Gentrification-What Do We Know?

R.Crumb,  A Short History of America , 1992

R.Crumb, A Short History of America, 1992


The relationship between art and urban development has historically been rooted in reductive oversimplifications of the gentrification process. According to conventional wisdom, artists move into a neighborhood where rents are cheap, businesses follow, and before you know it, developers are buying up wide swaths of once affordable real estate to site new million dollar condos. “Artwashing,” a term coined to describe how the arts and creative industries are complicit in the gentrification process, and some of the anxieties that surround it, came to a head in Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights neighborhood last year when a group of neighborhood organizers galvanized their community in support of a grassroots anti-gentrification campaign by drawing national and international attention to a neighborhood in transition with highly visible protests and localized calls to action.

Situated just east of prime Downtown LA real estate, where some of the world’s biggest blue-chip galleries have set-up shop, Boyle Heights, a mostly residential neighborhood, became an attractive prospect to other gallery owners looking for space because of it’s proximity to downtown and comparably affordable rents. The battle that ensued between neighborhood residents, protesters, gallery owners, artists, and developers ended with several gallery spaces permanently shuttering their doors. What happened in Boyle Heights, while considered a victory for protesters on many fronts, illustrates how the nuances and complexities of art’s role in gentrification can easily be eclipsed.

“The art gallery exodus from Boyle Heights,” LA Times

“The art gallery exodus from Boyle Heights,” LA Times

“Goodbye to All That,” Art News

“Goodbye to All That,” Art News

In an article for The Conversation, Cecille Sachs Olsen talks about the ways she’s become sensitized to the delicate shifts of neighborhoods in transition in her work. She points out that “all too often, strategies for urban regeneration seem to focus on improving a place’s image, instead of the lives of its residents. (…) Rather than trying to change or challenge the current situation, art is simply expected to make the best out of it. And as a result, local communities are positioned as the passive recipients of some form of creative consultancy.” To soften the blows dealt by gentrification, developers oftentimes budget for the inclusion of murals or large-scale sculpture in new developments; prestige projects that favor a definition of palcemaking as space where instagrammable moments happen over context-sensitive approaches to projects that celebrate the existing cultural assets of a place and the people who preserve them. Adjacencies between flashy, large scale public art projects and gentrification are hard to ignore and in aesthetic terms, usually oversimplify the potential of civically engaged art practices to start meaningful conversations between planners, developers, and neighborhood residents about the ways in which our built environment evolves.

What if we reimagined how public art is funded and how it can function at the neighborhood level? What if every planner and developer in Omaha hired neighborhood artists as consultants and collaborators at the ground level—right at a project’s inception? Could we have more transparent conversations about the relationship between art and gentrification? Would we be able to better assess how that relationship impacts neighborhoods in transition?

“Artist Planner Collaborations,” a 2018 study published by the Rice Kinder Institute for Urban Research in Houston evaluated three Sun Belt cities: Houston, San Antonio, and Denver. Each of these cities has experienced significant growth over the past decade and now face significant challenges to affordability and neighborhood change in the wake of rapid development. The impact of arts and culture on neighborhoods is just one of many emerging themes the study identifies. Researchers found that:

“(…) strong neighborhood-based arts ecosystems can provide vehicles for neighborhoods to celebrate and protect that which makes them unique and to share those stories. Street festivals, culturally specific art practice, public art and other civic assets can bolster and preserve the unique character of neighborhoods. They can also improve social cohesion, foster a sense of place and give residents a way to identify common strengths and challenges. The best versions of public arts and cultural programming are designed and driven by the community and done with care and sensitivity to the social particularities of the neighborhood.

Artists and creatives have a unique ability to absorb the values, aspirations and reservations of a community. They also can create programming that holds those narratives with care. Undesired outcomes are not inevitable. Artist-led community planning can help foster revitalization and economic development opportunities that empower existing residents and build on the unique history of the place.”

Spend some time with the full report and its findings by clicking the link below and share your thoughts in the comments section.