Talk About it Tuesday: 1.27


This Article is a repost from ArtPulse.

Do you agree with Miami being a place where there is hope in disrupting the cycle of gentrification? Let us know your thoughts.

Art vs. Real Estate. Gentrification and Urban Artistic Scenes

By James Lough

To avoid hearing about gentrification in U.S. cities over the last five years, you would have to live in a bomb shelter. In February, film director Spike Lee’s swear-word-studded rant against gentrification in Brooklyn went viral. Lee is only one in a series of well-known artists who have weighed in on the topic. Former Talking Head David Byrne recently wrote of Manhattan, “There is no room for fresh creative types. Middle-class people can barely afford to live anymore, so forget about emerging artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, journalists and small business people.” Patti Smith advised young artists: “Don’t move to New York.”

While gentrification displaces the poor and working classes, it is also a threat to young artists, more so than Joseph McCarthy, Jesse Helms or Tipper Gore ever were. It upsets a nearly 200-year-old tradition of artists and writers moving into cheap garrets in places like Paris’ Montmartre district, boarding houses in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, or apartments in San Francisco’s Mission and North Beach neighborhoods. Big, vibrant, tolerant cities offered cheap rent, freedom from staid bourgeois values, and the stimulating company of other artists.

Such urban bohemian enclaves have launched legions of revolutionary art movements: Impressionism and the armies of “isms” in early-20th-century Paris; Abstract Expressionism and the Beat movement in 1940s New York and San Francisco; and in the ‘60s through the ‘80s, Warhol’s Factory workers, punk rockers and the spirited Neo-Expressionist visual arts scene—just to name a few.

But it’s all over. For emerging artists without trust funds, these major cities with vibrant artistic pedigrees may as well post “No Trespassing” signs. We’ll explore gentrification’s effects on artists in five U.S. cities once known for being artist-friendly: Miami on the East Coast, and on the West, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland. We’ll look first at the cities where it’s nearly impossible for young artists of modest means to afford to rent apartments or studio space, and therefore are excluded from benefitting from the cultural stimulation, cross-pollination with other creative people and mentorship of mature artists—all factors essential for making an artistic scene. Then we’ll explore some cities where there’s still hope.

Manhattan’s gentrification hit full steam during the real-estate bubble in 2008. According to a CBS News study, a one-bedroom apartment runs, on average, $2,950 (1). The story of Manhattan artists flocking to Brooklyn for affordable living and workspaces is now passé. According to The New York Times, Williamsburg and Bushwick—two of Brooklyn’s hippest neighborhoods—are now too expensive for all except the well-heeled. An average bedroom in a Bushwick apartment runs $1,900 a month. As for trendy Williamsburg, its bartenders and baristas can’t afford it anymore. They commute from Queens, now Williamsburg’s bedroom community. Even some real-estate developers, too cash-strapped to buy Brooklyn property, are looking at Queens (2).

Spike Mafford, Framing Progress, 1988, 35”x36” (Portland).


San Francisco’s story is similar to Manhattan’s but with a high-tech flair. Employees of Google and Twitter are buying up the Mission District, a long-time home to a large Hispanic community and countercultural artists. Highly paid tech workers from Silicon Valley, 70 miles south, discovered San Francisco’s vibrant Mission was more attractive than San Jose. The black-windowed, private “Google buses” that ferry them between Silicon Valley and the Mission actually outnumber city buses in the Mission. The tech workers’ influx has spiked housing prices, crowding out artists and working-class families and replacing them with chic boutiques and hip, pricey restaurants.

San Francisco’s average one-bedroom apartment rents for $2,950 (3). The average rent per room in the Mission, according to SFGate, is $2,125 a month. In Haight-Ashbury, once the epicenter of the Summer of Love, the median home price is $1.14 million (4).

In a city known historically for its progressive outlook—think North Beach Beat poets and the ‘60s counterculture—conflict over gentrification and Google buses has been vicious. Demonstrations have erupted over the eviction of working-class families and increased police presence near posh new businesses. Protestors have blockaded Google buses, which use the city’s bus stops at taxpayer expense. According toSalon, it’s been hard to organize protests by the labor movement because so few laborers actually live in San Francisco anymore. After eviction, they move to the East Bay and must commute back into the city and their jobs (5).

