“An Arts District without artists?”

WE’VE heard this before, but it’s always painful when it happens: The visual artists who have helped tame downtown Los Angeles and given it a hip sheen are now being forced out by gentrification and rising rents. The process is just starting, but it seems destined to pick up speed quite soon. A new story in the Los Angeles Times describes the process.

Then a decade ago, what started with a new restaurant on this block and then another up that street, turned into an avalanche of development. Warehouses became condos, including a one-time sugar beet storehouse that when converted caught the eye of real estate-savvy actress Diane Keaton. A new coffee shop moves in every month or so, and it’s hard to walk two minutes in any direction in the 52-block neighborhood without finding a blue-and-white filming notice announcing an upcoming car commercial or episode of “New Girl.” And soon, the One Santa Fe complex will be open.

THE growth of downtown LA has been fun to watch; in many ways, it’s better (and certainly safer) than it was as decade or two ago. Some of the story describes the loss of a small-community “vibe.” That’s always sad, but my bigger fear is that artists won’t be able to live and work there at all. Creative communities are important, and being physically close to other artists in one’s field is crucial to learning and growing. It also balances the often solitary and introspective work of art-making with some sense of cama220px-Los_Angeles_Skyline_at_Nightraderie and connection that the Internet can’t replace.

But visual artists (like dancers, and theater folk) need space to do what they do. As rents rise — and bankers and hedge-fund guys, typically taxed less than artists) buy condos — they have to leave. How long will that take? “For sculptor Heath Satow, the answer is not long,” the Times article says. “He pays $3,900 a month for a roughly 5,700-square-foot warehouse at the neighborhood’s edge, but he knows that a gallery up the street pays three times as much. When he gets priced out — and he knows that day is coming — he said he’ll probably move somewhere with lots of cheap warehouse space, like Vernon.”

This story– which has hit even harder in San Francisco and Berkeley/Oakland — is being repeated all over the country.

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  1. says

    Note that I definitely want a review copy of your book when it comes out. You raise a very important issue.

    … but wrt the LA Times article and artist displacement, this is old news, at least in real estate subdistricts in strong real estate markets or with the potential to be strong markets.

    In 2009, I was part of a panel at the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas annual meeting, and I made a presentation (also a paper, recounted in my blog) that makes the point that artists and artist organizations can’t expect real estate interests to plan objectively for the interests of artists, that artistic disciplines need their own plans.


    The thing is that artists are “pretty independent” and aren’t likely to be interested in planning. So local governments and artist organizations and other stakeholders need to step up and do the planning, and create the mechanisms that can assist in the acquisition and management of property, because owning property is the only way to maintain artist presence in “arts districts” in strong real estate markets.

    It happens that over the past few months, I was writing a bunch of pieces on cultural district revitalization initiatives in many European cities, for an EU National Institutes of Culture initiative in Baltimore. So some of my thinking from 2009 has been updated, but the 2009 piece is still fully relevant.


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