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Art in the Time of Gentrification: Can NYC's Culture Be Saved from Its Economy?

Last week, MoMA PS1 held a a panel discussion about art and gentrification. To figure out exactly how gentrification is affecting culture in New York City, we spoke with three experts about the issue.

by Peter Moskowitz
Dec 20 2015, 4:00pm

Mention the word gentrification to pretty much any artist in New York City, and you can see the anxiety well up. The word conjures fear from two directions: It calls to mind the city's ever-rising rents, and it brings up the contentious debate artist have been involved in for decades over whether packs of young creatives moving to cities actually encourages gentrification.

But it's a topic that artists will have to increasingly face in New York if they want to stay here and produce work. Rents are rising rapidly—tripling in just a few years in many Brooklyn neighborhoods, and spaces for artists are closing left and right.

Last week, artist and curator Devin Kenny held a panel discussion at MoMA PS1 (located in a rapidly-gentrifying section of Queens) about art and gentrification. The panelists were other artists and curators, and all of them had decided to no longer be passive participants in the process of gentrification, coming up with creative solutions to work within the constraints of a gentrifying city—whether that means organizing events explicitly for people of color,creating galleries with a mission to activate local communities, or curating shows that feature unknown and underrepresented artists.

But it remains to be seen whether these creative solutions to, and ways to work within, gentrification can stem the tide of artists vacating New York.

To figure out exactly how gentrification is affecting culture in New York City, I spoke with three experts: Kenny, Becky Amato, a professor at New York University who teaches courses on cultural displacement, and Sarah Schulman, a City University of New York professor who wrote perhaps the most well-known book on cultural displacement in New York City, The Gentrification of the Mind . They shared their thoughts on the complex, systematic processes that catalyze gentrification, as well as how blaming artists for changing a neighborhood is short sighted.

Image via Flickr user Jeffrey Zeldman

Devin Kenny, artist and curator

VICE: Why'd you think it was important to hold the PS1 panel discussion?
Devin Kenny: I've been working with this musician named Drag Lomax and his music is kind of folk music but also very trap-inflected. It's like black folk music. And some of his music talks a lot about gentrification within New York and also brings up links to folk music history developing in New York. There were these major banjo factories and guitar factories, which helped solidify this city as a kind of hub for folk music even though it's an urban center. So just on that is like how do we address those intersections? Having a panel discussion with other contemporaries that are dealing with those same issues and dealing with it in a constructive way—trying to make constructive, positive solutions—seemed like a good way of doing that.

Yeah that seemed to be unique. Everyone there had a kind of positive way of interacting with or combatting gentrification, not just complaining about it.
Part of that is that all young artists who are not originally from New York City are now aware that gentrification is an issue. But unfortunately too often it becomes a thing where people just become really downtrodden and stop resisting it. So thinking about people that are trying to do something about it either obliquely or directly seemed like a good kind of approach.

Do you think artists have a responsibility to combat gentrification if they are gentrifiers themselves?
It's complicated because gentrification is not a super-linear process. There are lots of different agents that enact it. When I was first coming to New York and I was a teenager, I was really into the downtown thing. At the time, there were all these buildings with closed down stores in front. People would call the number, talk to whoever owned the building and say, "Hey I want to have an art show here." And the reason that the storeowner or building owner would agree was because (a) it's super low overhead for them, and (b) it brings attention to the building, which could encourage developers.

The artist doesn't give a damn about the building selling. They're just trying to create opportunities for the work to be received. Artists aren't the ones trying to rename the entire South Bronx " The Piano District."

How exactly can artists help combat gentrification?
I think one way that artists or anyone who's new to these historical neighborhoods can be less virulent would be to support local businesses: Going into restaurants, talking to your neighbors, voting, going to community boards, all those kinds of things where you're actually viewing yourself as part of the neighborhood and larger ecosystem. And listening. Not just being like, "Oh yeah, it'd be really great if they have this fucking juice bar here," you know what I mean?

So, final dramatic question: Can art survive gentrification?
We're just going to see a whole new class of banker-artists. I don't necessarily think they're at odds with each other. "Artist" isn't necessarily a class position. There are rich artists, poor artists, there are middle class artists, and there are art students who are also producers in a particular way within the economy. The changes in neighborhoods in terms of raising cost of living, raising rent, fewer opportunities for people of working class backgrounds to be able to have mobility, have been taking place in America for a long time. And people still make art. People will figure out a way. But I think that it is also important that in certain cities or certain countries, there's a lot more state-based support of cultural workers. I think that makes a difference and it's a good thing. I think even some of the things De Blasio is doing in terms of trying to make some lotteries for affordable housing for artists are steps in a good direction.