Writer and cultural archivist D.S. Black moved to San Francisco in the early ‘80s, lucking into a rent-controlled two-bedroom apartment in the Mission. He paid around $625 a month. “I modestly named my place Mission Control,” he says. In the mid-‘90s, his landlady, chafing under rent control, tried to intimidate him into moving out, once claiming his many shelves of books were a fire hazard.

Around this time Silicon Valley tech workers were driving up Mission real-estate prices. “Anyone who follows the news of the street,” says Black, “knows that San Francisco is now beholden to the hyperthis and the cyberthat. The life I had in the Mission of genteel but low-rent bohemia is now a true ‘Mission Impossible.’” Black finally succumbed to the coercion and economic pressures. His 2010 rent, even under rent control, had reached $1,400, so he moved across the bay to Berkeley. He now pays $1,500 for an apartment around one-third the size of his Capp Street place, plus $500 to store the books his new place couldn’t hold.


Along with New York and San Francisco, Seattle’s gentrification seems to be a fait accompli. The city that launched a tidal wave of rock music by the likes of The Ventures, Jimi Hendrix, Heart and the massive grunge scene with bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, is too expensive for young musicians. According to the CBS study, an average one-bedroom apartment in Seattle runs $1,525 a month. Only 17 percent of its houses are priced lower than the median average (6).

According to gallery owner and artist Spike Mafford, Seattle’s gentrification, like San Francisco’s, came with the tech boom. And it’s not likely to slow down. Microsoft and Amazon continue to grow and plan to eventually add around 145,000 jobs. “The influx of the tech community and the dollars that go along with it,” he says, “will continue to transform the city for the next 10 years.” His gallery, Spike Mafford Photography, is now located in Magnuson Park, a converted U.S. Naval base—its fifth location. Every time his landlord raised his rent in his previous gallery spaces, he moved on, from Pioneer Square, to Ballard, to Belltown and then to Capitol Hill. At each new location, he did all the renovation required to utilize the space.

Gentrification affects more than artists, though, and Seattle’s gentrification has hit African Americans the hardest. According to the U.S. Census, in 1990, the black population of Seattle’s Central District was three times higher than the white population, but in only 10 years, whites outnumbered blacks, who were pushed to surrounding cities like Kent and Renton. Even so, in 2006, Seattle’s only African American mayor, Norm Rice, conceded that the gentrification was rooted in economics, not race (7).

Long-time Seattle resident Eli Hastings, an author and therapist, witnessed the process first-hand. Hastings, a white male, grew up and attended school in the Central District, then Seattle’s predominantly African American community. “At the time, things were really hairy. You had Crips and Bloods and crack cocaine. The neighborhood was not safe for anyone.”

Around 2000, gentrification encroached. Central District real-estate prices rose, drawing wealthier residents. Hastings is ambivalent about the changes, concerned that African Americans who don’t own property are powerless against big real-estate developers and affluent whites. Nevertheless, he concedes, some of the changes were positive. “When I was in high school, there was this deserted, dirty, dangerous vacant lot we cut through to get to a really down-at-the-heels supermarket,” he says. “The lot now is a Starbucks. And now there’s a nice supermarket there. So it’s tough to say that it’s entirely negative.”

Hastings’ ambivalence reflects a larger debate about negative and positive effects of gentrification. Pro-gentrification advocates cite improved living quality, cleaner streets and lower crime rates that “improved” neighborhoods provide their residents. But which residents? The neighborhood’s less-affluent residents can’t enjoy a neighborhood’s new amenities if they can’t afford the neighborhood. At the most basic level, the gentrification debate hinges on whether you see housing as a commodity, subject like all commodities to larger economic peaks and valleys, or whether you see affordable housing as a fundamental human right.

Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood, south of the Central District, has undergone a more typically “artist-inspired” gentrification. Georgetown was a more industrial neighborhood featuring factories and warehouses, since converted into lofts. “You’ve got your bars and lounges,” says Hastings. “You’ve got your import-beer shop. Xanadu Comics moved in. It’s very hipster now.” And yet it remains more affordable than most of Seattle, with the average home selling for $203,000.


Manhattan, San Francisco and Seattle are largely lost to young artists without means. As gentrification pushes young artists out of these fertile cultural ecosystems, it deprives them of the qualities only big cities can provide: creative collisions, encouragement and support of like minds, and mentorship. Studies show that people are more creative when densely clustered together in urban areas. Routinely encountering people of different ethnicities, social classes and worldviews exposes them to new ways of perceiving. The bigger the city, the more connections, the more creative they become. As a city grows, its occupants grow more productive (8), as measured by the number of trademarks and patent citations originating in the cities (9). An individual’s productivity is directly proportional to his or her city’s population.

So size matters, but it’s not everything. A city’s character also matters. The right city encourages free exchange of ideas, which relies on a city’s intellectual atmosphere, its open-mindedness and tolerance of difference. Often, institutions within the cities help provide this tolerance, institutions that appreciate, nurture and showcase artists and their work. Examples of such institutions are galleries, cafes with literary readings, performance venues like little theaters, concert venues like CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City, and even living spaces like New York’s Chelsea Hotel.


If New York, San Francisco and Seattle are out of bounds for most fledgling artists, there is hope in other cities. Two of them, Miami and Portland, are less populated, and the third, Los Angeles, is huge, covering a sprawling array of neighborhoods, some of which remain affordable.

Wynwood Walls. Miami’s Wynwood Art District. © Martha Cooper.


Since the launch of Art Basel Miami Beach in 2002, the city has experienced a renaissance of sorts. In response to Art Basel, dozens of smaller, satellite art fairs have mushroomed. And the 2013 reopening of Perez Art Museum Miami (formerly the Miami Art Museum) served as a capstone, the $131 million project securing Miami’s status as an arts city.

Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood, also known as “Little San Juan” or “The Barrio,” has in the last 15 years developed a lively arts and culture scene. The Wynwood Art District houses dozens of galleries and studios. In 2012, Forbes magazine put Wynwood in the U.S.’s 20 top “Best Hipster Neighborhoods.” While the average one-bedroom apartment in metropolitan Miami rents for $2,648 a month (10), in Wynwood the rents start as low as $1,100 (11).

Brook Dorsch, who has run Miami art galleries since 1991, bought a building in Wynwood in 2000 to house Dorsch Gallery. Around the same time, Martin Margulies opened the Margulies Collection at the Warehouse. Wynwood was still an industrial area with a few houses dotted between warehouses and old clothes factories. But artists followed Dorsch and Margulies, creating a scene of “probably 30 galleries in the area,” says Dorsch. “It began very organically.”

It wasn’t until 2004 that New York real-estate developer Tony Goldman noticed Wynwood’s artistic potential. He bought some two dozen properties for around $35 million, according to The New York Times (12). Goldman converted an old warehouse into the Goldman Warehouse, an exhibit space run by MOCA. He co-created ArtSeen, the New World School of the Arts public studio and performance space. With Jeffrey Deitch, he created Wynwood Walls, an outdoor mural display. He opened a restaurant, Joey’s, in order to increase street life (13).

Those skeptical of gentrification feel Wynwood’s growth has come at too high a cost. WLRN Radio’s Nathaniel Sandler sums up this view: “The neighborhood is changing in a way that people don’t really want it to, and almost becoming a cartoon version of itself.” Higher prices are forcing artists to move out, to be replaced by corporate banks and a Ducati dealership. Sandler, however, does not see this as a problem. Artists, he says, didn’t make Wynwood as much as the working-class Puerto Ricans, who arrived long before the artists. New businesses boost the economy, making it better for everyone. It’s all part of what Sandler says is “the greater narrative of the city’s constant and diverse growth (14).”

