980s. The artists wanted to be there, but they needed government assistance for permanent change to really take hold.
“There’s an unconscious collaboration between artists interested in living in gentrifying cities, and the market forces and developers who benefit from them,” Becky Amato associate director of Civic Engagement Initiatives at the Gallatin School at NYU said.
Similarly, the conversion of SoHo from factories to artists lofts (and now high-end retail space) was not a natural progression. Sharon Zukin, the author of Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change (1982), a landmark study on artists and gentrification published in the 1980s, found that most manufacturers would have stayed in SoHo were it not for city-sponsored rezonings and law tweaks that allowed artists to create live/work spaces, and the tax breaks that incentivized the conversion of industrial spaces into residential ones. And Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn could not have gentrified to the same degree as they did if it weren’t for Mayor Bloomberg’s 2005 rezoning of 170 blocks of the neighborhoods, which allowed high-density luxury housing to rise across both. That rezoning pushed up prices in the area, and pushed a lot of artists to neighboring Bushwick, where some end up yarn-bombing the houses of long-time locals.
Artists in 2017 are still so closely associated with gentrification because they often participate in it. But gentrification is so common, so widespread these days, that artists—once the first-wave “pioneers” of neighborhoods—are often no longer needed. Cities are skipping the first few phases of gentrification, and going straight to the top-down development part, plunking new condos in abandoned parts of Detroit, Cleveland, New Orleans, and virtually every other mid-sized American city. Often these projects come with some of the aesthetics that hark back to artist-led gentrification. Developers will hire street artists to cover a new condo in depoliticized, decontextualized graffiti. Kara Walker was hired by Creative Time, whose co-chair is also the head of multi-billion dollar development company, Two Trees, to create a work of art at the former Domino sugar factory in Williamsburg, a real-estate project that had become a focal point of anti-gentrification activism.
But while art can be used to help gentrify a community, artists as a group are no longer a necessary part of the process—they’re no longer the “pioneers” that signal to other, richer people that a neighborhood is now okay to move into.
Kara Walker, A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, 2014. Photo by gigi_nyc via Flickr.
“There’s been such a widespread culturalization and aestheticization of urban lifestyles that artists no longer have to show the middle and upper-class gentrifiers how to live,” Sharon Zukin said. In other words, we’ve gotten so used to gentrification, so accustomed to its look, its feel, its violence, that artists no longer have to lead other gentrifiers by the hand into the process; yuppies, developers, and everyone else feel comfortable doing it on their own.
Still, anti-gentrification activists say artists can work against the process that turns their lives and work into policies and projects that lead to displacement. A group of activists working on an anti-gentrification project in Boyle Heights, in Los Angeles, where an art gallery is currently embroiled in a development controversy, suggest that artists participate in housing activism, get involved with their local communities and refuse to use their art to promote spaces of gentrification—e.g. white-owned galleries and art spaces in majority-black or Latino neighborhoods. Sarah Schulman suggested that artists fight for rent control laws and more affordable housing, which would benefit both artists and the low-income people they threaten to displace.
Those interested in concrete ways to fight gentrification can start by reaching out to a local group, like the Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network, San Francisco’s Causa Justa :: Just Cause, the Los Angeles Tenants Union, or the nationally focused Right To The City Alliance. Artists often work insularly and socialize mostly with others in the field. Combating gentrification may mean getting out of that bubble, and linking up with resistance movements which may have little in common with the art world, but which are in desperate need of help.