Do Artists Cure Blight, Or Are They Just Risk Oblivious?
In their 2000 book Suburban Nation - The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, America's most controversial and celebrated town planners quoted William Kraus and his three market segments that pioneer urban development. Leading the way was the "Risk Oblivious." The descriptive elements attached to this group include artists and college students typically "...not well served by finished units with separate bedrooms but by lofts, which are large, tough, inexpensive, yet easily converted to yuppie housing upon the arrival of..." our second market segment "the risk aware." This second segment unfailingly leads to the arrival of the third and final market segment, the "risk averse" aka the suburban middle class.
America has several urban examples that support this thesis. In New York we have Soho and Williamsburg and here in Los Angeles we can point to Echo Park (segment 1), Silver Lake (segment 2) and Los Feliz (segment 3). In her recent article for the Wall Street Journal, Ms. Alexandra Alter notes that, "Artists have long been the leaders of and urban vanguard that colonizes blighted areas." She goes on to suggest, "the current housing crisis has created a new class of urban pioneer."
Cities that have been deeply affected by the one-two punch of blue-collar job losses and a collapsing housing market have turned to the creative class to resolve the problem. From Cleveland to Paducah, Detroit to St. Louis, cities and other arts based non-profits have joined to both lure artisans and in doing so help themselves. But the strategy is not without it's flaws. Dana Cuff, UCLA professor from the urban design think tank cityLAB, suggests, "Artists have had the affect of gentrifying neighborhoods that were working for the existing communities." Another issue is raised when the initial pioneers are pushed out of their own success.
In 2004 Ms. Jennifer Mena wrote an article about the fits and starts associated with the Santa Ana Artists Village and the emerging growing pains as arts pioneers faced the threat of rising rents and their slipping foothold on the areas direction. In the article Planning Commissioner Don Cribb describes the city officials as "risk averse" and guilty of getting in their own way. Arguing that developers and city planners were not doing enough to help keep the arts mavens in business one group complained, "the city totally ignored us." In his defense, developer Mike Harrah declared his right to make a profit noting "he has run the building with a $10,000 monthly deficit for three years."
As we look for ways to help ourselves grow out of the pains associated with the housing downturn, we will undoubtedly find courageous pioneers willing to test the unknown if the price is right. Once there, those trailblazers will be met with the responsibility that comes with success and active participation. We all benefit from awareness of the arts, but for now let's just be glad that someone is still oblivious.