You Should Probably Be Worried That Artists Are Being Priced Out of Cities

The affordability crisis has made the creative life nearly impossible in many metropolitan areas, but stemming the artistic brain drain is a great investment in our collective culture.

(Photo: Ryan J. Lane/Getty Images)

Feb 6, 2015· 5 MIN READ
Regular TakePart contributor Holly Eagleson writes about social issues, culture, lifestyle, and food for Redbook, Marie Claire, Glamour, and others.

Ever dreamed of penning the great American novel or composing a symphony from a Gotham garret? There’s still hope.

This week, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs will invest $30 million in 1,500 affordable live/work spaces in the next 10 years and create 500 below-market artist work spaces from underutilized city assets. Two other cosmopolitan areas also have good news: Nashville got a $200,000 grant to construct, buy, or rehab property for artists’ live/work spaces, and Minneapolis’ A-Mill Artists Lofts—located in a defunct Pillsbury factory—are set to open this year with average rents under $1,000 per month.

Subsidized housing for the creative class isn’t new. Since the 1970s, developments such as Manhattan Plaza, a midtown Manhattan building with 70 percent of low-priced residences set aside for artists, have been a lifeline for working creatives for decades.

One of the most anticipated projects of this kind is the conversion of PS109, a dilapidated public school building in East Harlem, into artist residences this year. Its popularity is a great indicator of the dire need for housing among middle-class artists. The project drew more than 53,000 applications from creatives eager for affordable housing. The number of spots available? A slim 89.

Working artists in NYC aren’t the only city dwellers suffering in the midst of an affordability crisis. Among of the top 10 states with the highest levels of income inequality, according to the Martin Prosperity Institute, several—including New York, California, Texas, and Massachusetts, along with Washington, D.C.—are home to big cities with large knowledge economies and historically vibrant artist populations.

That leaves middle-class creatives, who need space to not only to live but also to work, in a crunch. The sheer unaffordability of life in artsy hotbeds such as New York, Los Angeles, Austin, San Francisco (home of the highest median rent per bedroom in the country), and Portland have sent many packing for ad hoc artist colonies in towns such as Marfa, Texas; Athens, Georgia; Asheville, North Carolina; and Emeryville, California. There’s even a cutesy name for artistic rural migration: hipster to hickster.

In most cases, flight from big cities is a boon for lower-profile spots. Detroit is one popular new draw that could use every penny and body it can get. New York City’s Galapagos Art Space recently announced plans to leave Brooklyn—named the least adorable market in the nation in 2014—for the Motor City.

The irony, of course, is that this may ultimately backfire. Artist invasions usually herald gentrification that ultimately displaces the big-city refugees. And it often comes on the backs of fellow middle-class workers. The prevalence of industrial studio space in once-blighted, now-buzzing neighborhoods, such as Brooklyn’s Bushwick and Red Hook, is directly related to the decline in manufacturing and the decimation of its workforce. You don’t see mayoral proposals to help factory workers find below-market loft housing.

It’s no surprise, then, that many respond with an eye roll when there’s talk of more subsidized rentals for artists. They certainly don’t come cheap. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development spent nearly $32 million to subsidize rent at Manhattan Plaza’s 1,355 apartments. Others balk that set-asides for artists exclude the truly needy, who aren’t obligated to the muse but the mouths they have to feed.

Journalist Scott Timberg has noticed a nasty rhetoric swirling around the creative classes that, since 2000, has become increasingly acute. In his new book, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, he outlines how enduring tropes about creative personalities feed value judgments about artists and their place in the economic system. “We hear about Mick Jagger, Frank Gehry, Lady Gaga and Jeff Koons, thinking of artists as cultural heroes that are rich and famous,” Timberg says. “Then we have this counter myth that artists are gutter-dwelling, bohemian wastrels that suffer for their art.”

