“Gentrification imperils Fitzroy art institution,” The Age stated earlier this week. The building that houses prominent Fitzroy contemporary art gallery Gertrude Contemporary is for sale, and there is no guarantee that the institution known to everyone in Australia’s visual art scene simply as “Gertrude Street” will be able to remain in Gertrude Street.
As prominent Australian visual artist Patricia Piccinini told the paper: “It’s incredibly important that it [stays] in Fitzroy because it means that people who work at the National Gallery or in other institutions or in commercial galleries get a chance to see what’s going on there because it’s close.”
The story is a familiar one. A down-at-heel suburb attracts artists due to its low rents and ample work space, for instance in former warehouses or lofts. A vibrant and exciting arts scene springs up, sometimes overnight. A few pioneer cafes and small bars follow. Gradually, the district acquires a reputation as “cool” or “hip” or “funky”. Before you know it, property values have sky-rocketed and every formerly abandoned shop-window is now an artisanal bakery or single-speed bicycle repair shop or fair-trade organic cafe staffed only by charismatic baristas with beards.
In this case, the suburb is Fitzroy, Melbourne, but it might equally be Surrey Hills in Sydney or Shoreditch in London or Williamsburg in Brooklyn. The story of gentrification is as old and familiar as cities themselves.
Or is it? As Benjamin Schwarz reminds us in a recent essay for The Atlantic, the term gentrification is only as old as the 1960s and has its genesis in the writings of influential US urbanist Jane Jacobs.
Schwarz calls Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities the “ur-text for contemporary writing about urban life and the most influential American book ever written about cities”, and he’s probably right. Jacobs was principally interested in her own district in and around Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and it is remarkable to note the degree to which urban theory has continued to advance Jacobs’ ideas of density, walkability, mixed-use and a diversity of old and new spaces as the holy grail of that most nebulous of contemporary ideas, “liveability”.
For one thing, Jacobs was a big influence on the work of US economist Richard Florida, whose ambitious and flawed book The Rise of the Creative Class became the favourite handbook of regional mayors and local councillors throughout the English-speaking world in the early 2000s. Florida, whose thesis can be neatly summed up by the subtitle of one of his early essays (“why cities without gays and rock stars are losing the economic race”), has since come under sustained criticism concerning the lack of evidence behind its attractive proposition. It turns out that plenty of cities without gays and rock bands can experience strong economic growth, too.
At the other end of the spectrum, most working artists have long been forced to move out of the suburbs housing black-skivvy contemporary art galleries, banished by sky-high rents to middle-ring suburbs such as St Peters or Coburg or Nundah. In contrast, the formerly shabby terrace houses of Newtown or Collingwood are suddenly worth more than a million dollars each, their residents solidly upper middle class or better, and the baristas and bar staff and bicycle mechanics who work there have to travel from cheaper suburbs far away, in ironic echo of the urban commute to and from dormitory suburbs that the “creative classes” are meant to despise.
In other words, it is often thought that gentrification in its final stages — such as Fitzroy or Surry Hills in 2011 — is an exclusionary thing, as the tone of The Age article about Gertrude Contemporary implies.
But is it really that bad? The movement of artists and other hipsters out into the middle ring suburbs of Australian cities seems like a good idea to me. For every high-art gallery priced out of its own building, there are dozens of hollowed-out warehouses and shopfronts being rehabilitated along the public transport spines of our capital cities. These are the deep suburbs that Australia’s so-called “elites” — those left-leaning, latte-sipping figments of the right’s imagination — are supposed to despise. In fact, many of them are well on their way to being rehabilitated, not only by artists but by an entire demographic cohort of 20- and 30-somethings priced out of the housing market but nonetheless diversifying the neighbourhoods where they rent.
The inevitable corollary of gentrification is the call for more arts funding to “secure” the sites of arts institutions such as Gertrude Contemporary for posterity by buying them up with the public purse. Exactly this happened recently when Carlton’s iconic La Mama theatre was bought from its landlords and thereby “saved”.
What if threatened institutions relocated to cheaper and better locations closer to the place where artists actually live? Would it be such a bad thing if Gertrude Contemporary moved to Preston or, perish the thought, Dandenong or Frankston? Similarly, why shouldn’t we be supporting the many artist-run initiatives and emerging performance spaces springing up in Sydney’s west?
After all, as Schwarz points out, it’s one thing for the state to provide humane and affordable living space for its citizens (not that Australia’s politicians, in thrall to the dogma of home ownership, can even do that). It’s entirely another thing to argue that the state should intervene in the property market to ensure that arts institutions, which began their lives as sites for the edgy and the undiscovered, should survive in a particular locale.
If that means “people who work at the National Gallery” have to get on the train to go and see some art in the suburbs, surely that’s the least we can ask of them.