Don’t Blame The Artists! Why Creatives Are Just Pawns In The Gentrification Game

Although they are often the first signs of gentrification, the artists that generated the value are also priced out soon thereafter.

By Jeff Vasishta November 10, 2016
Credit: Nigel Morris

There was a time when struggling artists and the poorly funded galleries that housed their work were largely left alone. Not anymore. With the line joining art and gentrification is so clearly defined, long term residents in some urban neighborhoods view the arrival of an art gallery with the same sense of fear as if the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse had ridden into town, intent of taking souls.

Related: Seedy Bars And Gentrification—The Opposing Forces At Work On Roosevelt Ave, Queens

“Residents see that the neighborhood is attracting more people who would have never come in here before. They see people who are interested in living here who can’t afford downtown looking to move here,” Betty Avila, the associate director of Self Help, a community rights group in LA told the NY Times.  “You have a community that is really frustrated and afraid of being displaced. The galleries are the most visible sign of change now, and you go after what you see. It’s not all art; it’s art that’s not for this community.”

Her angst is aimed at of Mihai Micodim’s gallery which, during a recent opening, was beset by masked marauders hurling potatoes. Earlier this fall, activists placed mock eviction notices in front of galleries and held up signs which read, “Keep Beverly Hills Out Of Boyle Heights.”

Residents’ nervousness is understood given that dozens of art galleries have opened recently in downtown LA which has experienced rapid gentrification.

In New York, the global poster child for gentrification is, of course, Williamsburg. Since it was de-industrialized in the 1980’s and 1990’s, artists started taking up residency in the empty lofts and warehouses, often jerry-rigging utilities. Their wares—murals, graffiti, often illegal, gave the neighborhood a cool, artsy feeling which then attracted other artists and “hipsters”.

Related: Parkchester, Bronx: The Place That Gentrification Forgot

The addition of trendy restaurants, bars and vintage clothing stores only increased the hipster aesthetic. It was at this tipping point, around a decade ago, that developers felt the area was far enough along to risk coming in and converting warehouses to condos. In the ensuing stampede, the artists who had originally moved in were displaced, putting the neighborhood out of the reach of most working New Yorkers. A win for the developers but a punch in the stomach for the creatives who helped turn it around. A different scenario to Boyle Heights, because in this case the artists were in many ways adopting the role minorities have in other neighborhoods.

What turbo charged Williamsburg’s gentrification was the fact that much of it was largely derelict or consisted of warehouses without an identifiable community. In other parts of Brooklyn, like BedStuy and Crown Heights, where an African American and Caribbean community has been entrenched for decades, gentrification is a slower process. Artists in illegal lofts are easier to displace than low-income minorities. Also whites, generally, are less comfortable with the idea of moving into a black neighborhood than a white neighborhood, no matter how derelict.


Jeff Vasishta



Jeff is a writer, husband and father but not necessarily in that order. As a music journalist he counts Prince, Beyonce and Quincy Jones amongst those he’s interviewed. He's also owned and flipped homes in Brooklyn, NJ, CT and PA.

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