Why is art a constant in the gentrification equation?
Gentrification is a theme that crops up regularly when talking about property development in cities. Coined by Ruth Glass in 1964, the term describes the displacement of a working-class urban population by the middle class. For as long as the theories have existed, artists have been named as an important catalyst in the process.
It’s a pattern that echoes throughout cities over time – the first step involves the slightly less desirable, often rundown parts of town providing shelter for those amongst us with small pockets and big ideas. Within this group you can count on finding the fledgling or up and coming artists.
To find out how artists are responsible for regeneration in certain parts of the city we need to know how they ended up there in the first place. In the case of Hoxton, this begins with a whole bunch of industrial floorspace left unoccupied during the widespread deindustrialisation of London during the 1980s. According to Hackney borough, almost 23% of industrial property lay vacant between 1978 and 1983.
The availability of these large, disused warehouses and workshops attracted artists, fashion designers and other creative specialists into the area, who set to work, putting the space to use in their creative endeavors. With graphic designers such as Jamie Reed (who worked with the Sex Pistols) and musicians such as John Foxx (founder of the group Ultravox) living and working in the area, Hoxton began to establish a reputation for new non-mainstream forms of cultural life.
Wider political and social changes played their part too, with more than a threefold increase in private art galleries and dealers nationally between 1960 and 1985, and an accompanying expansion in British art education from the 1960s. A little later, the property crash of the 1990s inspired landlords to semi-legally rent out property earmarked for commercial redevelopment (time for some all-night warehouse parties). One of these locations became the area’s first permanent gallery, Factual Nonsense. It was set up by Joshua Compston, who moved into a former timber yard and Frenchpolishers on Charlotte Road in October 1992. The gallery is closely associated with the emergence of the Young British Artists, whose leading artists include Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.
My bed – Tracey Emin
So that brings us to a stage where arty people are living and working amongst the disused industrial buildings of East London. There are many theories to how gentrification follows, a flowery analogy would be to compare artists to pioneer plants, defined as “hardy species which are the first to colonize previously disrupted or damaged ecosystems, beginning a chain of ecological succession that ultimately leads to a more biodiverse steady-state ecosystem”. In other words, artists are the hardy, specialised plants that flourish in a harsh environment, gradually making the soil fertile enough for other plants to get involved.
‘Pioneer plants’. Photo: Gerd Masselink
A National Endowment for the Arts study suggests that by renovating places mainstream culture considers blighted into attractive destinations, artists pave the way for future property reinvestment by real estate developers and higher income members of the creative class. They aesthetically revalue a place by transforming dilapidated, impoverished and often ethnically segregated areas into a “neobohemia” filled with art studios, galleries, bars, coffee shops, and restaurants.
Mural by Nicolas Tual, Mcbess and Matthew Bromley at the Queen of Hoxton. Photo: James Mitchell
Up until this point, it could be said that the contribution of artists to an area is ‘positive’ gentrification as the revitalisation they bring is from the bottom up and the area is still affordable for low income people. The second stage happens when the capital follows the culture.
Matt Bolton writing for OpenDemocracy uses Marxist geographer Neil Smith’s idea of “rent gap” to explain gentrification. Rent gap is the difference between the current ground rent, and what rent the land could potentially yield if it was put to a more profitable use. Gentrification takes place once the rent gap has grown so big that developers can buy and do up property, pay interest on loans, and still sell the redeveloped property to a wealthier user for a profit. So, capital follows the artist into newly desirable, gentrified localities, commodifying its cultural assets and sometimes displacing the original artists/gentrifiers and low income residents.
It’s a theme in major cities around the world. Columbia University’s Stacey Sutton, referring to gentrification in the US, believes even those who avoid rent increases become isolated when their communities are broken up and often can’t afford to enjoy the treats on offer in their new aesthetically pleasing neighbourhood. She calls for rent control policies, progressive land tax and the restriction of predatory investment schemes.
In East London some believe the spread of the City and gentrification are making it difficult to find cheap rooms or work space. Crisis homeless charity worker Yolanda de los Buies says about 15 years ago Spitalfields used to have the highest density of artists anywhere in Europe but believes that has all changed now. “Art and culture and community is being flattened by money making machines,” she says. “London is becoming a luxury business and commuter city without soul.” (Read more in our article about the history of Brick Lane).
A local artist (who preferred to remain anonymous) believes it’s the artist’s attitude of self reliance and questioning that leads to the use of space in ways that others don’t. “Artist’s will move to places where they can afford to have the freedom they desire. I wouldn’t say it’s only artists that are responsible for increasing the value of an area but it’s more to do with the attitude that art and artist’s encourage. There are plenty of creative people in other industries that pursue similar strands of freedom.” They believe that the need for a sense of community and support for each other leads to a natural expansion of these communities. “Small independent businesses move in because they also share that sense of freedom and then bigger businesses and property developers see the potential of what’s happening and have the money to buy people out.”
The link between art and the revitalization of cities is so well recognised that the European Journal for Housing Policy believe councils actively use public policy to encourage positives gentrification by using public art and cultural facilities as a promoter of regeneration and associated gentrification.
So what does this all mean for the future of artists and residents in low-income areas that are subjected to gentrification? Well it seems undeniable that pioneering artists lay the ground for further revitalisation in areas that have become dilapidated, making them fertile for growth. Once this reaches tipping point and the area becomes sufficiently desirable, increased demand for housing encourages investment by developers and it’s at this point that rents increase to match the demand, potentially displacing existing low income inhabitants with those with bigger pockets. The revitalisation of East London into a more aesthetically pleasing place sounds promising, but care must be taken to ensure the housing on offer represents all types of people, including those who settled there before gentrification began.
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