Dorsch concedes that the rapid construction of high-end apartments and condominiums drove many artists to move into poor and blue-collar neighborhoods like Little Haiti, home to predominantly black and Latino residents. Crime rates are high there, so it has been slower to gentrify. Little Haiti’s median home price is $266,617 (15). Nevertheless, since Little Haiti borders Wynwood, and real estate is affordable, it seems a prime candidate for young artists who are resilient to challenging living conditions.


Ironically, L.A.’s traffic-clogged sprawl turns out to have its perks. Gentrification in Los Angeles’ expansive metro area has been mellower than in San Francisco or Manhattan, where there’s no room to grow but up. Los Angeles’ average one-bedroom apartment rents for $1,740, just over half that of San Francisco’s (16). Forbes magazine named Silver Lake, in central L.A., the nation’s “Best Hipster Neighborhood.” Its artistic community—not precisely the same as its hipster community but overlapping it—has had moderate success gaining a modest foothold.

But an unlikely L.A. suburb has enjoyed a renaissance since 2005. Culver City, formerly an unhip, burned-out industrial warehouse zone, now sports wine bars, chic restaurants and over 20 well-attended art galleries.

“Culver City is full of shops and hipsters,” says James Daichendt, a professor and dean of performing and visual arts at Azusa Pacific University, who covers the L.A. art scene. “It has become quite a place to go out to eat, or even live now, which was unheard of before.”

Harley/Coagula Archives, Cody Critechelow Installation at Peres Projects, Los Angeles

Central sections of Culver City are nearly as expensive as West Hollywood or Venice, the median price of a three-bedroom home averaging around $750,000. The median rent runs between $1,100 and $1,400 per bedroom, only slightly more affordable than Brooklyn (17). But Daichendt says it depends on where you are. “It is still is affordable if you’re not in a good part of Culver City. There are still some industrial parts where there’s a lot of poverty, off the beaten track.”

Daichendt remains optimistic about L.A.’s creative scene. “What’s so different about L.A., compared to New York, is that it’s so spread out. There is no center to it. So the art community has developed in that way as well.” Culver City’s galleries show diverse work matching its diverse locale. “It’s incredibly exciting in terms of range. You have lowbrow, Juxtapoz-looking places like Thinkspace and Cory Helford. And then you have Blum & Poe, which has blue-chip artists like Murakami.” Daichendt acknowledges that Culver City may eventually price out young artists but counters that artists will simply find other, cheaper neighborhoods in the city where neighborhoods are legion.


Portland’s liberal city planners have wrung their hands over gentrification’s negative effects on the poor. An average one-bedroom apartment can run between $776 and $996 per month, depending on the part of town (18). But prices are rising.

According to Anna Griffin at, the planners use computer modeling to locate formerly low-income neighborhoods (St. Johns, Eliot and King) in the hip, mid-sized city that are attracting high-income gentrifiers. Their goal is not to stop gentrification but to limit its negative results, “to preserve economic and cultural diversity” in neighborhoods so “everyone enjoys the same quality of life regardless of zip code (19).”

This may sound like a pipe dream out of Portlandia, but specific policies—already tested in other cities—can prevent gentrification from running roughshod over poor and emerging artists. Tax subsidies can encourage poor homeowners to stay put. Cities can offer developers financial spurs to pepper new, expensive condo complexes with more affordable housing units. They can also hire working-class locals to build them.

But for Mike Phillips, musician turned tech entrepreneur, it’s too little too late. Having lived in Portland since 2004, he has recently relocated to less inspiring Vancouver, Wash., a Portland suburb just across the Columbia River. “I don’t consider myself an artist anymore. I got sick of having financial stress all the time.” Much of the stress was rooted in paying rent. “In 2008, I got a one-bedroom apartment, and the rent was $450. When I moved out in 2012, four years later, my landlord had jacked the rent to $700 a month. That probably doesn’t seem like that much money to people with normal jobs,” he says, but for an artist with a limited income, it was enough to propel him out of both Portland and the arts.