These dual narratives ignore that, for the most part, working artists are those who have had significant training—say, in architecture, music, or visual art—and toil long hours, sometimes at multiple jobs, to make ends meet. There are also entire industries that support visible artists, though their workers are often relegated to shadow status. We’re talking about record or video store workers, makeup artists, choreographers, and set designers who are most at risk when arts communities are physically decimated. “They’re all within the middle class, and they feel it when the middle class gets chipped away,” says Timberg.

Also forgotten are the artists who never flocked to gritty-cool hoods straight out of RISD or Pratt—they were already there for decades. If you buy into the alarmingly colonial idea that artists are settlers or pioneers, you ignore the population (often nonwhite) that already existed, with artists living within its ranks. Unlike overeducated, underemployed art school grads who can swing a part-time job copy editing, artists from lower socioeconomic backgrounds often have nothing to fall back on, nor do they have the safety net of family back in Indiana. They can’t necessarily afford to live anywhere else but their gentrifying hood.

It’s these artists that especially need support as city blocks rapidly swell with luxury highrises and banks. And it actually makes economic sense to help them stay put. Any real estate broker will tell you that cultural amenities are high on the desirability list, particularly among millennials without families. Artists not only fuel culture and innovation in a community, but they also spur plenty of activism. Think back to the red ribbon campaign, the first visual statement of AIDS awareness. That now-ubiquitous symbol was hatched by members of a group called Visual AIDS in Greenwich Village back in 1991. Today, the only entity with the liquidity to afford rent in that tony hood would be a shiny branding agency.

Making metropolitan areas accessible to young artists has cultural consequences far beyond city limits. It’s no secret that stories about Los Angeles and NYC continue to fascinate audiences—or at least the networks and studios who green-light them. But with such a high barrier to entry, how will the lives of real city dwellers ever make it to the screen?

Imagine if the duo from Broad City didn’t have the cash to produce their initial Web series about two hilarious stoner BFFs in New York. We’d miss out on some of the most real and most diverse vignettes of NYC life ever seen on cable. How about prolific actress/director/producer Issa Rae, who just got her own show on HBO? Set outside L.A., her Awkward Black Girl Web series might not have warranted a look from producers of prestige TV. In five years, city life might be untenable for people like these, but cosmopolitan stories will still get made. It’ll just be by execs living in Studio City or boho trustafarians already born to the celebrity artist cloth.

For those who still dare to stay in or flock to big cities, organizations such as Artspace may be their only bet for success. The Minneapolis-based organization works on 37 arts-oriented projects nationwide, helping to develop property for more than 1,300 artist live/work units. While many are in gentrified spots such as NYC, others are locales ravaged by the Great Recession that are becoming increasingly segregated. One development on Buffalo’s Main Street, which historically marked a divide between low-income black and white upper- middle-class populations, was chosen to strategically create a cross-cultural dialogue fostered by art.

“What our projects do is create a physical environment that brings together enough critical mass or collaboration, and then we set expectations for how the artist should interact in the community,” says Will Law, chief operating officer of Artspace. “As an artist, you should have a sense of obligation to give back, collaborating and actively participating with residents.”

Not just for fledgling artists, Artspace projects also support creatives already entrenched in multicultural communities. One of its initiatives is the PS109 development in East Harlem, which specifically sought Puerto Rican and Dominican artists at risk of being forced out of the El Barrio neighborhood. “It’s important to try to fight both battles, to inspire downtrodden communities and try to preserve a place for creative people in economically escalating communities,” Law says. “I don’t think there will ever be a solution, but in a perfect world you push them both back to the middle.”

And who knows: These developments just might produce the next Tennessee Williams, Angela Lansbury, Alicia Keys, Alan Menken, Charles Mingus, or Larry David along the way. They’re all past residents of the storied Manhattan Plaza development. (Samuel L. Jackson was once a security guard on its premises.) Could NYC have gone humming along without their contributions to the stage, screen, and music scene? Sure. But why would anyone want that?