First It Was The Artists: The Myth Of “Nice” Gentrification In Art

At the Milwaukee Avenue Arts festival this past weekend, you didn’t see the work of visual artist Amie Sell. Although she was selected by curators at I Am Logan Square to install her site-specific work, her piece was removed before the gallery could open on June 27.

According to Sell, her work as an artist has explored the topic of house vs. home for several years. “As a life-long renter and person who has moved 24 times, the issue of affordable housing [is] near and dear to my being. What better place then the local neighborhood art festival to show my work?”

Although Sell’s submission was selected by MAAF curators to be shown in the gallery, her work was censored at the last minute. Her site-specific work incorporated public information regarding M. Fishman, Logan Square real estate tycoon and board member of I Am Logan Square, and focused on the displacement of 52 low income tenants at the recently acquired building at 2536 N. Sawyer Ave. According to Sell’s blog, “I was informed that Mark Fishman actually sits on their board and threatened to not open the space at all, which would have made the group show unavailable to the public.”

This story seems more than a little ironic. It is frustrating, infuriating, and encapsulates a confusion about how to navigate the topic of gentrification within our local artistic communities.

The common gentrification narrative that begins, “first, it was the artists,” is as whitewashed as the neighborhoods in question. As Salon writer Daniel José Older states, “[T]he unspoken but the understood word here is ‘white.’ Because, really, there have always been artists in the hood. They aren’t necessarily recognized by the academy or using trust funds supplementing coffee shop tips to fund their artistic careers, but … the presumptive, unspoken ‘white’ in the first round of artists gentrification narrative is itself an erasure of these artists of color.”

This is as true as ever in the West Side Chicago neighborhoods that are subject to 21st century urban pioneers, particularly in Logan Square, which was known for its vibrant artistic community long before white people began renting in the area.

In 2010, M. Fishman co-founded the non-profit I Am Logan Square alongside Ald. Ray Colon. A year later, lifelong resident José Gonzales started an open mic at the Nothin’ Less Cafe, formerly on Milwaukee Avenue. According to Gonzales, “I’m talking about everybody and anybody was at that open mike. I’m talking about hipsters, activists, artists, Latinos, Asians, Blacks–everybody. ‘Diverse’ isn’t the word. It was global, man. That was the best part of it.”

However, after only two years of operation, Fishman decided not to renew the lease of Nothin’ Less. Now Intelligentsia, a high end concept coffee retailer, is open in the same spot, an obvious testament to which types of local business owners are meant to find home in the new Logan Square.

While art may not be inherently implicit in gentrification, it can and certainly is instrumental in building high income communities. Just as Gonzales cofounded an open mic that was patronized by life-long Logan Square residents in a mom-and-pop coffee shop, Fishman engineered I Am Logan Square explicitly to attract new residents to the neighborhood. Artists have been complicit–and thereby supportive–in the process. Rather than supporting the the Nothin’ Less open mic, they watched it disappear from the storefront next door. Rather than defending Sell’s work, which called attention to displacement that happened just a block away, they censored it, in the name of their own artistic community.

Unfortunately, organizations like I Am Logan Square are far from being the first arts 501(c)3 complicit in the engineering of gentrification. In fact, some artists–like Theaster Gates–are engineering gentrification as an art form in and of itself.

In 2009, Gates started the Dorchester Project in Grand Crossing, a blighted neighborhood on the South Side. As local record store Dr. Wax prepared to go out of business, Gates decided to use private capital to acquire the store’s inventory in order to launch a “listening house.” Soon, Gates was able to acquire several more buildings–including an abandoned former low-income housing project–to create more cultural spaces.

The Dorchester Project is controversial, but also unique. Unlike Fishman’s real estate monopoly, Gates acquired already abandoned buildings. As opposed to Fishman’s intention of driving up property values, Gates wanted to create community spots that reflected the culture of the people already living there.

However, acquiring these buildings to create cultural spaces means they could not be used for housing or jobs. Using personal wealth to acquire a local business for the sake of art, however thoughtful, does questionable good for the pre-existing residents. In a TED Talk on the project, Gates states:

“Artists have the capacity, when we gather, to do what nobody else in the world can do. We can make out of a series of nothings, a series of abandoned buildings… things that people would discard. Artists have a way of connecting belief and ability and a willing to work at a thing longer than mosts would and create heat… wherever there’s heat, people want to be around it, and what we found is that people wanted to be wherever artists work. If artists could manage some of the cultural capital that we had, artists could be the real transformers of communities.”

The problem is, those buildings were not a series of nothings. They were homes and businesses. And meanwhile, just a few miles away in Bronzeville, the South Side Community Art Center, which was founded by black radical Dr. Margaret Burroughs in the 1940s, is run by a volunteer staff with a budget so small it does not even cover basic repairs.

It would seem that, although Theaster Gates is very much interested in restoring the neighborhood, it may not be for the benefit of a pre-existing community. As art historian Larne Abse Gogarty asks, “What does it mean when a project like Gate’s establishes a pipeline to profitable financial resources and a cosy relationship with the city’s reactionary mayor, Rahm Emanuel, just down the road?”

It may be unfair to pick on Theaster Gates when the problem of “feel-good money laundering” is so widespread. In fact, the hashtag #NiceGentrifiers has begun trending today, after writer Gloria Malone tweeted:

The tag continues:

So much of gentrification is labelled as good because we are quick to label our individual accomplishments as community-building. But what only benefits those of a certain class or race cannot truly benefit a community. When we talk about community building, are we talking about building over or alongside what has been there before? When we build cultural landmarks, are we helping pre-existing ones that have played an important role in local history–or building monuments to ourselves?

Perhaps most importantly, can we do anything about it?

Michelle Boyd, a professor at UIC, researched the neighborhood revitalization efforts of African American community members in Bronzeville. On the issue of what could be done for vulnerable, low-income residents who would be displaced by rising property values, she observed, “They needed affordable housing, employment, day care and an unchanging cost of living. Because of these different needs, revitalization means something different to middle-income homeowners than it does to those who rented or lived in public housing. … Because they [homeowners] are so in need of economic development, they are pushed toward strategies that prioritize their more privileged residents. They are constrained by the fact that, ‘for neighborhoods . . . there is nowhere worth going but up.’”

Perhaps we can begin by recognizing that “up” is not always the same direction for all people. When it comes to gentrification, one’s benefit is another’s threat. If artists can be conscious of the ways their goals and careers are complicit in community displacement, we can refuse to be compliant. Perhaps, instead, we can support the pre-existing artists and communities instead of demolishing theirs only to rebuild our own.

STEPHANIE LANE SUTTON is a poet, performer, and educator living in Chicago by way of Detroit. She has represented Chicago at three international slam competitions, including as a semifinalist at the National Poetry Slam in 2013. This article ends her June residency for Chicago Literati. You can read more about the project here, and all of the articles here.