The fight against gentrification needs innovators

Just two weeks after the Oakland Ghost Ship fire, evictions have begun across the U.S. in response. The ramifications of the fire, which took the lives of 36, are only beginning — and will fuel one of the biggest challenges facing cities across the country: gentrification.

People displaced as cities crack down on nontraditional housing will include not only artists but other low-income people who can’t afford more formal housing in cities with skyrocketing rents.

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This week’s evictions are motivated by fear of liability, but they also pave the way for further gentrification and displacement. If it’s unsafe to house artists, why not sell your warehouse to a developer for restaurants and boutiques? If we want to preserve the cultural fabric of communities like Oakland, we have to act fast to create policies that better assess which developments will make our neighborhoods better, and which won’t.

In Oakland, zoning and development policies have led to rapid, extreme gentrification. Artists are often the leading edge: seeking reasonable rents and happy to repurpose storefronts and industrial spaces for living and working, they draw new businesses into low-income neighborhoods, often communities of color. 

Coffee bars and pop-up galleries lead, issuing an implicit invitation. In the Bay Area, the invitation has been eagerly accepted by high-paid tech workers, condo developers, and others. Willing to pay exorbitant rents, they quickly displace existing residents and their cultural fabric, meeting-places, historic sites, and convivial habits.

Many people are now talking about special provisions to keep artists housed in the wake of the Ghost Ship fire: rent subsidies, dedicated studio space, etc. Artists add life and color. Through their music, dance, and public art, artists create sites of public memory and gathering-places that strengthen social fabric, making people proud to feel part of a community.

But artists are not a special case.

Artists don’t create culture alone -- walk through Oakland’s Chinatown or Fruitvale neighborhoods to see food, community, and art reflecting the community’s distinct character. That character is what gives our cities heart -- what makes them great.

The antidote can’t be special pleading for artists. We need universal solutions to protect culture in our cities and beyond. That’s why a national alliance of artists, activists, and allies is calling for a policy every community should adopt: a Cultural Impact Study. The idea is part of the newly released Standing for Cultural Democracy: The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture’s Policy and Action Platform.

Environmental impact studies are required before developers tear down a neighborhood to build a new sports stadium or freeway, but human communities have no standing in law or policy. Municipalities that conduct Cultural Impact Studies will assess the potential negative impacts of decisions to redevelop or rezone, giving value to the social fabric artists, people of color, immigrants, and other communities have woven, and mitigating the potential harm of proposed changes.

How to assess impact on cultural fabric? Think of the sense of belonging, meeting-places, and cultural expressions that create neighborhood flavor. Shouldn’t existing residents have some right to remain in neighborhoods they’ve built, and benefit from improvements built on years of cultural investment in their own streets, parks, and homes? Given that culture breathes life into our neighborhoods, making them memorable, there should be a process to assess that value before we tear it apart.

If policymakers had to live under the conditions they prescribe for others, policies enabling displacement would never be adopted. Look around the country: important decisions relating to the public good—rezoning, the authority to destroy a neighborhood to build new condos or a freeway in its place —almost never impinge on prosperous and largely white neighborhoods.

So we have to ask ourselves: what do we want for our cities? Do we want them to be full of art and music and unique neighborhoods -- or do we want to allow the highest bidder to dominate every nook and cranny? Current policies are sending us full-throttle into communities shaped by the highest bidder. The cost is losing the heart and soul that make our cities great.

The way to honor the victims of the Oakland fire is to acknowledge the issues raised by this tragedy, not just for artists, but for all of us. The tribute they deserve is that we gather strength to work together for vibrant, affordable, and welcoming communities. Adopting the right policies--including cultural impact statements--is a necessary first step.  

Arlene Goldbard is the chief policy wonk and Adam Horowitz is the chief instigator at the US Department of Arts and Culture. The U.S. DAC is a people-powered department and a grassroots action network inciting creativity and social imagination to shape a culture of empathy, equity, and belonging.


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.