While Vancouver isn’t as stimulating as Portland, or as overrun by “well-to-do hipsters who can sit around in cafes all day,” as Phillips puts it, it is far cheaper. “In Vancouver, I could have a much nicer house for a fraction of the cost in Portland.” And Vancouver may itself be resurging. “For years, it’s been kind of this dumpy place where you walked around and you’d feel like you’re going to get stabbed,” he says. “But now they have nicer cafes and bars and restaurants.”

While living in Portland proved difficult for Phillips to sustain on his income, it’s still borderline affordable compared to the other cities featured here. Young musicians I spoke to there did, however, wonder how long it would last before they themselves would be forced to confront Phillips’ choice: stay in Portland and stay poor, move somewhere cheaper and continue to make art, or find a new career.


There is a prevailing attitude that claims gentrification is inevitable. Even Seattle artist and gallery owner Spike Mafford, after switching location five times to escape high rent, accepts the truism. “Gentrification is a natural part of expansion and growth,” he says. “You really can’t fight it.” But fighting gentrification, while not easy, is possible. A number of cities have done it. Rent-control laws, for example, protect poor and working-class people as well as emerging artists. Some lucky tenants in Manhattan still live in apartments with rents harkening back to the 1980s. But powerful real-estate interests find rent control anathema. Landlords do everything in their power to evict protected tenants, often making life miserable enough for them to leave on their own. Some cities have experimented with mixed-class communities, where zoning laws allow some gentrification alongside low-income housing, though these have proved less successful.

According to The New York Times, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Boston are freezing property taxes, so when house prices rise with gentrification, higher taxes don’t make it difficult for working-class people to live in their own homes. But this approach only helps property owners—those who rent have no such protection (20).

The old-fashioned system in which wealthy patrons sponsored emerging artists has survived in interesting permutations. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Bard family at the Chelsea Hotel, Hilly Crystal at CBGBs, and Mickey Ruskin at Max’s Kansas City provided the infrastructure where vibrant art, music and literary scenes were born. Let’s hope there will continue to be people in positions of power to take interest in artists and support their careers. And let’s hope young artists are resourceful enough to find their own ways.


  1. 1. “Top 10 priciest U.S. cities to rent an apartment,”, July 15, 2013.
  2. 2. “Costly Rents Push Brooklynites to Queens,” by Michelle Higgins. The New York Times, August 18, 2013.
  3. 3. “Top 10 Priciest…”, July 15, 2013.
  4. 4. “S.F. rents up more than 3 times higher than national average,” by Anna Marie Erwert, January 30, 2014.
  5. 5. “San Francisco’s rightward turn: Why it may no longer be America’s iconic liberal city,” by George McIntire,, February 16, 2014.
  6. 6. Gentrification and Financial Health by Daniel Hartley, (Federal Reserve 11-6-2013).
  7. 7. Henry W. McGee, Jr. “Gentrification, Integration or Displacement?: The Seattle Story,”
  8. 8. Luis Bettencourt et al., “Growth, Innovation, Scaling and the Pace of Life in Cities.” PNAS, vol. 104, No. 17, 2007.
  9. 9. Adam Jaffe, M. Trajtenberg, and Rebecca Henderson, “Geographic Localization of Knowledge Spillovers as Evidenced by Patent Citations,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 108 (1993).
  10. 10. <>
  11. 11. <>
  12. 12. Terry Pristin,“A SoHo Visionary Makes an Artsy Bet in Miami,” The New York Times, March 30, 2010.
  13. 13. Terry Pristin, Ibid.
  14. 14. “Wynwood is Dead: Long Live Wynwood” <>
  15. 15. <>
  16. 16. “Top 10 Priciest…”, July 15, 2013.
  17. 17. <>
  18. 18. <>


  1. 20. Timothy Williams, “Cities Mobilize to Help Those Threatened by Gentrification,” The New York Times, March 3 2014.

James Lough teaches nonfiction writing at the Savannah College of Art and Design in the writing department, which he formerly directed.His book This Ain’t No Holiday Inn: Down and Out at the Chelsea Hotel 1980-1995 was published by Schaffner Press in 2013. He is also the author of Spheres of Awareness (University Press of America, 2009) and Sites of Insight (University Press of Colorado, 2003), as well as over 70 articles, essays and short stories.

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