There’s an established image in the collective imagination of the kinds of places artsy types tend to live: the painter in a Paris garret, the actor in a Brooklyn brownstone, the musician in a San Francisco Victorian, or the playwright in a fisherman’s shack on Cape Cod. It’s all very romantic. We currently associate these places with vacation destinations and cutting edge high culture so of course that’s where the avant garde would naturally congregate. But people forget that in their day these were the cheapest least desirable locations available. These spots were economically depressed, populated by the lower working class, immigrants, “working girls”, and the substance abusers of their day. In short, they were places that respectable people avoided and where the authorities generally turned a blind eye. How else could artists survive without family money or the income that comes with full time employment in the mainstream economy? And where else could fringe elements of various subcultures thrive without inhibition from the dominant culture? It’s only after decades of anonymous incubation that these neighborhoods eventually became safe and vibrant enough to attract middle class residents in search of good food, nightlife, and tourist photo opportunities.
The current reality is that the so-called “Creative Class” is being priced out of the places they helped make so desirable in the first place. Many lament their expulsion brought on by gentrification. Fair enough. In many respects it’s sad that these dynamic places are becoming more homogenized and sometimes even sterilized since well paid tech workers, financiers, and corporate lawyers are great at consuming culture, but pretty spotty when it comes to generating it. Then again… let’s not forget that without wealthy patrons or state support there would be no one to underwrite the art in question. Well-intentioned government attempts to preserve low rents through legislation or the construction of subsidized housing units are helpful to the handful of people that are lucky enough to participate. But economic reality generally tends toward gentrification and displacement. So where are the new artist colonies likely to spring up? In other words, where are the new cheap undesirable places where fringe types can thrive without attracting the attention of the authorities? I see three options.
First, for the “traditional” rebel artist who can no longer afford New York, Boston, D.C. or Chicago there’s Buffalo, Cleveland, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati. These Rust Belt cities have a fine stock of premium buildings and neighborhoods chock full of 19th century architectural gems and grand public parks and plazas at deeply discounted prices. If you want the authentic look and feel of a previous generation’s artist enclave they exist in second, third, and fourth tier cities in America’s forgotten interior. That multi-million dollar industrial live/work loft space in Manhattan is available elsewhere for a tiny fraction of a percent of the cost. A clever member of the Creative Class might initially establish her credentials and connections in Los Angeles or Toronto and then set up shop elsewhere to keep overhead low while sending her creations on to paying customers in more expensive markets.
Second, there are thousands of depopulated rural villages that exist everywhere in America once you escape the economic forcefields of pricey metroplexes. Key West, Sedona, Provincetown, Carmel, New Hope, and Rehobeth have all been bought up and Disneyfied by now. But there are an unlimited number of small towns and villages that have similar qualities at an infinitely lower price point. Most of these remote country outposts will never become anything different from what they are now – quiet backwaters populated by contented older folks and restless young people eager to flee. But some of them will be colonized by just enough funky individuals that a self-reinforcing community will be able to take root.
Third, and in my opinion the most viable and likely scenario, involves the reinvigoration of failed suburban districts. When I look around at the desolate commercial strip corridors (pick a crappy suburb… any crappy suburb anywhere from the outskirts of Charlotte to the damp underbelly of Seattle) I can imagine the new “arts districts” of the future. Dead suburban retail buildings and their associated parking lots are the current equivalent of abandoned industrial warehouses or cheap seventh floor walk up apartments. These properties and locations are most ripe for transformation over time. My guess is that most of the action early on will not be out front facing the highway, but in back behind the semi-abandoned muffler shops, defunct carpet emporiums, and burned out supermarkets. The rear loading docks and back alleys typically face quiet subdivisions of modest homes along more humanely scaled streets. It’s possible for individuals to create pleasant convivial places that engage with a selective element of the community while not attracting the attention of code enforcement agencies.
Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns here calls this “Good Enough Urbanism”. It may not look like renaissance Florence or Greenwich Village, but it gets the job done in a hurry on a tight budget without the need for committees or regulatory approval. The key to success hangs on likeminded members of an interconnected community working together in an informal and organic way. Some places will develop around a cohesive social core and thrive. Most others will lack focus and the required critical mass and continue to devolve into slums. Happenstance will sort it all out over time. The trajectory is predictable at this point. As architect and urbanist Andres Duany likes to say, “First there are the risk oblivious pioneers, then gradually the neighborhood improves sufficiently to attract the risk aware, then with enough respectable small scale improvements by numerous mom and pops the big developers arrive and prepare the way for the Dentist from New Jersey.”
John Sanphillippo lives in San Francisco and blogs about urbanism, adaptation, and resilience at granolashotgun.com. He's a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, films videos for faircompanies.com, and is a regular contributor to Strongtowns.org. He earns his living by buying, renovating, and renting undervalued properties in places that have good long term prospects. He is a graduate of Rutgers University.