Image via Flickr user Jeffrey Zeldman

Dr. Becky Amato, professor

VICE: So let's get this out of the way: Are artists themselves gentrifiers?
Becky Amato: I think it's a more complicated question. Yes, I think artists can be gentrifiers, just like teachers can be gentrifiers, and lawyers can be gentrifiers, and anyone can be a gentrifier. But the profession is often not the determinant of whether one's a gentrifier or not. I think the question that you're asking often comes from the supposition that artists are in the vanguard of gentrification, that the artists arrive, and then they make the place safe and interesting for the next wave, for the culture hounds. One thing those of us who study gentrification have noticed is that this is often the case, but there are often artists who are part of these long-standing communities already, who aren't recognized as artists in that formulation of artist-as-gentrifier, right?

The second issue is that those artists who move into these disinvested neighborhoods, or low-income neighborhoods, seeking a place to live, are often themselves pushed out of those places quite quickly. Gentrification affects those artists as well.

That all makes sense, but I also think there's a reason some are wary of artists. They can signal this big shift that's about to happen in a neighborhood.
Certainly. It has a lot to do with what kind of community the artists are bringing with them. There are lots of different ways of looking at that, but I'll mention two. One is whether the artwork the artist is producing has relevance for the community that they're moving into. Are they really speaking to a kind of audience that has no relationship to that neighborhood, and does their artwork seem kind of alien? The second thing is that there are artists who are very interested in quietly producing art within a community, or integrating into the communities that they're in.

Then there are artists who are seeking places to show their work and who attract or help to cultivate the commercial culture of art in their neighborhoods. Williamsburg and Bushwick are great examples. Bushwick seems to have a huge concentration of galleries and new spaces like that, where it's not just that the artists are living there, but there's this whole culture of artistic production that's for fine arts production or commercial production—to be the kind of artwork that is internationally recognized, as opposed to being kind of the quiet artwork of the quiet artist who is concerned with community involvement.

If you look at the history of bohemians in New York, almost all of them were selling out at the same time that they were producing what we consider authentic work. I think it's an eternal complaint. — Dr. Becky Amato

Do you think there's anything particularly unique about the way in which artists in gentrifying neighborhoods operate in New York, or is it kind of similar across gentrifying cities?
I think it has a lot to do with the New York economy. There's been a bohemian class in New York that's been sustained basically since the 1950s. It's one of the attractions of New York. So the New-York-as-creative-hub mythology is actually not that mythical. People really are attracted to the city for that reason. But New York has also become a commercial hub in terms of advertising and publishing and TV production, film production, all of these different things, and for that reason, you could be kind of an everyday artist, but you can also end up getting a job in the creative industries. That linkage, I think, between being somebody who produces art because you love it, and somebody who can also get a job and get paid for it, or paid for producing creative work, is a linkage that doesn't exist in such concentration anyplace else, except maybe San Francisco.

Isn't that kind of a double-edged sword though? It's also an expensive city, and you might have to have jobs like that—in the more commercial sectors—in order to do your art instead of just being an artist.
Yeah, absolutely. I taught this class called American Bohemia that was all about these bohemians and intellectuals and artists moving to New York, and there was this common conversation about what's the moment at which one sells out. You're producing things because you're authentic, and you're living for the art, and then because you have to pay your rent, or because you have to eat every day, you end up quote-un-quote selling out.

But if you look at the history of bohemians in New York, almost all of them were selling out at the same time that they were producing what we consider authentic work. I think it's an eternal complaint. They may be making more money these days in their selling-out jobs than they would have before, in order to pay the extravagant rents, but I think that's the condition of living and people adapt.

Do you ever worry that culture will fall apart and just die because of the influx of money?
No. I'm not worried that New York's culture will die. I think New York's culture will change. Culture will never go away, but we will adapt to whatever that culture is. Whether it's a culture that we think is as good as the culture we have now or had 50 years ago is another question. There was the David Byrne article a couple years ago where he discusses moving to New York decades ago when it was this incredible place because the rent was cheap and all sorts of creativity was happening by virtue of the fact that it was an inexpensive place to live. But I'm not totally convinced that there is no creativity if the people who don't make a lot of money can't live here. It's just a different kind of creativity. It's maybe not my kind of creativity, but it's still creativity. I would prefer there to be more David Byrnes in the world, personally.

Image via Flickr user Jeffrey Zeldman

Sarah Schulman, author of 'The Gentrification of the Mind'

VICE: So, are artists gentrifiers?
Sarah Schulman: No, I think that that's absolutely false because gentrification is policy. It's not just this weird natural turn that is created by fad. It's systematic. First they stop building low income housing and then you get corporate welfare which is tax breaks or luxury development. Everything follows from there, plus the classic role of lack of commercial rent control. To blame something on artists moving into a particular neighborhood is very short sighted.

