This is the third in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum.
As I will point out, the topic might be of great interest to those who have looked askance at the “art market” but unfortunately the presentations were not that great. I do urge you watch the video, however, since the speakers were genuine authorities in the field of how artists often unwittingly serve as the shock troops of gentrification.
As a New Yorker, this is a topic that interests me a great deal since I have seen any number of neighborhoods in New York undergo gentrification through a process that follows a familiar pattern. Artists looking for a cheap studio will buy or rent commercial lofts, often in violation of building codes, and then turn them into living lofts. Two old friends, now deceased, bought a loft on the Bowery in 1969 for that very purpose. Around the same time, further to the West, Soho was being transformed after the same fashion. I am not sure how many artists are now operating in Soho, an area that is punctuated by Moncler, Gucci, and Armani boutiques.
Soon to follow was Tribeca, an area that followed the same pattern. Besides the boutiques, Soho and Tribeca are fabulous places for hedge fund managers to live. With their tattoos and their French bulldogs, they feel utterly bohemian.
As artists kept getting priced out of Manhattan, they explored other places, eventually “discovering” Wiliamsburg. Before long Williamsburg became “Soho-ized” as artist Su Friedrich pointed out in her documentary “Gut Renovation”, about which I wrote:
Friedrich’s documentary is an angry and deeply personal look at the 20 years she has spent in a Brooklyn neighborhood that I always considered a bohemian stronghold even if there were obviously attempts to gentrify it. As is the customary practice in New York, artists like Friedrich flock to somewhat seedy but charming neighborhoods in search of cheap industrial lofts to turn into studios. The most famous example is Soho, the area “South of Houston Street” that is nothing but a warren of overpriced restaurants and boutiques nowadays. The only artists who remain there are those who are successful enough to mount shows in Madison Avenue galleries, a snooty area that the once downscale Soho now resembles.
Friedrich is a remarkable personality whose flair for vitriol is worth the price of an admission ticket. She is not above accosting well-heeled couples on the street that are toting shopping bags from Bloomingdales and accusing them of destroying her neighborhood. In one priceless moment in this darkly comic saga, she yells at a bunch of real estate agents and developers from the window of her loft. She is both shameless and priceless.
The artist/gentrification nexus appears outside of New York. One of the most egregious examples is Braddock, Pennsylvania, a destitute small city near Pittsburgh that was once home to steel mills. In the largely African-American city, a white Mayor has called for the transformation of Braddock by appealing to artists (implicitly white) to settle there. In my article on Braddock, I call attention to what the Levi blue jean corporation said during the time it was running commercials filmed there:
The muse for Levi’s® new campaign is Braddock, a town embodying the demise of the blue collar base that is taking radical steps to reverse its decay. Braddock now faces a new frontier of repurpose and new work in what was once a flourishing industrial mecca. Since 2001, John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, has taken his fight for social justice in Braddock to the masses by enlisting the help of modern pioneers – artists, craftsmen, musicians and business owners – to rebuild and revive the town. As it rebuilds, Braddock has become a model for how any city, in any part of the country, can prevail as a symbol of hope and change.
As opposed to this cynical bullshit in the name of social justice, put forward at a time when Braddock’s only hospital was being shut down, Tony Buba fought for true working-class values as opposed to blue jean iconography.
I would call your attention to an article written by Martha Rosler, one of the two panelists in the video. Titled “The Artistic Mode of Revolution: From Gentrification to Occupation”, it makes some essential points about the art/gentrification problem. This “solution” to America’s deepening urban crisis of poverty and social decay is being offered to Detroit today after being dubbed a success in Pittsburgh, another hollowed out metropolis. Rosler writes:
This repopulation and transformation of cities—from spaces bereft of shops and manufacturing, starved of resources, and inhabited by poor and working-class people or squatters living in ill-maintained housing stock, into spaces of middle-class desire, high-end shopping, and entertainment—took at least a generation. It also required the concerted effort of city leaders. New York’s Soho and East Village had proved, by the late 1970s, that the transformation of old warehouses and decaying tenement districts into valuable real estate could be accomplished by allowing artists to live and work in them—if nothing else, city government recognized or identified with such people and understood their needs. Those elected officials who might, in an earlier era, have supported organized labor, found that such constituencies were fading away. Artists, in addition, were not going to organize and make life difficult for city governments. In the following decades, the Soho model became paradigmatic for cities around the world. (Another popular tactic was to attract small new industrial shops, mostly high tech ones.) But no matter how much the arts (whether the performing arts or the institutionalized visual arts in museums) have been regarded in some cities as an economic motor, that remedy is not applicable everywhere, and not every city has proved to be a magnet for the arts. A new urban theory was required.