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.”