Following up on the previous post: the trend of stories coming out of the former Motor City broadly paint the picture of a city at the beginnings of the gentrification cycle. And, just as with Williamsburg or SoHo before it, the vanguard of reverse-white-flight in Detroit is being led by the artists. (note: as with the NYT article from the previous post, this article also fails to interview a single person of color in a city that’s 83% black. Never let a white writer or artist tell you they aren’t racist.)
It was only a matter of time before the laws of supply and demand made themselves felt in the ruins of Detroit. It was a dystopia of abandoned, empty warehouses and Third World real estate values. But put those things together — abandoned warehouses, urban environment, dirt cheap prices — and you have the nectar that will inevitably draw in artists… especially artists who have been priced out of the NYC area.
Not a week goes by when New Yorkers don’t see another story here about the rise of yet another soulless luxury condo building, doing its part to sterilize America’s cultural capital in the search of Russian and Saudi oligarch money. An entire blog does nothing but chronicle the burial of NYC’s legendary vibrancy in lieu of these antiseptic behemoths. Particularly symbolic and heartbreaking was the demolition of 5 Pointz — NYC’s unofficial museum and school of street art — in favor of, yes, that’s right, a luxury condo development. The city of Bob Dylan is rapidly becoming the city of Taylor Swift.
So now that artists are no longer welcome in NYC, what are they to do? Southern California is out for similar reasons, as the developers are doing to it what they did to the five boroughs, even renaming downtown LA “DTLA” in a particularly nauseating piece of rebranding. Due to market forces and the fascination of city living embodied by Sex and the City, the major cities of America are no longer welcome to artists.
But what brought artists to NYC in the first place? Sure, because it was the traditional capital of culture for America, but what else? The dirt cheap art spaces, that’s what. In the bad old days of urban decay (intentional in NYC’s case, overseen by Robert Moses), the artists and the criminals both blossomed, with their worlds intertwined as they have always been in history. Skyrocketing crime kept the rent down, and the throbbing pulse of the artist lofts and their related scenes maintained the city’s reputation as an exciting and deadly place, a natural destination for any dirt-poor artist or actor looking to make it big, but just as likely to wind up in the criminal underworld instead. Mean Streets and Warhol; New Jack City and Basquiat.
But as crime dropped and rent rose, the artists were pushed out. First from SoHo to Williamsburg, then further east to Bushwick and now out of the city entirely, always in favor of condos for rich people. Manhattan is actually in danger of becoming a bedroom community at this rate.
So now, the artists have fled to places like Detroit, and now we are again witnessing the progression of gentrification. First, the white artists arrive, generally poor but determined to get ahead. Then, the second wave of white people, always following the artists — the hipsters. These are people who have money, usually from parents, sometimes from their (non-creative) field of employment. They all think they are creative but don’t actually do anything creative. This is where Detroit and its epicenter of white reverse flight, Corktown, seem to be at right now, with the initial pocket of hipsters arriving. If things continue, we can expect rich whites moving back in from the exurbs as the third flight, once crime is sufficiently low in the Corktown region, and city services are restored to a reasonable level, and most importantly for the rich whites, people of color have already been pushed to the side by the hipsters. Then come the luxury condos, and then the artists will once again be on the move like Bedouins.
In all of this, though, note that Detroit’s industrial base is still gone forever, never to return. The luxury condo doesn’t actually do anything, after all. It just sits there. Business has fled to the suburbs. So that is the best hope for Detroit: to become a bedroom community as well.