An Artist’s Responsibility (interview © 2006)

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This is an article that I am proud to say proved to be very popular among many of the now-defunct Play Philly Magazine’s readers, as it was about artists and their role in gentrification. — CS 14.06.2008

It really only takes one entrepreneurial artist opening a studio, a workshop — or as in the case of Aurora Deshauters, librarian and graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, a gallery — before more of their kind begin pouring in. It’s a common American story: starving artists, hungry for cheap housing, move into low-cost, deteriorated or blighted urban neighborhoods, and soon they attract higher-income residents who “rejuvenate” a section of the city hitherto written off as beyond middle-class salvation. It’s so ubiquitous a story that Americans even have a name for it: urban renewal. Yet, most people don’t bother to consider if there might not be serious consequences for those who called these neighborhoods home long before penniless painters with flamboyant hairstyles and funky clothes came knocking.

Urban renewal comes at great cost to the original low-income residents, who call what’s happening to them by its real name: gentrification, the very real upheaval and displacement of modern-day paupers (the urban poor and lower middle-class) by modern-day gentry (the urban landed class of realtors and yuppie co-opt’ers). Once a blighted neighborhood becomes marked as a “hot spot,” developers lay siege, wining and dining landlords and raising rents through roofs.

indigenous residents, who work double-shifts as housekeepers, custodians and laborers to make ends meet and rarely own the properties in which they’ve lived for years, are driven out.

To Deshauters, who was born and raised in Brooklyn and Jamaica, Queens long before they became hot spots themselves, not only is the process of urban renewal troubling, but she sees the very concept as questionable. This past Saturday she opened the gallery StrataSphere at Germantown Avenue and West Berks Street, only a hop and skip away from the main campus of Temple University. The opening exhibit, In the Neighborhood, featured realist still life paintings and photographs of Philly’s plentiful rough-around-the-edges communities.

The goal of the exhibit was to raise the question: what does it mean to call a place, whatever its state of disrepair, home?

“One person’s idea of blight is another person’s idea of a neighborhood,” she argues. “It’s a conflict of perspective on what residential communities should be like. In my old neighborhoods [in New York City] there were drunks and homeless guys all around, sure, but I also found so much beauty. I lived under the Jamaica Avenue El, and the sunlight pouring through the tracks every morning was wonderful. And then there was the gorgeous bright yellow façade of the local grocery store. The owner kept it pristine, and because it was right under the tracks, it visually packed a lot of punch. How can you call that blighted?”

Yet, blight is not simply an issue of perspective. There are very real issues of crime and living standards associated with it, and its presence can deteriorate a city’s consciousness of its heritage.

Photographer Sam Fritch, whose shot of the Unity-Frankford grocery store was prominently on display in the exhibit, explained in a written statement accompanying the piece, “Since moving to Philadelphia in 1995, I’ve wondered how a city so steeped in history could let so many of its beautiful and historical buildings go to waste.”

He expresses the ambiguous feelings that are often attached the architectural decay of cities: “Interestingly, I am both appalled at the disrespect and in awe of this blight. On the same drive, I can find myself lamenting the deterioration of once spectacular buildings, and yet still be inspired by their current odd aesthetic appeal.”

The neighborhood of StrataSphere embodies these conundrums. Just north of Northern Liberties, which has undergone major gentrification, the area of Germantown Avenue and West Berks Street is not quite within Kensington. It’s also too far east of Temple, but too close to the campus to have an identity wholly separate from it. Once a redoubt of Eastern Europeans, as evidenced by the ruined twin onion domes of a forlorn Orthodox church rising above Cecil B. Moore Avenue, according to the 2000 census, which is the most recent demographic data available, of a population with an average family size of four, only 14.6 percent is white today and 72.7 percent Latino.

This is a small section of the city, maybe 10 blocks all told, and of its 702 housing units, 588 are occupied; the remaining 114 stand vacant. 266 are owner-occupied, while the other 322 are renter-occupied, or 45.2 percent to 54.8 percent, respectively. The median household income in 1999 was $14,524 and $21,250 for families. With a per capita of $9,536, that means 1,039 were under the poverty line – 52 percent of the neighborhood’s total population. Of the 390 high school graduates the neighborhood produced in 2000, only 46 enrolled in institutions of higher education.

