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The Spaces of Gentrification

Michael R. Allen

Photo courtesy of Heather M. O'Brien, member of Los Angeles Tenants Union/Sindicato de Inquilinos Los Angeles and School of Echoes.
From protests against galleries in Boyle Heights to the powder-keg Kelley Walker solo show at Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis, the world of contemporary art has found itself indicted both inside and outside for its complicit role in the politics of urban exclusion. The specter of gentrification dominates headlines on Boyle Heights, but has not surfaced in the discussion in St. Louis around Kelley Walker’s work – yet it belongs in the discussion. Gentrification is not a simplistic revanchist enterprise in which artists occupying cheap space accelerate displacement, but a far more complex service to both capitalism and social exclusion. Gentrification is about territoriality, so its manifestation is not only in microgegraphic conquest but also in quiet systems of place marking where artists often are central.

A lot of the urban drama around gentrification stems from mythologies that allow the culprits to evade detection – and the longer intertwined histories of place to remain hidden. In her mercurial examination of dot-com San Francisco, Hollow City, Rebecca Solnit writes that “[t]here must be a rate at which one forgets, and as long as a city changes at that rate or a slower one, change registers but it doesn’t disorient, for there are sufficient points of orientation and triggers of recollection.”1 The paradox of real estate development is that often its groundwork is laid invisibly for years or decades, so that its actual speed is much faster that people realize – fast enough to disorient everyone when its luminous motion is visible, but still and somnolent in its formation. Take for instance the role of artists in the gentrification of SoHo in Manhattan, often attributed to Donald Judd’s arrival. However, the City of New York’s 1961 rezoning of Manhattan, which prohibited new industrial uses, actually expedited changes to SoHo.2 Then the city followed the inkling of a trend by an official arts district zoning law in 1971. Even then, the artists’ visibility in the district was low, but the production of loft living space was sanctioned by government.3 Yet within a decade, chain stores were locating in SoHo, and within forty years, almost no working artists or highly-profitable galleries were left.

The velocity of real estate in Los Angeles now has accelerated so that artists are taking the blame for processes that more powerful actors precipitated. Yet the Boyle Heights art world cannot disavow a processional facilitation, even amid public acts that have begun targeting Boyle Heights for increased investment. According to the United States Census, only around 6% of Boyle Heights residents have college degrees of any kind, which is less than 72.4% of the average neighborhood higher educational attainment rate for other Los Angeles neighborhoods. The neighborhood remains over 90% Latino. The art galleries subject to protest are not in sync with these statistics – the galleries are not largely exhibiting Latino artists’ work, and are likely to be connected to graduates of traditional academic arts degree programs. Yet that need not be seen as an inexorable disconnect between new arrivals and long-term residents, as the despairing narratives today suggest.

Gentrification has as much to do with the formation of class (the gentry) as it does with the occupation of space. The spatial practice of gentrification, in other words, is both physical and social. Physically, gentrification manifests in the location of the “frontier,” areas where the alterity of the built environment is in full display through provocative juxtapositions of new and old. The distinction of the rehabilitated building, the strange art gallery façade, the charming expensive coffee shop with its hand painted sign letters – these mark changing neighborhoods everywhere from Brooklyn’s Bushwick to Chicago’s Pilsen to St. Louis’ Cherokee Street.

The social space of gentrification is not always coterminous, but it creates itself in the art gallery itself, where the presentation of contemporary art creates a class before the doors open: those who know the show exists. There is an ever-excluding tier within the art gallery, starting with those who know, then those who attend, then those who understand, then those who have their work displayed. The same manifests itself in lectures, community meetings, panel discussions, bike tours and more. Clearly every organization around interests, values, ideologies or religions performs the same function, but when the function is contemporary art in an impoverished neighborhood, the stakes are high. The realm of exclusivity needed to support the art opening relies on destination tourism of sorts, not on meaningful exchange with neighborhood residents.

Thus the spatial procedures of gentrification obviate the changed physical and social arrangements in cities, creating distressing signs for residents who feel alienated in their own neighborhoods. Yet the function of these procedures is not the cultural aggression that the simplistic accounts of Boyle Heights offer (after all, the Latino population there succeeded an earlier concentration of Jewish residents) but to create mechanical flows for capital. Gentrification fundamentally is urban capitalism in action. In The New Urban Frontier, geographer Neil Smith states that gentrification is “ubiquitous” and occurs even in benighted cities like Pittsburgh because it is the operative system of producing monetized urban real estate.4 The art world in Boyle Heights leads to profit extracted from place – and not just in the increased value of improved buildings but through the increased value of art itself.

