Creative Community Development, a gentle diatribe

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s been a trend over the last… oh I don’t know, 4 + decades or more where artists & creative types move in to a derelict neighborhood and make art, create events, and the neighborhood gains a positive reputation. Over time developers and real estate agents come to invest and dilapidated buildings are razed and the poor and homeless have been pushed out or relocated. Old buildings get renovated or new and shiny buildings get put in their place & people move in that can afford the higher rent. Eventually the creatives get pushed out because rent becomes unaffordable to them, and the thus the neighborhood is gentrified.

This happens and has happened in every city. If you’ve ever been to a neighborhood that is described as ‘funky’ or ‘artistic’ that doesn’t seem to have much of either… what I described above is probably what happened.

This ramble I’m writing is part in thought-spired by this article by Adam Turl arguing against art districts and what I’ve seen in the Short North in Columbus and what I’m seeing now in Franklinton (F-ton), an art neighborhood I’ve been quasi-involved in for a little more than a decade.  This kind of thing like I said happens everywhere, but I’m gonna speak to what I know/see, for funzies.

I’m squatting on the F-ton facebook groups, and basically people are upset about the gentrification, which is a complaint I’ve seen in every Columbus neighborhood that has a developer move in and starts building. Grandview Heights, Clintonville, both come to mind especially but it’s been happening in all the downtown neighborhoods that have had a population deficit. Basically some developers come and build new apartments or condos, which are priced to the median household income of Franklinton County. The problem is that the median household income is much higher than what most people make in that area. People in F-ton want development as there are a lot of derelict homes and abandoned lots. Homeless people have accidentally start fires in some of the abandoned houses in winter trying to keep warm which has hurt and killed people over the years and damages or destroys the property around it. It’s a residential area close to downtown that has a lot of potential. The thing is, the pattern of creatives moving in = developers developing = low income and creatives being forced out is already happening in full swing. It’s been happening, and I think it’s been inevitable long before any one group or artist studios were erected there.

Unlike what that article I shared above says, I personally don’t blame the developers. I have a lot of sympathy for people who are upset about these developments that have apartments that are priced out of their range, about rents being raised as property value goes up. I’ve been that person, making a hair above minimum wage trying to find rent I can afford so I could live and also try to nurture my creative career that wasn’t making money at the time. I want to live in a safe not completely terrifying neighborhood though, and I wanted opportunity to thrive, just like the people who live in that neighborhood now. New and rebuild construction comes at a price though. We can’t fix crumbling neighborhoods without cost, and the people who develop neighborhoods are not charities. Construction and labor, building to code is not cheap even if you use lesser quality materials. There’s no choice but to raise the rent when a new build gets newly built so the property can at minimum support itself and future maintenance costs.

It’s too easy to speculate a solution when I have no control over it and don’t have all the data. In my city I’ve seen and read about historical buildings that get razed because it’s lost its original purpose and nobody with the capital has an interest to invest in maintaining the property and give it new life. It’s cheaper to raze and rebuild. Just like it’s more profitable to advertise and rent to the new white collar class that wants to live downtown in hip neighborhoods than it is to rent to people who have a lower income and possible questionable credit history. My armchair observation has long been that Columbus for the most part prioritizes short gain profit over culture and memory, the few exceptions being small neighborhood pockets that have zoning laws regarding new builds. German Village and downtown Worthington are two examples that come to mind. I personally really want Columbus to quit bulldozing its past, but what I want doesn’t matter. It comes down to money in the end I think. The City of Columbus does not put a lot of effort into zoning or saving historical property, that’s just the way this town operates.

What I see happening in F-ton is what happened to the Short North in Columbus. Cost of living will go up, and the spaces that artists rent there will become too expensive for creatives to rent there or they will get demolished and redeveloped as living or work spaces. The Short North for those unfamiliar was once an area where artists would rent out derelict storefronts for shows and small retail shops would sell unique items. The neighborhood itself had a bad reputation because of violence, drugs, and prostitution. Over a period of I’d guess is a couple decades developers came to build condos and some entrepreneurs that had the capital to invest in property came and began to create higher end appealing spaces. I remember people mocking the high rent and the 100 dollar jeans you could now buy as being naive and short sighted, but the higher end businesses and condos multiplied and the small quirky shops and galleries vanished. F-ton is going through the same transformation but faster (or maybe I’m just older and am paying attention).  Of course the question is, what can we do about it?