OK, but do you think there's a reason residents might be worried about artists moving into neighborhoods, as kind of a sign of things changing?
First of all, the role that artists have played has changed over time. There's been a systemic disinvestment and reinvestment in cities. The way I understand it is after World War II there was the G.I. Bill. This was the federal government putting money into the hands of developers through the bodies of veterans. These developers were building suburbs, which are a new kind of culture. There had been small town culture before, but there had never been suburbanization. This is when you see "white flight." It's not because black people weren't veterans—they were, but the suburbs were not open to them. And that basically created a culture of non-ethnic suburban whiteness. Basically, you're creating this whole new kind of culture of racial stratification, class stratification, privatized living, car culture, consumerism, all of this.

Why do you think this is so noticeable in New York?
Gentrification is primarily about making money, but it's also about social control over urban space. When they started giving tax breaks to luxury developers and you start to see condo conversion and construction of new real estate for high income people, the target audience is the children of white flight, people who have some kind of emotional connection to the city because their parents grew up there or their grandparents lived there or they would take the train into the city to buy pot or whatever. They were raised in these brand new suburbanization phenomena with suburban values. When they come back to the city, they enter it differently than any group of people has ever entered the city before.

People used to come to New York to become New Yorkers. They came to New York to have sex, to get away from religion, to be able to live in a more unpredictable manner because the experience of being an artist was an eclectic experience. — Sarah Schulman

In the past, when people came to the city—whether they came as immigrants from abroad or whether they were like refugees from small towns in America—they came to become New Yorkers. When artists came and moved to neighborhoods with low rents, they came to become citified. This new group, the children of white flight, they came to change New York because they had grown up without any exposure to difference. They came in with an orientation, an emotional orientation toward control and comfort. They bring this gated community mentality. Suddenly they want more police. They view difference as frightening. Then the discourse gets controlled by their point of view.

If a neighborhood that was very mixed and it's being gentrified in a way where the people who have lived there are now in danger, it's called "getting better," even though it's getting worse from the point of view of the long-term residents. This group wanted to reproduce certain kinds of suburban aesthetics like chain stores. I was born in 1958 in New York City and I never saw a chain store in my life. I didn't know what McDonald's was. We didn't have malls. The children of white flight came with a taste for that; they brought this kind of aesthetic with them.

What else is different about this "new group" of people who help spark gentrification?
People used to come to New York to become New Yorkers. They came to New York to have sex, to get away from religion, to be able to live in a more unpredictable manner because the experience of being an artist was an eclectic experience. Each individual artist would have different influences; they would trod a different path. They would develop an individuated voice. What you're seeing today is quite a very different thing because of MFA programs and the professionalization of the arts. Now, people who come to be artists, many are the product of this kind of streamlining, homogenizing project.

This new group tends to be people who have much more access to resources, who are much more normative, that fit in better with institutions like graduate school. When those kinds of artists move into a neighborhood they want to change it. Instead of going to the local Latino business, they go to the five dollar white coffee place. They don't know the names of their neighbors. They don't join tenant associations. They're not involved in the neighborhood. They isolate, they segregate themselves, and they reproduce suburban conditions.

In that way, even though they're not responsible for the gentrification, they carry on a certain kind of social gentrification that they do based on their own internal value system. There's quite a bit of difference there. The original accusation that gay men and artists caused gentrification is totally false. It was caused by policy.

So does that mean that all people who want to move to the city and be artists are inevitably part of this process?
It depends on how they live. Do you know all your neighbors? Do you know their names? Do you support local businesses? Do you give back to the community? Do you teach kids how to read? Or are you just looking for the other white person who's like you?

Gentrification is a political problem. It can be solved by political will. If we had 500,000 affordable housing units in New York City, there would be no more gentrification. If we had commercial rent control, if we fined people for buying to flip versus buying to live, if we made chains pay a different tax than small, independently owned businesses, we could completely turn around gentrification.

So what's the role of the individual gentrifier in that political sense?
Organizing. I've had millions of conversations with young gentrifiers and they're so clueless. It's really amazing. They haven't done the work to understand how their own value system is constructed. The centerpiece of any kind of white supremacy is seeing oneself as neutral and objective and that's what they feel—that they just exist here without a system around them. The question is do you have to live near power, can you treat other people in your neighborhood as though they're equal to you, can you get involved in ongoing neighborhood apparatus instead of imposing your own?

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