Unfortunately artists make great capitalists, because they are skilled at generating new objects and sites of value. Urban capitalism assiduously seeks the new, because the old and existing have depreciated exchange value. Neighborhoods are profitable as they first rise, but to generate the same profits must be constantly remade – a process that means any place in the city becomes a frontier as soon as it is built. Real estate development’s drive to novelty and change mirrors that of art practice, and the need for the currency of new work to maintain stature through sales, publications and academic attention. Although artists often are drawn to cheap spaces because they lack affluence, their presence and practices handily serve revanchist capital. Both artists and developers like “deals,” and both know that they have to produce “new work” to generate exchange value (monetary or intellectually). The assertion of authenticity reifies exchange value.

In south Chicago, artist Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation recently completed the renovation of a historic bank into the Stony Island Arts Bank, a project that probes the complicated function of authenticity in drawing art and capital together. Gates purchased the dilapidated bank for $1 when it was threatened with demolition, and spent a large sum rehabilitating the building as a gallery, education space and archive for collections related to African-American culture in Chicago. Fulfillment of Gates’ vision required extensive capitalization of the bank, once worthless. Gates’ project produced dazzling interiors that have attracted acclaim for their originality, while drawing thousands of visitors who had never set foot in the neighborhood. Meanwhile, the utility of the space for its neighborhood remains questionable, as does the potential of the project to produce value for more than its creator. One ideological comparison is Project Row Houses, but that project has a different, palpable contingency between creator Rick Lowe’s vision and neighborhood participation in its origin.

Numerous articles have been written and awards given to the Stony Island Arts Bank, and all praise Gates. Award ceremonies and panels are not including neighborhood residents, and newspaper reporters rarely have asked locals for their perspective. The value being concentrated in Stony Island Arts Bank – monetary through the improvement, art-world through recognition – seems to belong solely to Gates and his collaborators. To his credit, Gates envisions the building as a space that resists the exclusionary effect of gentrification. “Architecture becomes a complex envelope that can carry both the high and the low, the international and the very local, the rich and the poor,” Gates told Fast Co Design in one interview.5

Yet envelopes can be walls, and walls can become boundaries. Without boundaries, there is no capitalization of land – just like without authorship there is no capitalization of an artist. The Stony Island Arts Bank poses a challenge not because it is likely to imminently gentrify its surroundings through displacement or disturbance, but because it becomes a signal of territory. Whose territory does it signal? The busloads of Chicago arts patrons descending on the building see it as their territory, when before they would not have set foot on Stony Island Avenue. If neighbors see it as a signal of their territory too, then there is the possibility that something other than gentrification will occur. If neighbors reject the building, then it has marked the neighborhood as someone’s frontier.


Photo courtesy of Katie J for Enclave LA.

The walls crafted by arts spaces can gentrify in other ways, too. The Contemporary Art Museum’s solo show by artist Kelley Walker is an instrument of gentrification, although not obviously one. The blithe dismissal of criticism of Walker’s depiction of black bodies by the artist and curator Jeffrey Uslip enacted the exclusionary tactics of gentrification.6 Contemporary Art Museum, which generated as the grassroots Forum for Contemporary Art decades ago, had enjoyed a free and convivial relationship with local artists, the community and even people of color. That relationship was built atop a growing accumulation of capital at the museum – larger budgets, conservative activist Rex Sinquefield joining the board of trustees, events programming catering to wealthier St. Louisans. Walker’s show broke open the gentrification of the museum, where its need to exclude – the sit down and shut up attitude toward black artists – seems to be a foundational way of marking the space of the museum in the city.

Urban design critic Grady Clay defined gentrification as an “urban epidemic, spread by human contact,” which casts the process as more metabolic than materialistic.7 Yet the core of the fear of gentrification seems more rooted in the lack of human contact produced by the barriers necessary to mark space for capital accumulation. The dual spatial logic of gentrification – physical and social – produces debilitated relationships among people. The pain of gentrification originates in the broken social connections in space. Residents in Boyle Heights want what Theaster Gates wants for his Stony Island Arts Bank – space whose ownership is shared, where people connect across racial, class and educational differences. Unfortunately shared ownership is antithetical to real estate development and to certain modes of artistic production. How many art galleries in Boyle Heights would open curation to neighbors, or display work by neighborhood residents? How many developers improve apartments without evicting residents living there when they buy the building? Not enough to prevent gentrification.

