Can Gentrification be Stopped by Kicking Out the Artists?

There’s a working class, Mexican-American community in Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, that sees the artists and art galleries as the first wave in the gentrification that could destroy their homes and culture.  Activists from this community want to hold off the influx of development by demanding the artists leave.    When you can’t fight for fair representation in government to protect you from predatory realtors, investors and developers…is the solution to take it out on struggling artists? There’s got to be a better way to protect these neighborhoods.

There’s an arguable problem with this approach – that it promotes the concept that Art as a White thing, implying also that their neighborhoods don’t deserve art galleries or studios. How about parks? How about trees, cafes and good schools? Why perpetuate the belief that your people ‘can’t have anything nice?’

This could be akin to how certain tribes would scar and make their women ugly to make them unattractive to other tribes. It’s not a solution. Instead, demand that government intervene and create an equitable solution to protect these communities who are being driven from their homes. There are Latino and Chicano art collectives in San Francisco that are being kicked out by greedy landlords after living and performing there for over 20 years. Artists are not the enemy. Real estate speculation is.

I agree that there needs to be cultural sensitivity. Establishing art studios and their associated creative economies needs to be done carefully and right now in many ‘hipster landscapes’….it’s not. Are the art studios affordable for local, native artists? Are the art galleries open to showing the work of local, native artists? Are the cafes serving their food too – playing their music too? Can the locals afford the food and drinks or is everything four times as expensive? Are these new artists and businesses extending themselves to welcome their community? Or are White artists coming in and creating invisible gated communities through economic and cultural exclusion?

Right now there’s a controversy in East Austin..a predatory realtor kicked out a long-term Pinata business, Jumpolin, and the space was later re-developed into a hip vegan cat cafe. I had no idea when we went there that that was that site, but now I feel very conflicted. While the concept is great, vegan food, helping people adopt shelter animals…the prices are high and there’s a cover charge to drink your vegan latte with cats. This is not something the locals can afford, or honestly asked for.

Something that I saw in the 70s-80’s in Berkeley, Oakland, SF, Santa Cruz that I don’t see anymore is creative cafes/art studio/galleries/bookstores keeping their prices at what the locals could afford and working very closely with their surrounding communities. There were bulletin boards for local events, businesses, classes, political issues….people in the neighborhood gathered, read the paper and talked to each other. Bookstores and comic bookstores had racks for local small press publishing, self-publishing, cheap mini-comics and books of poetry. The Irish pub displayed political posters bringing awareness in the 80’s to what was happening in Central America. There was an economic and cultural feeling of connection. You had local creative collectives, co-ops, people working with the schools and parks.

Now in this post-regulation world, after the internet, growth of online businesses like eBay, Amazon, with a generation that grew up in homogeneous suburbs with shopping malls where they could find commercially produced ethnic and subcultural merchandise…rather than experiencing and creating these from the ground up via do-it-yourself ways, this generation has moved into the communities that helped birth a lot of these things organically. Yet their new economic models bear more in common with the world of online marketing and venture capitalism. They are more aligned with realtors and developers than the diverse feet on the ground in their new neighborhoods. And all of this accounts for the unregulated and rapid slide into hyper gentrification that we have never seen to this extent ever before.

Artists (read: white artists) may be the first to ‘colonize’ a place, making it ‘safe’ for speculation and further development, but as we have seen with New York and San Francisco, after poor, working people of color are pushed out, the artists are next in line to lose their homes. Local creative retail, music venues, cafes in growing cities across the country…once they have attracted newcomers that land becomes too expensive for the creative businesses as well. Soon we may find the cities filled with luxury condos and the very culture that brought them in will have vanished. It’s a tragic trajectory that needs regulation because Capitalism without restraint produces dangerous bubbles. Only the people can create culture and art.