A Letter to Artists in Every State’s “New Brooklyn”

I really love your cool art. But you’re setting in motion some terrible consequences.

I got high the other day. On, okay, pizza.

It was from Roberta’s in Bushwick, a neighborhood in Brooklyn. It was so good that I told the server it was like making love to a tomato. But my high didn’t just come from the pizza. It also came from being at hipster ground zero. The man I sat next to at a long dinner table, whom I’m sure I’ve seen in a movie, sported a mustard yellow corduroy jacket, a massive ginger fro and lots of exposed chest hair.

Bushwick was named the “coolest place on the planet” by The New York Times. Walking through its art studios and coffee shops and massive vintage clothing stores, I felt cool too.

But that feeling was fleeting. Its Wikipedia page begins “Bushwick is a rapidly gentrifying .” Wait, “gentrifying”? As in, artists move into the ghetto because of cheap rent, create a buzz, and investors follow them, buying and fixing up dilapidated houses and apartment buildings. Rents are then jacked up, forcing the native residents to leave behind the streets they grew up on and the relational networks they’ve developed so that a horde of young professionals can swarm in like a plague to feed on the old brownstones and walkable neighborhoods.

Well, that’s depressing.

And Bushwick isn’t just gentrifying, it’s rapidly gentrifying. I did a little digging and I found out that between 2013 and 2014, the price of townhouses rose 86%. Last fall, apartment rents increased by almost 1/3 in just one month!

Also, while I was doing my research, I noticed that Google’s first two suggestions for internet searches related to “Bushwick NY” were “crime rate” and “safety,” which was surprising. It turns out that besides coolness, Bushwick also has a reputation for street violence, which hasn’t improved despite all the artistic expression and economic growth.

I feel connected to Bushwick’s story. For the past decade, I’ve lived and worked in “the scary part” of Worcester, Massachusetts, a city that may in fact be in the early days of its own artistic revival. Some call Worcester “the new Brooklyn,” since our inexpensive housing and commercial spaces are starting to draw young artists away from Boston and its astronomical cost of living.

Let me be clear, I love that so many creative and entrepreneurial people are setting up shop in my town. I visit every new cafe/bakery/geek-on-their-mac spot that opens. I love the local craft beers! Life is good here in Worcester!

Except for lots of people for whom it's not.

The other day I helped my friend look for an apartment in my area, and I was shocked to see that rents had nearly doubled from just a few years ago when I was looking myself. A third of the kids in my neighborhood are living below the poverty line, and statistically they are twice as likely to end up in jail as in college by age 24. Even if they beat the odds and become fully employed adults, current housing trends dictate that—when the day comes for them to find their own home—they’ll likely be forced to move far away from their families (much like the long-term residents of the Mission District in San Francisco did when the techies took over). Additionally, even with the visible improvements in my area ($1.5 million was recently invested in the city park next to my home), as in Bushwick, violence is still what we’re known for and is getting worse.

I wonder if there’s a link between the good and the bad in Bushwick and Worcester, if the same things that make Bushwick the “coolest place on the planet” are also the things that force out lifelong residents and hand a teenager a gun. Does the massive economic growth in gentrifying neighborhoods also hinder efforts to improve their social problems?

My guess? You bet. The greater the artistic vibe of a community, the worse off the about-to-be-former residents are. In her mega-influential The Death and Life of Great American Cities, author and activist Jane Jacobs describes the “high-rent tenants” that move into rehabbed homes as “transient” and uninterested in joining native residents in providing community surveillance, which to her is the main deterrent to crime and violence. In other words, gentrifiers are more prone to “the bystander effect,” depicted in this chilling video.

Clearly these problems are complex. But I’m writing to you artists rather than to the landlords or the young professionals or the local politicians because you are the de facto leaders of this process, and you have an important role in the solution. Most artists I know do care deeply about problems like gentrification. But once in a while I wonder if an “art for art’s sake” ethos—or, given how hard it is to make a living as an artist, “art for my sake”—had crept in. It’s easy to focus on the problems you face as an artist, but in doing so you might be selling yourself and your art short.

Mother Teresa once said that her life’s work was doing “something beautiful for God.” I think the “for God” part is key. Her art—loving and caring for the poorest of the poor—was in service to her higher power. Joseph Campbell, an atheist, took a similar view, writing that “an object becomes aesthetically significant when it becomes metaphysically significant,” which is a highfalutin way of saying that meaningful art connects people to something higher than itself. The 19th-century Scottish master storyteller, George MacDonald, pitched art “for goodness’ sake,” saying that true art helps, makes a difference, serves a greater purpose than self-expression or personal profit. It inspires, transforms, heals, empowers, loves.

In the context of gentrification, to be blunt, it gives a shit about the people who are being exiled from their homes in your community.

Look, I’m aware that artists often have to focus on what’s happening inside of themselves to be able to produce great and honest art. So maybe this idea of making art for a higher purpose sounds like propaganda to you. Campbell himself calls sociological art “didactic pornography.”

But I don’t think that’s so. When you produce great art in or associated with an inner-city neighborhood, whatever your intentions, it actually functions as commercial art. Your art becomes an advertisement for investors to come in and kick out the poor people.