Six years later, according to Deshauters the area is experiencing even more demographic change. Blacks are coming down Fifth Street while artists and Muslims are going up it, and more Latinos flocking westward along Berks Street. And guess who’s coming down Cecil B. Moore: college students. This reporter, as he was walking toward the gallery, passed two locals, a white man and black man, complaining to each other about a recent hike in their rents as they stood in front of an apartment building the windows of which were plastered with posters typical of dorms.

Enter Deshauters’ gallery, a renovated corner bank standing right atop the nexus of all this flux.

“Opening a still life gallery has been my dream project since 1997,” says Deshauters as she sits beside me on the steps of her gallery and eyes the Caribbean-Middle Eastern supermarket across the street. She looked at more than 100 sites before finally finding this one, and has spent the last two years tearing out and rebuilding its interior.

“I’ve been in the neighborhood for two years, but only when I opened the doors tonight did anyone stop by, and they’ve all been asking, ‘When did you get here? And what the heck is an art gallery doing here anyway?'”

“It’s evolving,” she goes on, “I want it to be a contemporary space that’s not about displaying traditional still life and selling art, but about special projects and showing contemporary still life that raises issues. I love to see contemporary art that is sincere.”

But all may not be well with the project, as laments Suzanne Francis, whose still life pieces of York and Frankford Avenues and the abandoned Republican Club on 7th Street and Fitzwater, were also on display. A resident of the East Parkside neighborhood near the Philadelphia Zoo, Microsoft is opening a new high school, UPenn wants to buy up several blocks to convert into professorial housing and realtors have even tried renaming the entire area – she rages at the way in which artists hasten the displacement of low-income residents from their homes.

“A lot of my friends are very aware of our role in gentrification,” she says. “We’re used as the first wave of taking over poor underprivileged neighborhoods.”

Could the same happen to Germantown Avenue and West Berks Street?

“Right now I’m just a pocket,” says Deshauters. “Gentrification will happen with or without this gallery, because it’s happening all over the city. I think unfortunately a gallery is perceived as gentrification, and that’s out of our control. I am interested in community art, and I have been talking to some of the local community associations here to figure out just what my role might be for them.

But sadly, [gentrification seems to be] inevitable: some see and pursue the potential in an area, and once that happens, others see it and also try to buy into it. So what happens is that developers’ choices are really how a neighborhood can be made or broken, and right now they are deciding to do things the latter way.”

Francis, a passionate lover and defender of her own neighborhood, certainly concurs that it is a widespread crisis: “A lot of the time people will look at these distinctive neighborhoods and think they’re ugly. But they’re not! They’re worthy of art. They are art! They are beautiful, especially these older areas, where the very architecture reflects a craft that we don’t do anymore: building for our children and investing in long-term quality.”

Fritch also agrees, explaining in his written statement, “Recent revival efforts in the city and current plans to eradicate urban blight have motivated me to photograph areas that are in transition. The city has now razed multiple neighborhoods to provide room for new, sterile-looking, multi-unit homes and urban centers. I hope to document this change, capturing some of the raw feeling of the city and drawing attention to the beauty of these areas before they are usurped by generic suburban-like sprawl.”

Yet, should an artist’s role be so passive? Or should he or she take a more proactive role in their communities, particularly to defend them from hostile real estate forces?

“I’m not responsible for developers,” says Deshauters. “I’m not surrendering to gentrification, but my first concern is my investment in the art, and the community, sadly, is secondary. I may soon be displaying locals’ photographic art, but I am not a community center. My role is primarily to exhibit.”

What should an artist’s first responsibility be?

“My artwork is about communicating ideas of multiculturalism, local heritage and what an American is,” she explains. “My responsibility lies in my interpretation of things. My point of view is my first responsibility. My second responsibility is to provide an interesting product for that point of view.”

Her husband, Dr. Robert Dobie, a professor of philosophy at La Salle University, adds, “We don’t see our goal as gentrifying the neighborhood. In fact, the purpose of this gallery is to reflect these issues, to focus on these neighborhoods as they are and not as developers see them.”

And perhaps Deshauters is succeeding in her goal: near the end of the opening, a small gang of neighborhood kids wandered into the gallery, curious about this oddity that has suddenly appeared in their midst.

They spent the next half hour studying the photographs and paintings on the wall. Were they seeing a reflection of their present and future in these images – or were they seeing an all too possible past?

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