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Detroit Art City

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Detroit Art City

Can hipsters and artists help revive the Motor City? January 12, 2016
Photo by Rick Harris

Back in the mid-1990s, when Galapagos Arts Space opened in Brooklyn, the borough was just beginning its artist-led transformation. Twenty years later, glittering high-rises adorn the Williamsburg riverfront and tower over the neighborhood’s clubs, galleries, studios, and bars. In 2013, Galapagos and its leader Robert Elmes wagered that artists could do for Detroit what they had done for Williamsburg. Now that bet is paying off, more dramatically than anyone could have expected. Galapagos purchased nine properties in the Motor City, including a 138,000-square-foot building in the Corktown neighborhood. The property was purchased for $500,000; today, it is back on the market with an astonishing asking price of $6.25 million. This is quite an achievement, and exactly what the city had in mind when it began aggressively courting writers and artists to relocate several years ago. Yet not everyone is happy with how things turned out.

Vince Carducci, publisher of the Motown Review of Art blog, writes that he has mixed emotions about the sale because he fears the profit motive is overtaking the cultural motive. He cited community backlash, including a t-shirt that reads: I PAINT IN MY KITCHEN. AT NIGHT. F**K OFF. The slogan was a response to a statement on the Galapagos website that read: “You can’t paint at night in your kitchen and hope to be a great artist.” Social media has also been alive with condemnation of the property’s sale. Some view Galapagos as guilty of a capitalist betrayal of artistic principles.

The criticism is unfair. Art is—and always has been—a key component in the economic health of cities. Amenities such as galleries and theaters—and the restaurants and bars that thrive alongside them—are a big reason why people live and invest in cities. This month, the Washington Post described Detroit as an emerging “food Mecca” where young chefs are free to experiment because of low rents. This means jobs, increased income for the city, and, frankly, the chance for a revival of civic pride.

So what’s the catch? Why are so many in the art world troubled by a rare piece of good news in a city that has been down for so long? The answer is simple: fear of gentrification. The term—teeming with implications about class and race—has become a boogeyman. It implies white hipsters invading minority neighborhoods, displacing the rightful residents with their crepes and modern adaptations of Molière. The gentrification question has led to nasty artistic infighting in Williamsburg’s next-door neighborhood, Bushwick. The trouble began when the Fuchs Projects gallery announced an event to celebrate Bushwick’s 200 most innovative residents. When some longtime residents and activists accused the event of being a racist example of “white colonization,” another gallery owner fought back. Ethan Pettit, a longtime proponent of artists’ positive impact on decrepit neighborhoods, lashed out against the naysayers. He argued, as he did in a recent TED talk, that artists “plant the seeds” for growth in urban areas. This led Rafael Fuchs to distance himself and his gallery from Pettit’s sentiments and eventually to cancel his event out of fears that it was fostering racism.

The legitimate root of this fear of artist-driven gentrification is that property values—and rents—increase when artists arrive in a neighborhood. Longtime residents get priced out (artists do too, eventually). But there is a key difference between Williamsburg and Bushwick. In Williamsburg, 40 percent of households own their housing, a number that was likely much higher when the gentrification began in the nineties. In Bushwick—where gentrification has been slow to take hold—only 35 percent of households own their units. Obviously, rising property values help owners and hurt renters. One can easily see why there would be pushback against rising rents.

In Detroit, 70 percent of households own their housing, so most residents stand to gain from dramatic rises in property values such as Galapagos’s Corktown windfall. In addition, boosting property values will swell the city’s tax base, creating new money for municipal services. Progressives and artists may see it as impure, but the artist-driven gentrification of Detroit is an objectively positive development for the beleaguered city. It’s important to remember that Galapagos Art Space had no guarantee of such staggering profit when it relocated to Detroit. At a time when few businesses were willing to take a chance on the city, Galapagos did. It wasn’t just a beneficiary of gentrification; it was an engine for it. Meanwhile, it’s reasonable to expect that much of the profit from the sale will go back into Galapagos’s other eight arts spaces—and its programming.

Just as some look back with fondness to the crime-ridden New York City of the 1980s, there are those who prefer Detroit’s “authentic” blighted ghettos to a “whitewashed” urban future. This is a naïve and dangerous attitude. There is nothing authentic about poverty and crime; they are conditions to be overcome, not celebrated. And if artists can help to overcome them, we should not blush if they also happen to make a few bucks. There is an important lesson in all of this for government as well. Far too much of government spending on the arts goes to supporting programming. Winners and losers are chosen among existing arts organizations by donors and direct government grants. Too little attention and funding is directed at infrastructure. Detroit made itself an attractive destination for artists; this should be used as a model across the country.

Hipster artists are targets of mild derision across our culture, even among themselves. The white belts, beards, and bespoke brownies are easy to poke fun at. But behind all the laughter and parody lies an important truth. They are risk-takers and good citizens of their adopted communities. Like it or not, Detroit can’t be reborn unless people with means want to go and spend money there. That includes a couple going out for dinner and a show, and developers dropping millions on property worth thousands only a few years ago. Galapagos Arts Space should be proud of what it has done. Anyone who cares about the future of Detroit should be grateful.

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