Gentrification Cycles: The Artists
This article is part one of a three-part series in which we explore the perspectives of three groups of people affected by gentrification.
Gentrification has been weighing on the minds of St. Pete’s artists lately as many of their studio and gallery rents spike causing them to close shop, and communities dissipate into art nomads and relocators. Of course, that’s how new communities are created, but how can artists guarantee the staying power of their new venture?
“Gentrification is a cycle of development in waveform,” photographer Luis Gottardi says. “In the beginning when there’s nothing, artists come in, rents are cheap. They draw people out. The place is teeming with people. And those people want to be a part of that, and offers come in, [they] build condos, the artists are kicked out and all of a sudden the people in their condos have to get in their cars and drive to where the artists are at.”
In 2012, the average annual income for the 5,902 St. Pete artists who filed their taxes was $17,298.81, according to the 2015 St. Petersburg Arts & Culture Economic Impact Report. If this artist were to spend every penny of his or her earnings on rent, they could afford a place for $1,441 dollars a month and that would need to include utilities. If they want their own studio, they can live in a big house with a group of people for between $300-550 a month, and the remainder going to a separate studio for between $400-$1000. Regardless, that’s not enough leftover to pay for food, phone, transportation and anything else. No one said being an artist was easy, and if they want to make it work they must get creative with the business side of art. For example, many artists work at home.
Approximately 60% of artists in St. Petersburg work in a home studio.
“Traditionally artists don’t have any money and that’s just how it is, so artists are going to live however they have to live,” said local drummer Tyler Stoelting, an urban infrastructure philosopher and advocate of Jane Jacobs’ iconic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. He wonders if sectioning artists off into a district is ideal – maybe they should be more integrated into communities as a natural byproduct of every neighborhood. “When you homogenize communities and you put everything in these isolated areas — I legitimately feel it affects the artists themselves. They need to be part of a bigger community to honestly be able to push their art. It’s very stimulating to have different things going on.”
American Style magazine ranked St. Petersburg its top mid-size city in 2011, citing its “vibrant” arts scene. Newcomers are happily relocating to a new downhome version of Miami, the one place in Florida that always escapes the worst of the state’s hurricane storms. Artists who can no longer afford the rent hikes are upset by the way their problems seem to frequently be washed behind a curtain of tourist-attraction-brochure-jargon of culture, arts and the high life.
There’s a national community series trend called Creative Placemaking or, as local arts administrator, artist and writer Mitzi Jo Gordon calls her gatherings, Creative Placeholding.
“For this series, I’ve chosen the term ‘creative placeholding’ – rather than ‘creative placemaking’ a phrase some may be more familiar with – to describe the role of arts in the active care and maintenance of a place and its social fabric by the people who live and work there.” she said. “‘Placemaking’ is often associated with urban renewal that leverages outside funding to change the physical and social character of a neighborhood. I personally feel our place here, while growing, is already made – in the sense of having a distinct culture and character. Through “placeholding” – and conversations like these – I’m suggesting that we hold our space, and hold onto the valuable character of our neighborhoods as we grow. That means not only preserving and renewing buildings, and integrating accessible arts, but also keeping cultural memories associated with a specific place alive, while supporting the ability of local people to thrive and maintain their chosen way of life.”
Both Creative Placemaking and Placeholding bring together people from the public and private sectors, artists and community members to discuss, conceptualize and put into action. Placemaking has also been criticized for not connecting the dots to produce outcomes, instead acting as a long process that doesn’t result in results. But maybe that’s just the nature of experimenting on a large scale, until something finally happens. Things are happening all the time, they just don’t always take hold.
Eva Avenue: Did you start the Creative Placeholding series in response to gentrification and the artist’s role in the cycle?
Mitzi Jo Gordon: In a way, yes. Boiled down to its essence, I started the Creative Placeholding series because I wanted people to talk to one another. The idea took shape after my most recent visit to Miami. I’ve been traveling there to explore Art Basel and its satellite fairs almost every year since 2004, each time approaching from a different perspective – journalist, arts administrator, artist (I brought my book bus down there twice), and sometimes simply as a viewer, taking in the art. Over those years I’ve watched the festival grow and impact Miami neighborhoods — sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse. During my time in the Bay area, I’ve often heard Art Basel and the Wynwood mural district used as a touchstone, referred to as a goal or standard by which to measure ourselves.
