A new essay on Slate, titled “Are Artists to Blame for Gentrification?” by Ben Davis, suggests that the prevailing research doesn’t actually show a huge link between artists moving into a neighborhood and the rampant gentrification in places like Williamsburg and Bushwick.
Now, I know what this sounds like, and I’ll be the first to admit it would be easy to shrug this off as an attempt by artists trying to weasel their way out of responsibility for gentrification. I’m not trying to absolve or argue away any complicity by those of us who move into an existing neighborhood and create a separate one on top of it.
Davis’s essay includes specific examples and an extensive argument, which suggests artists, by nature of their highly-visible art are often disproportionately seen and as a result disproportionately blamed for the undeniably horrible problems gentrification creates. It is not the only argument out there.
One of the quotes that struck me deals with the ways artists are not necessarily drivers of development exclusively: “Developers certainly seize on the presence of artists as a marketing tool, but mainly to do what they are doing anyway, which is developing.”
When a developer buys a plot of land for what they perceive to be a steal, their goal is to build as efficiently as possible to make a profit based on the market rents in the area. Since the development is usually new with a bunch of bells and whistles, they generally charge a little more than market and advertise to people outside of the neighborhood using any perks they can such as proximity to public transit and ample space as amenities. And development obviously attracts more of the same.
In the case of neighborhoods with a vibrant art scene like Bushwick, they use street art aesthetics as a selling point in facepalmy ways for the express purpose of selling space to the wealthiest person they can find. Artists are obviously not part of this cycle.
Another one of the researchers the author cites in the essay looked at every block in Manhattan to see if the presence of a gallery sped up the process of increased rents and increased average income. The results? By and large, the presence of a gallery was not a definitive predictor of resultant gentrification. What does that mean for Bushwick? It means that overall, it’s possible that whether or not artists had moved into Bushwick, the neighborhood, given its proximity to Manhattan would have eventually gentrified, BUT the only difference is that developers may have used other means to advertise their new properties to the people who could afford them.
The author points to Crown Heights, Harlem, and Flushing as neighborhoods that are gentrifying without the help of artists. Now, most people who are thinking about gentrification don’t make a distinction between white people, hipsters, and artists, and it’s gotten very hip to refer to this entire group of people as the “creative class” even though the moniker sometimes covers people who have any number of jobs that wouldn’t have counted them among the ranks of creatives even a decade ago.
Something the article doesn’t necessarily touch on is the uniform or look of the gentrifier. You know it already because it is what had up until this point been widely-described as “Williamsburg Hipster.” Now, the uniform is not worn by people who belong to any “creative class” necessarily but by people who want to be on the cutting edge in what they perceive to be the hippest neighborhood.
They may style themselves as artists living on the fringes of society, but their $150,000 salary and their ability to jack up the market rents—pushing out the people they emulate incidentally—tell another story.
Miguel Robles-Duran, the director of the graduate program in urban ecologies at the New School, studies Bushwick in particular and suggests artists end up facing similar problems brought on by overzealous and predatory development. He plans on releasing a “bilingual Spanish-English gazette to publicize their research on the area’s housing problems and to try to draw together the community to save the neighborhood from rapacious redevelopment—though, with even the artists now being pressured out, the hour seems late.”
What do you think? Is it too late to reverse the damage already done in Bushwick?
Featured image courtesy of Anthony Delanoix via Unsplash.