And there’s a good chance you’re next in line to get kicked out. It’s happening in Williamsburg, the poster child for Brooklyn gentrification, where “higher rents have driven many priced-out bohemians and hipsters to find new creative communities further afield in areas like Bushwick.” A prime example is The Trash Bar. For the past ten years it was the venue for musicians trying to get their start in Brooklyn. Unable to keep up with the rising rent, it was forced to close its doors this summer (with hopes to re-open in, yes, Bushwick at some point).

Even those with good working-class jobs are finding it difficult to live in cities. A 2010 report by the Urban Land Institute says, “Between now and 2020, the Boston metropolitan area market will face an additional shortage of nearly 11,000 [housing] units, leaving many of the region’s teachers, firefighters, nurses, and other workers vital to the area’s economy priced out of the market.”

Even those in the next financial tier up aren’t safe. As the Onion satirically puts it, “The recent influx of exceedingly affluent powder-wigged aristocrats into the nation's gentrified urban areas is pushing out young white professionals, some of whom have lived in these neighborhoods for as many as seven years.”

If what we see overseas is instructive, it could get worse. With some governments starting to question their energy subsidies, the poor bear the burden of high fuel costs and lengthy commute times as they travel from more affordable outlying areas into the city for work. Many cities have obscene prices for parking spots. (Spaces in Manhattan are being sold for up to $1 million.) It doesn’t seem crazy to expect that the super-wealthy will completely take over the cities.

So it’s an overwhelming problem. But I wonder if you, my artist friends, could start with some small steps that may turn out to be not so small. Is it possible, for instance, that just looking for opportunities to help your neighbors in everyday practical ways could make an impact? You might pick up the trash around your neighbor’s cans, make meals for a family with a new baby, or volunteer to do whatever is needed at a local nonprofit. If nothing else, these small, caring acts may benefit you. I’ve seen generous people receive generosity from those they’ve helped (like in this heartwarming video). I’ve also seen generous people receive the elusive experience of true happiness in return (like in this heartwarming video).

But what I really hope to see on a big scale is something I’ve already seen on a small scale, a whole community becoming generous (as seen in this pay it forward-esque video). Living in this kind of community has plenty of benefits, most surprisingly for our physical health. The “Roseto Effect” is named after Roseto, Pennsylvania, which Dr. Stewart Wolf brought into the national spotlight for its abnormally low rates of heart disease (and crime), despite the seemingly unhealthy lifestyles of its residents. The only factor that Dr. Wolfe could find to explain their surprising healthiness was their tight-knit and caring community. Dr. Wolf’s conclusion was that “people are nourished by other people.”

So start there! But artists also have gifts that can help people in unique ways. Check in with your muse or higher power or God and consider how you can match your strengths with a need that you see. Frederick Buechner wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.”

I think of The Blues Brothers, the original hipsters, who found their mission through a spiritual experience that inspired them to put on a fundraising concert to pay for the back taxes of an inner-city orphanage.

Here in Worcester, some artist friends started a youth arts camp called Main IDEA where they teach kids in our area who otherwise would not be able to take art classes. Another group of friends that grew up here—but had the education and talent to go all around the world—returned to open up Nine Dot Gallery, an art studio that focuses on working with and supporting local nonprofits and on giving a stage to marginalized voices in the art world.

Ultimately these folks hope to help bridge the socioeconomic, ethnic and gang divisions that are killing people in our neighborhood. (Shout out to Kendrick Lamar’s use of rap and fashion to do the same.)

These non-material benefits matter. When I talk to my friends who are using their creativity to make the world a better place, they don’t describe their experience in the way that I talk about Roberta’s pizza. It’s not a momentary feeling like being high or having an orgasm. It’s deeper. It’s longer-lasting. It’s personal. It’s relational. It puts you in touch with something greater than yourself and frees you from the prison of your own life.

And, yes, you could make art with a message.

Hillary Clinton recently told my friend Julius Jones, in regards to #blacklivesmatter, that we must focus more on changing government policies than on changing people’s hearts. I can see how, as a politician, she’d think that. But I don’t think it’s an either/or. Yes, it’s important to lobby for rent-control policies, subsidized housing and community land trusts to stop gentrification, but what I think we really want realized is Martin Luther King’s “Beloved Community.” That won’t happen through an act of government, but through acts of love.

Artists, you can use your art to influence those most directly causing gentrification in our towns: the wealthy investors and developers. Awaken them to love and care for the people in your community, even beyond the money they hope to make. Motivate them to use their money to help create jobs, better schools and safer streets, not as a means of making the area more attractive to outsiders, but because they want to improve the lives of those already living there. Be like It’s a Wonderful Life and show them how awesome it would be to not only keep their rents affordable, but to empower their renters to become homeowners (which may be the greatest way to improve the social problems of a neighborhood). Maybe your art can spark investors to be George Bailey rather than Henry Potter. Maybe you can inspire all of us to greatness the way the poem “Invictus” inspired Nelson Mandela.

So I’m writing to all you wonderful artists in these formerly industrial Massachusetts cities like Worcester, Lowell and Fitchburg; plus all of you tucked away in great gritty northeastern cities in the midst of being reborn like West Philly, D.C. and Bushwick, and even to you in far-away places that are seeing artist-led renaissances like Asheville, Austin and Oakland. (There’s now a Brooklyn-like community in every state in America.)

Don’t just make your city the new Brooklyn. Be better! Be a city that values and keeps your low-income neighbors, not a city that offers to sell them a tofu smoothie on their way out of town.

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