Reintroducing artists into cities

Who wins when development companies convert existing spaces into artist housing?
By Jessica Perry

Organizations in big cities nationwide are collaborating with local, state and federal governments to combat artist gentrification and facilitate affordable living spaces for artists. The goal is to add vibrancy to cities that are becoming bland, but the end result isn’t entirely positive.

Artist gentrification has been an ongoing issue in urban areas for decades. High living costs make it difficult for any artist to not only make money off of their art, but also just to meet basic needs. This issue is compounded by post-recession financial resonance. The creative class is growing while their funds are shrinking; with these projects, artists have a better opportunity of moving in. The result is that old neighborhoods are being transformed culturally and economically, for better or for worse.

Artists Search for Space
Zachary Dresher, a 21-year-old musician and self-proclaimed “starving artist,” hoped to benefit from some of these projects upon moving from the District of Columbia to a more affordable place in Maryland in 2014.

“The D.M.V. [D.C.-Maryland-Virginia] areas are definitely not the worst about helping artists like me to find homes, because there are options like the Monroe Street Market area and the Brookland Lofts,” he said. “I looked at them, but the problem is the high standard of living in general. I can afford a house, but will I have money for food?”

Monroe Street Market is just one example of a company, Bozzuto Development, collaborating with artists to offer affordable housing. Bozzuto receives tax cuts for their buildings, and the neighborhood gets some of its pizzazz back. These housing areas often turn into arts districts, such as the popular Monroe Street Market which won a Washington City Paper award in 2015 for Best-Up-And-Coming Arts Neighborhood.

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 View of Monroe Street Arts Walk from the Metro stop. Photo by Jessica Perry.

The Monroe Street Market Arts Walk, located at the Brookland-CUA Metro stop, has grown since its inception. It attracts many tourists with weekly events such as musical performances and outdoor farmers’ markets. Monroe Street Market management uses these events to publicize the area to tourists and locals alike, where artists such as Katie Stack lease properties.

The Process: Positives and Pitfalls
Stack, who owns a storefront at the Arts Walk called Stitch and Rivet, explains that Bozzuto management leases the studios as “artist spaces.” Majority of artists there use their space as either a storefront or a workspace, not as a living space. According to her, the process can be long: during the application process, artists must submit a resume, portfolio, and various financial statements, but majority of the wait is for space to open up.

“When I applied for it, there was a 2 year waitlist,” she said. “I was running my business out of the dining room in [a] 900-square-foot basement condo [in Herndon, Va.].” After the previous applicant backed out, Stack got the space after only 2 months.

“It happened faster than I thought it would, but I’m happy that it did,” she said.

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Stitch and Rivet store entry. Photo by Jessica Perry.

But she still has some reservations about the area and the lack of publicity. “I wish the signs were better, telling people where to go,” she said. “People just don’t know that we’re here.”

Other artists have similar concerns. Local artisan Caitlin Phillips, who lives in a Mount Rainier artist apartment and leases a storefront at Monroe Street Market, said the lack of signage is part of a more encompassing problem with Bozzuto management.

“They just don’t get artists,” she said. “I mean, we’re artists, we can make our own signs. Why aren’t they letting us?”

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Window of store front at Monroe Street Market. Photo by Jessica Perry.

Making Ends Meet
Phillips decided to get an artist’s space at Monroe Street Market after a friend’s suggestion to do so. That same friend also applied, she said, but that friend was denied.

Despite local college student’s interest in her products, she is not sure she will be able to afford extending her lease.

“I don’t know if this area will take off,” she said. “I don’t know how it can compete with places like Torpedo Factory, especially since there are not many dining options around here.”

Phillips has worked at Eastern Market for a decade and continues to do so for extra income. She also has a website and an Etsy shop, so she relies on her Arts Walk artist space mostly as a workspace.

On the other hand, Stack’s business at the Arts Walk has grown since the previous quarter. She makes the rest of her income through her Etsy shop, selling her work in other stores and wholesale sites, and consignment deals. “I think it’s like anything else [at Monroe Street Market],” she said. “There are some people who are being very successful, and some that are not so successful.”

But artists such as Dresher cannot afford to even apply for one of these artist spaces.

“Even though I’m making pretty good money working the three part-time jobs I have, it’s not an area where I can sustainably live,” he said. “I ended up being lucky enough to find a house just outside of the city with some members of my band, but my work commutes are long.”

Dresher spends 10 dollars a day on Metro fare and about two hours per day on travel. Demographics show that majority of musicians in the D.C.-Maryland area fare similarly, but there are more outliers in D.C. [CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE]:

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A National Trend
Another musician, Wes Good, agreed that the situation is similar in his home of Greensboro, N,C., though he said the cost of living is lower there. He works other jobs, such as being a self-proclaimed “crazy science dude” for a science literacy project.

“People take pride in, and put a lot of work into, their art for little reward,” he said. “But the idea of making a living from music is generally scoffed at in our society.”

Though many artists still have trouble affording basic expenses, cultural redevelopment in the form of low-price housing agreements for artists is underway in a multitude of cities: Boston, New York City, Cleveland, New Orleans, Portland, and more.

“We need projects like these,” Dresher said. “Just because I didn’t take advantage of it doesn’t mean others haven’t. Any little bit of help helps us as a whole community.”

Good agreed with that idea, and mentioned that he knew about artist resources from ArtsGreensboro though he has not taken advantage of them.

On the other hand, Stack pointed out that reintroducing a large population of people for economic purposes can become a problem for the existing community. “The tricky thing about anytime a neighborhood does something like this is that neighborhoods support the concept until it becomes a problem…when they can’t afford to live here anymore,” she said. “It happens all over the U.S.,” and she included an example from her home of Portland, Or.

This trend toward assisting artists in order to reinvigorate city culture is evidenced right in the District with organizations such as CulturalDC. The organization works with artists, arts organizations and real estate developers to build the creative infrastructure that makes being an urban artist affordable, and builds a unique community in the District.

Money, Money, Money
Though the concept is positive, the main problem is that city costs add up, and being an artist today requires capital investment.

Dresher says, that he’s “spent over $20,000 on things related to [his] band- buying gear, money for tours, paying for recordings, merchandise, and so on- but only over the last few months [has he] started to see any of it turn around.”

Phillips is facing the same issue.

While creating affordable artist housing sounds positive, the first step often involves development companies changing the structure of a neighborhood– often for the worse if the project fails. This displaces those who cannot handle rapid economic changes.

According to Stack, “The tricky thing about any time a neighborhood does something like this is that neighborhoods support the concept until it becomes a problem…when they can’t afford to live here anymore.”

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