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Artists and Gentrification

How Artists Are Pioneers of Gentrification

The word “artist” coincides with a sense of mysticism, curiosity, and creativity. These qualities are seemingly tactile, but they ultimately enhance human capital and make the artist an ideal figure sought after in gentrification. This furthers the divide between social class and economic values.

Richard Florida, a social and economic theorist wrote in his book The Creative Class many personal as well as statistical analyses regarding what the Creative Class is. The main function of the Creative Class, as Florida romantically describes, is to “create meaningful new forms,” using “mainly their minds,” rather than working with their physical bodies, as members of the working class would, (37, 38). In this claim, we can already see a divide between the two classes, as well as a false claim in assumption that the working class requires no intellectual skill. This quote puts members of the creative class on a pedestal, and demeans the abilities of the working class. Florida separates intellectual and physical work, and assigns them to the two classes, wording it in a way that does not allow fluidity between the classes.

Artists move within cities to find affordable places to live and do their work, and they often do this without awareness of the socio economic background to the place in which they occupy, and so artists may not know, or deny the fact, that they are being complicit with gentrification. This complicity goes hand in hand with the assumption that the demand of certain jobs will organically decline.

Florida asserts that creative class categories are growing “while blue-collar physical jobs are in dramatic decline,” and that “empirical fact... cannot be avoided.” (43) When we focus on a community burdened with gentrification such as Boyle Heights, we can see a direct correlation between artists and complicity with gentrification. The fact is that artist studios and galleries “raise property values and cost of rent for businesses and housing tenants, eventually resulting in their displacement.” (Fragoza, 2) So, when Florida states that the decline of working class jobs cannot be avoided, this is because he is choosing to be ignorant to the reality of complicity.

Artists feel exceptional to these issues and this is especially convinced when Jules Gimbrone, the founder of PSSST (a gallery that posed as a safe space in Boyle Heights) says, “shelter and food are not the only things that keep people alive.” (9) Ouch. The residents of Boyle Heights have continuously fought against violence, racism, and poverty for the goal of peace and compassion among each neighbor. Lately, however, this fight has turned to an uprise against “the displacement of low-income and working class families as Los Angeles moves forward with market-driven, revitalization efforts.” (Fragoza, 2) There is a complete difference in the dialect of the problem, art galleries in Boyle Heights, and the people who face the problem, the community of Boyle Heights.

There is a lot of confusion that presents itself within the realm of gentrification. Isn’t gentrification just new development? Isn’t this bound to happen? People confuse gentrification with a positive connotation, leaving misconceptions in how gentrification leads to unemployment, and displacement.

Florida explains in his statistics that, “Between 2001 to 2010 the creative class grew by 2.8 million workers,” while the working class lost 6 million of its workers. (49) Specifically in Boyle Heights, a direct reason for the loss of jobs is from galleries moving into warehouses in the 2000s. Residents see this as a warning sign for their futures, a future that “faces different challenges with the arrival of investors, speculators, and more affluent residents,” and, of course, artists. (Fragoza, 6) Gentrification clearly plays a huge role in the loss of jobs. When investors seek out an area with artistic influence, they start buying out buildings and apartments to forward their goal of attracting a new kind of citizen. With new ownership comes the inflation in property values, and rent, and this is what displaces communities. Residents that settle in low income areas can’t fight investors who value monetary value over supporting their community. These investors see places as commodities and opportunities for monetary income and when they decide to purge these places, they do so without consent of the residents. There is a time and space for redevelopment and it certainly shouldn’t be taking up space in low-income areas.

Conflict between art spaces and settled communities have intensified greatly, which questions any validity artists have with their role in complicity in the displacement of the working-class. Many new businesses will feel that they are needed in communities; for example, gourmet artisanal coffee (expensive), and “restaurants selling cereal” (also expensive). (Pritchard, 3) Looking back at the PSSST gallery, whose owners felt it belonged in Boyle Heights, we can examine what they thought would be “valid reasoning” for being there. PSSST was proposed as a safe space for LGBTQ people, but the making of it was a costly $2 million, and this puts into question whether it’s just to spend millions on an art space in a community that is already ridden with economic scars. Being a “queer-centered, experimental arts space” is just a pinkwashing method in which the gallery claims queer friendliness in the name of gentrification. (Fragoza 9) “Using one’s identity to silence a community’s struggle is profoundly offensive,” said Dont Rhine, a member of Boyle Heights’ anti-gentrification community. (11) While art is needed in the world, it is not needed in the facade of “queer-friendliness,” and it is certainly not needed in Boyle Heights, where they are continuously fighting serious socio-economic issues for the sake of their residents. Protests in Boyle Heights have heightened to an unforgiving manner. There is no more room for kind gestures when new businesses move in. There is no more room for residents when they can’t afford their rent anymore.

The artist is one of the drivers in the movement of gentrification. However, not all artists are demons looking to impend doom on communities. Many artists actually have working-class jobs and are trying to find their whereabouts in the world through affordable housing to live and work in. That being said though, artists can’t value their craft over societal issues, nor can they choose to be ignorant to the history they move into. While Florida asserts that the creative class is “open towards gays and ethnic and racial minorities across nations,” we need to understand the intent of a gallery “when they only temporarily feature a social movement in their space.” (Hyperallergic, 4) Artists can’t confuse their practice with something that will benefit others, when it lies in a space that costed millions of dollars and displaced residents in the making of it.

Mysticism, curiosity, and creativity can thrive in this world if the catalyst is an artist who is genuinely aware of what they are doing, and where they are in the world. Disconnection is fatal to individuals and families alike, to residents and communities alike. Artists should disconnect from themselves to understand their place in society. Artists should see their role as “being deeply tied to the health of our neighborhoods.” (Hyperallergic, 5)

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