Uh Oh! Here Come the Artists

(Ruminations on Art, Race, and Gentrification)

“The larger the amount of money that flows to the poor apart from relationship, the more likely the givers are to be supporting systems that caused the injustice in the first place.” David E Fitch, Faithful Presence

gentrification in progress

The relationship between art and gentrification has become so fraught that when some communities see artists moving in, they start a mental countdown clock to their eventual ejection. The scenario plays out in too many variations, from New York to Detroit, to ignore it. Indianapolis has seen small iterations of such transformation in Fountain Square, sending a ripple of fear through different communities not wanting to see the same story repeat.

People rarely agree on the definition of gentrification, often falling back to something analogous to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s characterization of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” However, to paraphrase Ruth Glass’ original definition of gentrification, it’s when the original occupiers of a neighborhood become displaced and the whole social character of a neighborhood soon changes. As WildStyle Paschall puts it, “GENTRIFICATION is when development causes property taxes to go up so high that homeowners can’t afford it and leave. But its NEVER that simple.” While he does on to describe the collusion between predatory property taxes and out of state speculators, there are other aspects to look at. 

The story of gentrification begins when someone—be they artist, developer, business person, city official, or community stakeholder—an area of town that has been abandoned by the middle class and forgotten by the city. They declare that area of town dead or in need of renewed attention. This declaration of death is critical because with nothing of value seen/apparently going on in that area, they can move in and take possession of the land. They can displace natives and change the neighborhood for the better for use by the new/future residents. It is urban colonization under the polite guise of redevelopment, renewal, or revitalization. Words mean things: redevelopment, renewal, and revitalization imply that a place was undeveloped, broken, and dead, all with the tidy bonus of labeling those still living there as the problem rather than the people, businesses, and political forces who fled the area in the first place. By those same people, businesses, and political forces now “discovering” that place, gentrification becomes neocolonialism.

This goes a long way to explaining why some people panic when they see the gentrifying pioneers—artists, college students, and young professionals on the rise—moving in. They know that as long time residents, they are reduced to neighborhood flavor. They can only watch as the character of their neighborhood metamorphosing into something unrecognizable, like a series of cafes and breweries. Residents get caught either by being long term renters with no set financial footing in the neighborhood (read: easily displaced) or get priced out due to higher property taxes (rather than have clauses in place to protect them).

The problem with the “artists” in this scenario is that too often they are privileged, well-intended, naive people with savior complexes. Though they bring excitement and attention, with a mission to beautify, the key thing to remember is that they come in from the outside. They define what’s beauty and art by imposition. They paint new stories on the canvass of the old neighborhood. And they forget the people, at best; or see them as objects to an end, at worst. By being imported in, the message sent to that community is that “we don’t know you, we don’t value you, and we have a better way of doing things.”

Such artists don’t stop to ask what a community’s capacity to beautify itself (read: they don’t talk to residents). Ideas, visions, and priorities are heard differently when they come in from the outside rather than from within the community. Whether such artists realize it or not, they cut the neighborhood from its history, heritage, and legacy (read: disconnect the residents). Whether they operate out of such naivete or simply without guiding principles, they risk becoming opportunists whose sole mission is to chase grant money and recognition.

In turn, the arts collective becomes a pawn for those with the power to gentrify. Developers invest in communities while their political partners in local government provide incentives. They target black, brown, and poor white communities—all of whom have being disenfranchised, marginalized, and impoverished in common—not bothering to talk to the community residents. For the sake of short term profits, neighborhoods along with their history and culture become the collateral damage.

As a city, we quietly balk when we have too much investment by foreign nations. We recognize the dangers of someone coming in from the outside and staking financial claims where we live. We know that whoever controls the purse strings, whoever can call in debt markers, has the real power. Yet we fail to see the irony of that being played out in neighborhoods facing down such unchecked development.


Keep in mind the history of how many of those communities were formed. Some were displaced by previous development (see the construction of IUPUI). Some grew up in the shadow of segregation (see the history of America). Some were settled as African American migrants sought increased opportunity and/or escape from racial violence (again, see the history of America). The repeated forces of segregation, red-lining, and neglect by local government come together as the familiar backdrop to the gentrification conversation.

History has repeatedly shown that race, class, and power (economic and political) if combined poorly only leave destruction. Similarly, few like to point out the class and race divisions within art. Art is a tether to elitism, with arts collectives seen as white producers for white consumers. As such, the conversation shifts from “what is art?” to “who’s art is it?” But art can also work to unite. It can pursue social justice across race and class lines, questioning social constructs from privilege to supremacy. If an arts collective is not interested in being part of the community, if it’s not interested in working with the community, then it’s just there to change it. Change it into something they are comfortable with, which, unsurprisingly, looks like a reflection of themselves.

Development shouldn’t equal destruction. Investment in community done well releases the power of the residents, reminds them of the power they already have. In order to have a good reputation in the community, artists, and more importantly those who fund them, need to have a shift from what Reverend Mike Mathers of Broadway United Methodist Church calls a “master” mindset to a “servant” mindset.

A master mindset moves with the arrogance that “we have the answer.” In practice, it looks like them showing up uninvited to bring art to beautify a neighborhood as if no one in the neighborhood has the capacity to do so themselves. A master mindset “rebrands” a neighborhood to attract a new or wealthy demographic. This is why even the simple act of branding/naming is important. Every person wants the power to identify themselves because there is inherent power to the namer. Masters name. The namer has authority over those named so naming becomes political and re-naming becomes erasure.

Under a servant model, a person asks “how can we support what you’re already doing?” A servant follows the community. Servants serve. Servants go do the research and asks questions of their neighbors. They go and talk to everyone within the first few blocks around them and begin to build trust equity. They tap into the creativity and passions of the people within their community rather than just bring in more people like them.

The problem isn’t engagement, it’s the process. Just as “game recognizes game,” in the chase of grants “money recognizes money.” Arts collectives suffer mission drift and identity loss as they write grants about places they’ve never been to work on people they don’t know. As they mount projects more about glitz and glamour to get their name in the paper in order to get more funding. If there are no guiding principles beyond chasing money, the door to gentrification opens.

Responsible investment in neighborhoods brings positive change that can benefit everyone: repaired sidewalks, fixed streetlights, additional green space, cleaned waterways, and the elimination of food deserts. The current residents want this. Community development done in a healthy way requires a commitment to the people of their community. It recognizes the inherent dignity and worth of its neighbors. A new model of community development and resident engagement through art collectives begins with learning to collaborate, demonstrating a partnership between organizations, activists, residents, and artists to serve and better our communities. It can help rebuild the social fabric. Listen to what your neighbors want. Know what your neighbors are doing. Let your neighbors know “we see you and we value you.” We risk losing the role of the artist as prophet, to speak truth to power. As part of art’s role is to reveal our humanity, what makes us most human, it must demonstrate a radical imagining of art to capture story, reflect story, to protest, and to protect.

“Charity to urban black communities is NOT the equivalent of transformative Justice. You can give charitably to a community for years but not contribute to its fundamental transformation towards human flourishing. In many ways, if your only posture to that community is charity you may actually exacerbate and embolden poverty and degradation in a community.” -Anthony Smith

1 comment

  1. Fantastic piece. Thank you! I especially appreciate the part about the actions servants can take. I think that sometimes, folks like me who are from a privileged background get frozen by fear around what we *can* do to make a difference but don’t want to disrespect an existing community. You give some great tangible actions and a place to come from inside.

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