Everyone, especially artists, are economic agents for deregulation and gentrification
In a dimly lit basement, at the end of meandering halls beneath the performance hall of the Rialto Theatre, an eclectic group of concerned citizens gathered to openly discuss the nexus of artists, real estate inflation and shifting cultural demographics.
Gentrification: The Role of Artists in Changing Neighbourhoods took place on Saturday, Sept. 29 as part of a collaboration between POP Montreal Symposium and Concordia’s Fine Art Student Alliance (FASA). The array of panelists included both artists and those who work with non-profit social housing organizations and as community organizers in neighbourhoods affected by gentrification.
Cathy Inouye, a musician who has fought against many issues related to housing and poverty for more than 10 years, opened her segment by saying that an important thing to remember when talking about gentrification is that human beings are losing their homes or being evicted from their apartments. Faiz Abhuani, the co-founder of Brique Par Brique, a non-profit organization whose mission is to create affordable living spaces for marginalized people, agreed.
“I think it’s important to start with that baseline,” he said. “The reason why we’re talking about this is because there are real effects on real people.”
Gentrification is a multi-faceted issue that “happens across the city, not just in areas where artists are moving,” Inouye said. Abhuani contextualized the historic development of gentrification with artists and the North American economic shift over the last century from industrial labour services to cultural forms of production.
“People thought: ‘I really need to be around the people I’m like’ … and ‘I need to be close to places where culture is produced,’” Abhuani said. He explained that this economic shift prompted those with sufficient financial means to migrate to urban centres. These ongoing demographic migrations, from a capitalist-marketing standpoint, continue to justify urban development in regions that push people from lower-income brackets out of their homes.
“The people who benefit from these changes and from these large economic forces are the people who have means,” Abhuani said. “And the people who don’t [have financial means] are the ones who end up biting the bullet [and] having to move around.”
In gentrification, the role of artists—in this case, referring to individuals with the social status and capital to make a career from their art—lies in the fact that mass migration to more affordable neighbourhoods creates economic speculation, explained Fred Burrill, a Concordia PhD student who currently works with local non-profit organizations to fight for the right to housing in Place St-Henri.
“[Speculation] is a very intentional, state-driven process of changing the ways that [housing] investment is configured,” Burrill said. Speculation increases the property value in a community, and the demographic shift brought by artists provides local governments with a marketable, discursive framework that justifies their desire for urban development in alleged “up-and-coming” communities.
According to Burrill, the goal of speculation is to “turn the housing market from something that is based on supply and demand to something that is essentially a concrete manifestation of the stock market.” He used Griffintown in Montreal as an example. “[Artists] are all actively part of an ideological apparatus that’s used to justify deregulation.”
Artists often positively frame their contributions to the cultural fabric of a neighbourhood as genuinely representative of that community and reflective of their deep connection to its residents. However, Abhuani said this is a dangerous mentality because artists with social status are able to sell this culturally appropriated art and capitalize on it, while those without esteemed social status cannot. “So, maybe you shouldn’t do that, number one. Number two, why are you [in that neighbourhood]?” asked Abhuani. “You’re not there in a vacuum … You’re not just trying to create. You’re not just trying to survive. You’re trying to get ahead.”
All of the panelists agreed that the presence of artists in low-income neighbourhoods brings systemic gentrification to the community through selective state investment in development projects because cities want to support cultural hubs. Although artists may also be affected by rental increases and have to leave the neighbourhood, Abhuani explained, many of them not only have the social capital to relocate, “but they like doing that; they want to be on the forefront [of living] in certain neighborhoods.”
Inouye shared an observation from when she lived in New Orleans as a tuba player in 2012. “You could really see the mostly white kids from New York or from San Francisco moving in,” she explained. “You could see this hunger that people had to kind of own that beautiful magic that exists in New Orleans, and you could see them really wanting to connect with the community that had been there—the community that had lived through Katrina … You could really see this process unfolding, and it was so similar to colonialism.”
Inouye added that while it isn’t bad to want to connect with a given community, it is necessary to keep in mind how different people occupy the space in that community and how social and physical capital change the way people interact with that space.
Most concerned artists will ask themselves, “What can I do, as an artist, to fight against gentrification?” which, Burrill explained, is the wrong question. Artists and people in general should simply ask what needs to be done, without placing the individual at the epicentre of change. While the panelists agreed that gentrification can be throttled through the acquisition of real estate and income disparity can be bridged by wealth redistribution, concrete plans to combat these systemic issues still aren’t being enacted.
Despite some differences of opinion between the panelists, they all seemed to agree that one of the first steps to combating gentrification is community mobilization. Burrill explained that there tends to be an element of individualism when talking about the housing market and gentrification, with arguments such as encouraging better knowledge of tenant rights to avoid eviction and to fairly rent out living spaces.
“What actually needs to happen is that we need to intervene collectively in the [housing] market,” Burrill said. This would entail the city buying empty lots, removing them from the realm of speculation and reserving them for social housing projects, he explained. That, or artists can literally make their neighbourhoods more ugly, he said as a joke. “Beautification of neighborhoods without collective intervention in the housing market is simply a tool of development.”
Main photo by Alex Hutchins