My thought when kicking off Creative Placeholding was to offer a counterpoint to that perspective, by suggesting that there are lessons to learn, both good and bad, from Miami’s growth and activities. We should discuss those lessons together, but not necessarily try to model ourselves after Miami. As the series has grown, it’s become not just about looking at lessons from Miami, but from many places.
Gentrification occurs all over the world, and I believe each case study has something instructive to offer. What isn’t working in Detroit, Michigan? What is succeeding in Pinellas Park, Florida? Who is impacted, and in what ways? What do we, as a diverse community, dream that our city will look like in the future? These are questions I hope to examine. As an artist, I know I am culpable, that I play a role in the process of gentrification, and I want to examine that as well. As a journalist, my desire is to ask questions and hopefully help to inform.
What do you hope to accomplish with it?
With each new conversation, it’s my hope that people will intersect with others whom they’ve never met, and hear perspectives they may not have considered before. If those relationships begin to take seed and flourish, I feel the conversations are a success. I would like to see folks—particularly those in positions of power—breaking out of their everyday bubble by opening up to another’s point of view. I would also like to highlight voices that we as a community don’t get to hear from as often. Everyone plays a part in the cycles of gentrification—artist, developer, business owner, resident, city official, consumer—and each of those people has a valid voice that is important to the conversation. I hope to get as many of those voices as possible into one room.
After ten of these talks, my plan is to produce a Creative Placeholding report, sharing notes from the meetings and hopefully offering useful insights and ideas on how to avoid pitfalls and make the most of our growth. At the very least, the report will share a record of the participants’ comments and perspective.
Do you ever think of alternatives to the model of gentrification in ways that foster longevity of communities that benefit original community members and artists while welcoming newcomers? Do any solutions seem perfect or do they all come up short when stood up against “the way things are”?
I don’t believe that there is any perfect solution. I think there are many possible alternatives to the traditional cycle, and each is specific to the needs of a neighborhood, district, or city. Attention to a variety of factors is required, and the “solution” may well be a combination of several points. In my opinion, affordable housing for residents and artists is crucial, whether that is accomplished through rent control or other methods. Historic preservation is also pivotal to maintaining the character of a place. I’ve heard gentrification described as a hurricane: something that cannot be stopped. To extend that metaphor, perhaps we cannot stop the storm, but we can prepare for it, and we can preserve some things. We can hold space for residents, for artists, for businesses. Making connections through open conversation, addressing sensitive issues and hearing diverse viewpoints will hopefully help us to prepare for the years to come, and preserve what makes our city special.
What do you think the St. Pete art community needs most?
Solidarity and empathy. Less focus on who-owns-what and more focus on how we can collaborate and support each other in our growth. I truly believe a rising tide lifts all boats.
I remember standing on the St. Petersburg Central Avenue sidewalk of the 600 block in October 2015 talking to my friend Dene and going on about how the block had so much more magic, more personality, more life when it was artist-run spaces. I turn and an older man is standing before me, looking a little hurt but with a smirk on his face and he asks me about what I said. After I finish elaborating he says, “I’m Gary. I renovated this block.” We ended up laughing and he bought me a guava ice cream from Urban Creamery as he took me on a tour of everything he was proud of about the renovations. I enjoyed his earnest nature. “All the art’s gone” I said, and he immediately took me down the Arcade and into a tiny gallery and pointed to an art object, “There! There’s some art. We got art.” and I did not think to say “It’s not about objects, it’s about the community’s energy, about having the artists here. Who cares if there’s an art object down in this hallway?” But he maintained there was more life on the block now. Later on our tour, he looks at me and exclaims, “I’m so mad!”, laughs and gives me a hug. His good nature in the face of our conflicting ideas on what was good for downtown made me like him all the more. There’s something to be said for sympathetic diplomacy.