An excerpt from “Artists and Gentrification: Sticky Myths, Slippery Realities”, written by Anne Gadwa Nicodemus and published on createquity.com (April 5, 2013):
It’s a new phenomenon for artists to have a place at the table of community development.
The scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal still shape what neighborhoods look like, who lives where, residents’ access to good education and employment, and what homes are worth. The fates of swaths of neighborhoods are out of residents’ hands; banks have foreclosed on large percentages of properties. Sketchy lending and a demand for mortgage backed securities means ownership is not vested with the people living there, but rather with countless remote and untraceable investors who own “toxic assets.” Cozy sweetheart deals between politicians and developers, forged in the name of economic development, are still common. When land-use decisions do include public participation, middle-class homeowners and whites are more apt to show up and speak up at meetings than low-income renters and people of color. Non-English speakers are often forced to rely on impromptu translators or aren’t even in the room because the announcement flyer wasn’t in their native tongue. These are the kinds of placemaking inequities we should challenge and change, instead of turning artists into scapegoats.
Nicodemus concludes with a series of thought-provoking questions and a call to action.
How do we grapple with these issues of agency, voice, and power? Change hinges on powerbrokers, the elites—sometimes merely in that they can obstruct it. How do we prevent their active involvement from silencing, or co-opting, artists and other vulnerable or marginalized populations? How do we make sure these interests are central to placemaking efforts?
Creative placemaking encompasses a broad array of practices, and as a field we need to drill down and examine initiatives that resulted in expanded opportunities for low-income communities, people of color, and artists against those that had undesired affects of displacement. How do different types of interventions correlate with outcomes? Is displacement just a by-product of generalized pressure and larger macro-forces in the economy?
Within the realm of artist space, is artist-ownership a remedy? Artists’ equity stakes do not safeguard against neighborhood change. Even in the celebrated example of the Paducah Artist Relocation Program (KY), many artists cashed out during the economic downturn, jeopardizing its claim as an artist haven. Are models of nonprofit ownership and stewardship, such as Artspace’s, the benchmark? In those, low-income artist tenants have long-term stability, but no equity. However, the building’s artist character and affordability is retained in the long-term. To ensure that a mix of housing options remain for families with modest incomes, do artist space initiatives need to be combined with non-arts affordable housing strategies? What can we learn from land-trust models? Maria Rosario Jackson’s Developing Artist-Driven Spaces in Marginalized Communities: Reflections and Implications for the Field offers some wonderful insights that advance thinking and practice.
I repudiate the notion that artists are the shock troops of gentrification. Artists are, however, on a different front line. They are looking hard at issues of their potential complicity in gentrification. They’re some of the most thoughtful voices grappling with questions of social equity in placemaking. Through nuanced practice, they’re “making the road by walking,” to quote Myles Horton. Instead of casting stones, our challenge as a field is to listen deeply and amplify these voices.
I will share my own reaction to this piece in my next post…