I’d say, we (the creative we) can’t rely on location or neighborhoods to sustain ‘creative neighborhoods’, I’ll agree with Adam Turl on that point. Unless creative people have the capital to invest in property, there can be no reliance on the permanence of a neighborhood to sustain a creative class. The only way around this is to find and work with property owners who want to support creatives, which do exist but that can come with its own problems. Not all property owners are responsible, or if they are not renting at a sustainable level to maintain the property can afford to maintain the property, an example of this is the neglect that caused the Ghost Ship fire of 2016. Plus those landlords can die, or decide to or be forced to sell as their own economic situation dictates. IMHO we can only rely on that which we can fully control.

Decentralization causes its own problems though. Community thrives on being connected, and it’s hard to connect when you’re not sharing space with one another. This is something I’ve been personally struggling with as I don’t live close to any of the local art communities. Also, I can’t help but notice that successful artists tend to disassociate from the young and emerging art communities, so there isn’t any fostering or communication there. Part of me gets that and wants to buy a farm in the middle of nowhere on the cheap so I can live inexpensively and make work, and part of me wants to work in the city and foster relationships and opportunity, but I have to admit that I have more energy for the former than the latter.

Nothing here has a simple answer. I want to see more artist enclaves. People working together to create new and exciting happenings that add experience and value to the city and maybe the world (we gotta dream big after all). I personally would love nothing more than to sit around and discuss ideas and be with like minded talented people, and to have a stage where we can show off what we can do. The tired part of me though feels this city doesn’t have an interest in supporting that. It claims to, but the venues that offer these unique experiences don’t get much media attention and the ones that do are eventually slated for full gentrification in the next ten years (my guess).  As an example, this video put out by the Atlantic says F-ton has “Gentrification ‘Without the Negative'” is matter of opinion. Like the top comment says, section 8 housing did get demolished, Mayor Coleman did actively plan to gentrify the neighborhood, and yeah the area has and will become unsustainable. I was floating around that area when I was a board member of FAD. When going to meetings in the area I was warned to not stay overnight because my car could get stripped for parts and if I walked around alone I could be in danger. I’m not afraid of being or living in questionable neighborhoods, but… yeah I was aware that area was not safe. I remember leaving the neighborhood after a meeting and seeing young children unattended playing in the streets in the middle of the night, hearing yelling from the section 8 apartments. Now that same area is much safer. People are jogging around in the early morning or evening, people come down for events to spend money, and as soon as the new apartments & retail spaces are finished there will be more commerce. Yeah, we have a problem with the shifting of poor around, but I can’t deny that the neighborhood has begun to flourish.  I see both sides of the problem, and I don’t think straight up capitalism fixes it. Also I don’t see any simple solutions either, not in the short term at least.

What I want to focus on are what we as individuals can do, which is the challenge I give to you to think on. Blaming landlords and developers is a waste of time, because by and large they don’t care, and why should they? Saying ‘well they are the problem’ is a way to remove your own agency, shift blame and make excuses why you can’t do anything to ‘stop the powers that be’. Focus on what you can do, or what you want to do even if that means taking time and working on investment for the future. Hell, maybe we should all invest in farms or small broken towns and create weird artist collectives in the country far away from zoning laws and capitalists that would rather see EZ Loans and Dollar Stores in their strip malls than art galleries and creative collectives they would see as a high investment risk.

If you’ve stuck with reading this ramble, gold star for you. I have no answers, only conflicting thoughts. On one hand, I want to see neighborhoods be successful and sustainable, and on the other I want to see creatives thrive… and I don’t see the two as having to be mutually exclusive. This rant is more an offering of debate, as I think this stuff needs to be discussed and digested… and maybe some new ideas will come from the fertilizer it will create.

2 thoughts on “Creative Community Development, a gentle diatribe

  1. There are models we can converse about.

    As a board, MadLab took a smart step a few years ago and purchased their theater building downtown in a strategic location, and worse-case, they sell for more than they paid.

    There’s Milo, but it is subject to your point of what happens when a supportive, arts-friendly landlord dies or sells.

    One possibility is a co-op type of corporation, common as residential ownership in NY, in which each stockholder owns their unit in perpetuity.

    To investigate such a plan we’d need an attorney and accountant for counsel.
    But consider the possibilities…look at the number of 19th-20th Century church buildings currently vacated within 3-miles of Broad & High.

  2. I’m down for that conversation. Something like that is a something I’d love to get started, and as for those resources… I might know a guy.

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