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Au Pierpont: Art communities add vibrancy to a city—but are usually the first to be pushed out

Have you ever seen the Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec painting Au Moulin Rouge? One of the famed post-Impressionist artist’s best-known works, it depicts, and was painted at, the then-new Paris cabaret Moulin Rouge in the mid-1890s. Artists have long brought color, intrigue and vibrancy to the seedier portions of town, often elevating them to the interest of higher socio-economic classes—and sometimes, out of their own ability to remain there.

So it was in the Belle Époque, and so it remains now. Greenwich Village, Chelsea, Brooklyn have all had their turns in New York City; San Francisco and Oakland are now experiencing the same thing. Artist communities are still often considered the first step of a gentrification process that is both good and bad, depending on where you stand.

“Unfortunately, it’s kind of a natural progression. Artists go into these communities because the rent is low, but they make them cool, they make them livable, they make them safe,” says Angela Brown, executive editor of SLUG magazine. “We come into these areas because it’s so affordable, then it’s a matter of time before that secret gets out and people take note. I’ve noticed it happening here in Salt Lake City over a long period of time.”

Pierpont Avenue

A recent example of the artist-led gentrification process can be found in downtown Salt Lake City on Pierpont Avenue between 300 and 400 West. The area—a walkable avenue with a signature dock—had been a curated artists’ space since Artspace founder Stephen Goldsmith leased the area in the early 1980s. In 2008 that lease expired, and Artspace went on to nurture other communities elsewhere. The owners of the area hiked up rent for the first time, and then, still unable to get what they wanted out of the space, sold to a Seattle-based developer.

“It was very affordable here for a lot of years. The first time we saw an increase, it weeded out people then, but there were people that could still afford the rent increases and it was still home to a lot of artists,” says Brown, whose magazine has been headquartered at Pierpont Avenue for over a decade. “They sold it as an investment for someone out of state. It’s not a community decision. It’s a business decision. Which we understand—but there are pros and cons.”

The cons are obvious, says Brown: A huge percentage of the community was priced out of the neighborhood and dispersed. Photographers moved out of their studios, seamstresses like D’Antii and costume-maker McGrew Studios scattered, while long-standing antique store Elemente was put out of business entirely. Some entrepreneurs, like Velo City Bags owner Nathan Larsen, came up with creative solutions to continue affording their storefronts.

“I moved in a barber in my space to offset the cost. I subleased the space,” says Larsen. “It’s worked out OK, but the foot traffic is a lot less now.”

For both Brown and Larsen, the future is up in the air. Brown says some good has come of the developers’ restructuring—there are new amenities and security that come as a relief. But with a burger restaurant and an eyelash company moving into the old artistic spaces, the area is no longer as thematically unique as it once was, lessening its charm.

“There was a gallery stroll here. It was perfect for that. Is it here any longer? No,” says Brown. “People still want to stroll along the dock and peek in the windows. There are people from out of town always popping into our office saying ‘Hey, this is so unique! What’s going on here?’ It’s sad to know that that’s not going to be here.”

An artistic lifecycle

Nathan Como, senior communication director for the Downtown Alliance, puts the Pierpont story succinctly: “That’s a pretty common story in a lot of downtowns. Artists are the first adopters in an area. Then it becomes attractive. Then they get pushed out,” he says. “It’s a cyclical thing. But I think that community is mobile and nimble enough to be OK.”

It’s unfortunate to lose artist communities, but Como and Matthew Rojas, communications director for the office of the Salt Lake City mayor, say the artists’ stories are not unique—they’re simply illustrative of a larger problem.

“Artists can’t live in certain areas. But it goes beyond that. Seniors can’t stay in their areas, workers can’t stay in their areas,” says Rojas. “Who can’t afford to live in your neighborhood? Some of our neighborhoods, that’s teachers, police officers and artists. They bring vibrancy. It can’t be ‘If you’re earning this, you have to go here.’ We need a multi-income situation with housing; these people want to stay in their neighborhoods.”

“We need to find a way to incentivize developers to build low-income housing, because you need that in your city for a thriving economy and a thriving culture,” agrees Como. “That includes artists—but also bartenders and servers. That’s necessary.”

The artistic community has a leg up on other populations because their presence in a space usually transforms it.

“I think it’s unfortunate because there were businesses along there that won’t come back. And that’s a shame. But when you have that creative community in one place, it spawns development all around. There are other places in cities that need that kind of energy and synergy. If it spawns other places like what’s happened with Artspace in an area that needs a little help, that’s not a bad thing. But the loss of any creative business and small business is always a shame,” says Karen Krieger, executive director of the SLC Arts Council. “Whether it’s good or bad for a particular place or people, at the end of the day, it shows that arts have that kind of transformative power—and that’s the important thing.”