Architect Lance Freeman suggests that “lack of social intimacy” between the gentry and long-time residents could be far more socially disruptive than redevelopment itself.8 Although capitalism compels reinvestment and constant remaking of the city, many residents in older neighborhoods actually want new investment and building repair. People just want the changes to benefit them – so that the added value of place is wealth for more than just the people with capital who can make the changes. Although artists often collude with capitalism (sometimes obliviously) in early gentrification of places, they often end up displaced because they don’t actually benefit from the increases in land value that they help foster. Many artists end up as dejected as longtime residents when their first-wave gentry is replaced by a wealthier second-wave gentry. All those left behind may share the sentiment seen in a projection during one Boyle Heights demonstration:

We participate
You participate
I participate
They profit9

After all, the inception of reinvestment in Boyle Heights never started with the art scene there. Artists sought spaces there as other parts of Los Angeles became too expensive, but ended up as agents of revanchism instead. The tricky nature of urban capitalism is that no one ever stays ahead of it for too long. By the time that studios and later galleries popped up in Boyle Heights, developers and city officials had marked this area as a frontier for reinvestment. In 1996, demolition of 900 public housing units at Pico-Aliso initiated an era of recapitalization. Today, 1,175 rent controlled units in the neighborhood are set to be demolished, with over 4,000 market rate units planned.10 Artists were convergent instruments in long-term strategy that offered them (and will never offer them) overt agency.


Stony Island Arts Bank. Courtesy of the Rebuild Foundation

Gentrification really is the way in which the urban geography of money disintegrates solidarity among people. The protests in Boyle Heights speak sentences in which the idea of the art gallery is actually the verb, not the subject. The subject is money. If artists there and elsewhere reject the protests, offer weak apologetics, or shy away from the delicate business of locating in neighborhoods where people are very different from the artists, gentrification won’t be sent into abeyance. Fundamentally artists have the chance to awake to their own roles in making the spaces of the city, and their own relationship to capitalism. The easy part of this is to see how artwashing and other uses of art serve power, but the hard part is examining what happens inside of the galleries and studios.11 Are those spaces inscribing social exclusion, or are they realizing openness and inclusion? While artists are great at producing individual works of value, they are even better at being agents for transmitting collective consciousness. Artists have the power not just to break down the physical barriers dividing the city, but also seeing and destroying the soft social walls. Art offers an escape from our tortured and divided urban geographies, because it can create new spaces that bring us together.

In fact, the Boyle Heights narrative repeated in articles is erroneous.12 Looking at the politics of the protestors, evinced in beautifully powerful events as well as banners and other visual devices – one should see them as artists in their own right, probing the imaginary to deliver a new Boyle Heights. The question for the galleries and studio artists is whether they will join in solidarity, or reinforce the lack of human intimacy that allows money to define social life in their neighborhood.

1. Rebecca Solnit and Susan Schwartzenberg, Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism (London: Verso Press, 2000), p. 138.
2. Madeleine Schwartz, “The Art of Gentrification,” Dissent (Winter 2014).
3. Sharon Zukin, Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 238.
4. Neil Smith, The New Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (New York: Routledge Press, 1996), p. 36.
5. Diana Budds, “The Stony Island Arts Bank Brings ‘Redemptive Architecture’ to Chicago’s South Side,” Fast Co Design (October 6, 2015).
6. Damon Davis, “In the Face of White Male Privilege Run Amok, a Plea for Artistic Responsibility,” Hyperallergic (September 27, 2016).
7. Grady Clay, Real Places: An Unconventional Guide to America’s Generic Landscape (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 118.
8. Lance Freeman, There Goes the Hood: Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006), p. 135.
9. Carribean Fragoza, “Art and Complicity: How the Fight Against Gentrification in Boyle Heights Questions the Role of Artists,” KCET (July 20, 2016).
10. Fragoza.
11. “Artwashing” here used without endorsement of the term, because the term disavows the exchange function of the financial relationship between developers and artists.\
12. The nature of the art spaces itself is even more complex, as the case of the 40-year-old Boyle Heights arts organization Self Help Graphics. See Brittny Mejia and Steve Salvidar, “Boyle Heights activists blame the art galleries for gentrification,” Los Angeles Times (August 4, 2016).

This essay was originally commissioned by Temporary Art Review as part of Field Perspectives-a co-publishing initiative with the Miami Rail, Temporary Art Review and Common Field for the 2016 Common Field Convening.