Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Art of Gentrification

Yesterday, I walked by the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (CHAW) and saw that, below a banner advertising summer camp, there was a banner thanking a real estate agency and another banner thanking an area bank for donating money to CHAW. Let me state that I love CHAW, which taught me to draw and paint and introduced me to a wonderful community. At the same time, these banners suggest a convergence of the interests of the arts community with those of real estate and finance. Does this convergence come at some cost to the arts community and/or to Ward 6?

In 1972, CHAW began by offering art courses at local churches. CHAW then moved into its current location, at 7th and G St SE, in 1980. It is interesting that the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, which has always counted real estate agents and bankers among its members, opposed
CHAW's application in 1978 to use this space, while the ANC supported the application:

"The Capitol Hill Restoration Society voted to oppose the application on the grounds that the four parking spaces would not be adequate, and that the school would create noise and traffic congestion in the residential area." (DC Register Sept. 29, 1978)

In the 1970s, the role of artists in communities was in transition, as discussed by Vanderbilt University sociologist Richard Lloyd. Even as late as 1976, political scientist Daniel Bell argued that artists were a threat to the economic order. More bohemian artists had long criticized the wealthy and
capitalists, as well as mass culture, often understood as epitomized by the suburbs. Bell thought that the 1960s counterculture lifestyles had infiltrated American society and might undermine our economic system. Viewing CHAW artists as threatening mainstream society with their counter-cultural lifestyle and politics, as well as their "non-profit" community art school, might explain the decision of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society to oppose CHAW's request at first.

However, as Brooklyn College sociologist Sharon Zukin explains, some middle-class professionals during the 1960s were drawn to the art world and artistic lifestyles. Artistic knowledge of and taste for counter-culture art also became new forms of status. In New York City, the city government and real estate developers specifically targeted these groups as the new residents for loft developments. According to Richard Lloyd, artists in Chicago created an environment conducive to a new kind of economy based around culture, aesthetics, and the arts, replacing the earlier, more rigid Fordist economy and the traditional working class. (Columbia University sociologist Saskia Sassen has argued that "global cities" worldwide have made this shift away from production and the working class towards a cultural and service economy, which manages production that now functions on a global scale.) In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the real estate and financial industries, as well as city governments, realized that the arts could be mobilized to bring more wealthy individuals into cities and increase returns on real estate investments. They thus realized that the arts could be used to gentrify cities.

In their 1984 article "The Fine Art of Gentrification," Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan argue that this convergence of interests involved serious costs. In New York's Lower East Side and East Village, artists created an edgy world of galleries, which inflated rents and pushed out the poor. Many of these poor had once been the working classes, who were further impoverished by Reagan's cuts in social services and educational spending. Father Joaquin Beaumont, the vicar for the Lower East side, noted how close they were to the financial district, where many worked: "I'm sure they would love to live closer instead of commuting to the suburbs every day. I think the plan is for the middle class and upper class to return to Manhattan. That's the gentrification process. It's so unjust. Those with a lot of money are playing with the lives and futures of people who have so little hope." Many artists (not all!) and the art world refused to discuss their complicity in this gentrification and immiseration, but rather perceived it as positive and inevitable.

Are there costs for the arts in Ward 6? This question requires more research, but here are some thoughts:
  • CHAW does a great job including children from all over the Hill by busing them from school to CHAW, providing scholarships for those who can't pay, etc. This is a good example of the way that the arts can bring together people. However, as discussed in an article on an arts festival in a gentrifying area, people in the community appreciated art, but the festival was perceived as a "white" event and as an attempt by more wealthy residents to take control of places. For adults, how might the arts bring together truly diverse communities or imagine new ways of being together?
  • CHAW teaches a certain kind of adult art based primarily in realism and do not follow contemporary trends or local trends in art. What are the politics of such realist art? Is part of the role of art to help us develop new ways of seeing the world? To make the invisible visible? I know that I look at figure drawings and watercolors with different eyes now, but can art make my community visible to me in new ways too?
  • What was CHAW arts education like in the 1970s? What did the CHAW founders like Sally Crowell envision CHAW? Is today's arts education different?
  • What do CHAW instructors and staff think about CHAW's connections with the real estate and financial industries? Is there a cost to this convergence of interests?


  1. With respect, Ward 6 is not SoHo. The only professional artists involved with CHAW are the handful who have part-time teaching jobs there.

    DC is inhospitable to artists due to a lack of appropriately-priced studio work space. The few token artist "live-work" apartments cannot fill this need, and they require annual salaries nearly double the earnings of most area artists. Cynical landlords enter into these agreements as a pretence of "public benefit" and to avoid having to provide workforce housing for the working poor.

  2. Is it really fair to construct your argument around the signs at one moment in time, when they rotate every month? As I recall Gingko Gardens was a sponsor, a design firm of some kind (as in advertisement products I think) and maybe an Architect? I suppose these could all fall into your gentrification argument.

    There's pretty much a core of companies that advertise on signs like these - whether it's CHAW or school fundraisers, or the banners on area sports field supporting Sports on the Hill and things like that. Are you concerned about the convergence of interests in public schools also? Would you make the same arguments about the sports.

    Is there any evidence that CHAW changes its programming to get this advertisements? Or, is the programming responding to demand. I suppose you could make an argument that they are responding to demand. But, do you know what kind of efforts they've made to other parts of the community?

  3. Johanna!
    Hey, Just ran into your site. Really awesome work.

    I've been working on a film for the past 6 months about communities that are within 10 blocks of the US capitol building. The crux is ostensibly that certain communities, that lay in close proximity to these monuments of American achievement/potential/dreams/economic freedom/etc... offer in their realities, a pretty harsh and leveling critique.

    Would love, if you were interested, to talk to you at some point about your experiences/thoughts on your neighborhood.

    an early edit of the film can be found at my website...

    under the title '10 blocks'

    hope you're well and staying cool in this crazy heat!
    mark strandquist

  4. Hi Mark,
    Thanks for contacting me. It would be great to talk:

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