The discussion of introducing the arts community as a process to gentrification seems to have taken an intellectual turn in many places in Baltimore. In doing so it misses the practice and process of how urban communities change, and why. The bottom line is that city government and their private partners do not care how they make a profit, just that they do. These partnerships perfectly fulfill the needs of the individual partners: private wants more power and public must appear to be addressing the issues of the city, economic development being a major one as decades of disinvestment in people and place loom large. So choosing ‘arts to gentrification’ as the means to the end of ‘profit and power making’ mixes well, like rice and beans.
Right here in Baltimore we are facing ‘arts to gentrification’ with the Station North Arts and Entertainment district. Similar to other gentrification projects in Baltimore it started with a plan from the powerful stakeholders, Maryland Institute College of Arts and city government more than 10 years ago. I remember when now-deceased long-time activist Dennis Livingston, a resident of the area, tried to organize local community groups about a plan to counteract the un-official talk of a city-wide plan to gentrify the area. The local community had not heard directly from their representatives of this new plan but talk was out there and on the ground people were scared that they would be displaced. This of course was the mostly low-income and of-color communities included in the 90-acre gentrification plan (including Charles North, Greenmount West, and Barclay Communities, Penn station, and MICA). He was already seeing the speculators swarming into the area unchallenged by city government. Besides setting up speculators for future asset growth, such predatory real estate practices only serve to drive a community more into abandonment as they buy and board while waiting for the change in the market forces to come. Still they are not the cause of gentrification but a cog in the wheel. The cause is the hierarchical governmental structures that make plans and deals with universities, developers, non-profits and wealthy friends and colleagues who are assured major profits and greater power from the eventual change in the neighborhood.
Some 10 plus year later, the Station North Arts district continues its slow process of gentrification. Pizza sold on North avenue is not affordable to the historic low-income people, not to mention the new restaurants opened this past year on Charles-but they are affordable to the incoming artists community and the higher-income community the area seeks to attract. While affordable housing for artists have been built, no signs or concrete plans of affordable housing for general residents of the area have materialized. The directing body of the gentrification process has received criticism for this planned gentrification and responded by surveying the existing community and inviting comment on future plans. This is a start to engaging residents and existing businesses even while existing businesses continue to seek opportunities for ownership of historic structures and real control of how development will occur. But what seals the current state of gentrification in the area is the comment from a white gentleman in a wheelchair one recent cold January night. He was sitting slightly aside from a group of mostly white young people standing outside a venue on the first western block of North avenue. As we walked past the crowd and passed in front of him, he looked up at us with fearful eyes and a grimaced mouth saying, “I’m scared of all these white people moving in”. The friend walking next to me responded “me too”. I simply nodded my head acknowledging some understanding. He felt a connection with two people of color who didn’t appear to be new residents or visitors but a part of the old. He did not ask us for money but he asked us for another form of support. He was a white man from the old neighborhood fearful of the new white and other racial/ethnic groups that were moving into his neighborhood. He was fearful of the ‘other’ he perceived as replacing him and others like him. And he thought we would understand his plight. We did.
We understood that he worries about where he will live in the next years; whether he can afford the food and the merchandise that will soon replace what was there. He lived in a community most would consider lacking and disposable. He worries and his health takes a toll. A toll that will not be measured by the late surveys 10 years after the fact. We worry because we know that the stress of his worries will contribute to the unequal illnesses and early death documented for communities of lower income and color.
Not unlike the movement in the Netherlands and Germany where artists refused to be used by the government for gentrification purposes the incoming and existing artist community must organize and take a stand. They must build bridges with the larger existing community and demand that affordable housing for all is built, local businesses can remain, new businesses do not discriminate against them through pricing, and employment is mandated for local residents in all new businesses (perhaps a Community Benefits Agreement with Implementation (CBAwI) may be a working model). If this is not done, like the current John Hopkins gentrification project in East Baltimore (Hopkins/EBDI/Casey East Baltimore redevelopment project), the Station North Arts project will continue to be another development seeking to displace and dispossess our most vulnerable while growing continued wealth and health disparity between the rich and the poor. This is the practical and purposeful outcome of ‘arts to gentrification’.
Are you there Lord Baltimore – Olivia Robinson