January 26-February 1, 2006
Artists need a cheap place to work. But does this city really need more artists' lofts?
Painter Pamela Chapman arrived in Kensington armed with two dogs, a sleeping bag and a few words of advice from her new landlord. "As long as you have a car and don't walk around at night," you'll be fine, warned Michael Frechette, owner of the four-story Coffin Factory at Mascher and Jefferson streets. But within the first few days, Chapman wandered north and got lost in what Frechette calls "basically, the badlands."
"I thought I had made the biggest mistake of my life," Chapman remembers, sitting in the kitchen of her sprawling 2,700-square-foot living space and studio. "I thought, 'That's it, I've come here to die.'"
Six years later, much has changed. "It's vacant and it's out of price range," Frechette says, looking out the window at a decaying warehouse that reportedly just sold for $2 million. "It's just crazy."
Now, Chapman takes long morning walks along the river and when the time is right to buy a place of her own, her first choice will be Kensington. If she can afford it.
Artists were priced out of Old City, Northern Liberties and Fishtown, so why wouldn't they have to abandon Kensington too? The modelartists move in, fix a place up and make it attractive to investors who inevitably price the artists outis seen as so reliable that nonprofit real estate developers and community groups now look for ways to attract and retain artists in hopes of jumpstarting a neighborhood's economy.
Everyone from the William Penn Foundation and the American Institute of Architecture to community development corporations and the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance is currently working on studies to determine what artists want and how to give it to them. More than ever before, organizations such as Artspace, a nonprofit real estate developer based in Minneapolis, are holding the magnifying glass up to Philly's artists in hopes of boosting a strong and creative cultural industry and reaping the economic payoff.
But it's not quite that easy.
While organizations dream up projects that are years away from construction and the city remains conspicuously absent from the discussion, right now artists are shoveling pigeon shit, erecting walls and hearing their first gunshots. It's hard work being a pioneer of gentrification. The painters, sculptors and dancers don't care much for the theory that they are harbingers of urban renewal, although according to economist Kevin Gillen they are "canaries in the coal mine." They just want to make art and live frugally.
Still, it remains to be seen if developers who promise to make spaces big enough and rents cheap enough for artists can take what has always happened organically and go one step further. Are artists' lofts really what underserved communities need?
Developers who talk about building affordable live-work and studio spaces for artists eat up the theories espoused by Richard Florida, the Carnegie Mellon public policy professor who authored The Rise of the Creative Class. He argues that instead of enticing big corporations with tax incentives, cities should mold themselves into places where artists, engineers and other creative types want to live [Cover, "I Can Fix Your City," Daniel Brook, Sept. 12, 2002].
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Florida has had his share of detractors. A winter 2004 article published in the urban affairs magazine City Journal points out that "a number of cities the professor identified as creative-age winners have chronically underperformed the American economy." Despite criticism that the basic economics of his ideas don't add up, plenty of groups use Florida's research to prove that making a stable home for artists equals sustainable economic development.
Chris Velasco, vice president of consulting and new projects for Artspace Projects, Inc., is no exception. Last spring, the William Penn Foundation gave Artspace $175,000 to conduct an exhaustive study of what Philly artists and arts organizations want and design a plan to make it happen.
"Most of the time," Velasco says, "arts and cultural facilities are created because a powerful arts organization believes what we need is a big performing arts hall or a big museum, but what we have the potential to do here is involve the community and say, 'What do we really need here and how do we maintain it so the facility is a wholly self-sustaining entity?'"
Artspace has initiated projects in dozens of cities, yet Velasco says the scale and scope of the Philadelphia survey (www.artspacephiladelphia.org) is "far beyond anything Artspace or anyone has ever done." The results have not been made public, but Velasco says this is the first place he's examined where the need for performance space, such as dance studios, exceeds the need for visual spaces like galleries. He's tight-lipped about potential sites and will advise William Penn to be the same way for fear the attention could boost prices.
By April, Velasco will recommend locations for three facilities featuring some combination of live, work, retail, performance and office space. The city's "unexpectedly hot" real estate market has made the search almost "prohibitive," he says. And even if William Penn gives an immediate go-ahead, he says, construction wouldn't start until 2008.
It shouldn't be a hard sell, but any timetable hinges on the community's approval.
"You don't get that [input] when you put up a big box retail store," he says. "Here, you get citizens vitally interested in making your community better."
Artists are fond of saying that the Philadelphia Museum of Art generates more tourism dollars than the city's sports stadiums. Yet athletics take priority over cultural endeavors time and again. You never hear "Madonna or Cher coming to town and saying, 'Build me a theater, now!'" says Anthony Visco, a painter and sculptor who lives near the Avenue of the Arts.
In a city coping with a high murder rate, rampant political corruption and a dearth of affordable housing, that's understandable. Because arts and culture are not tangible, it's difficult to get a handle on their significance. The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance (GPCA) hopes two upcoming studies will quantify the impact of the arts on the region and
put art advocates in a better position to convince funders that Philadelphia deserves their support.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Early last year, the GPCA and William Penn hired the nonprofit research group RAND Corporation to compare Philadelphia's cultural offerings with those of other cities across the nation; results are expected this spring. Around the same time, information from the Pennsylvania Cultural Data Project (www.pacdp.org) will give the GPCA a five-county snapshot of groups that apply for arts-related grants. In addition, Norristown, Landsdale, Pottstown, Ambler and Phoenixville are among the many suburbs committing to the arts through development, says Nancy DeLucia, GPCA county outreach manager.
Leveraging Investments in Creativity (www.lincnet.net) is a 10-year national campaign aimed at improving conditions, including access to housing, for artists.
"Artists are the top of the food chain," says Melissa Franklin, director of the Pew Fellowships in the Arts and a LINC co-director. "We wouldn't have ballets without choreographers or dancers. You don't have bookstores without poets and writers. That's why we need to support artists. This is the legacy, what will continue without any us of being here."
Artists in some other cities already have resources to bolster their search for space. Pittsburgh's Cool Space Locator helps businesses and nonprofits find buildings, and Toronto Artscape published a 158-page guide for artists who want to rent or buy. In hopes of one day replicating these models, the Community Design Collaborative, the nonprofit arm of the local American Institute of Architects chapter, wrote a renovation how-to for property owners. The report, "Old Space/New Place," gives community groups a place to start when approaching vacant buildings with nothing but a vision.
The Collaborative learned from the New Kensington Community Development Corporation, which connected planners and $7.5 million in funding to transform the old Integrity Textile mill into 27 low-income apartments at Coral and Hagert streets.
Just as the NKCDC took the very thing that represented the area's decline, an abandoned warehouse, and turned it into a place for a new kind of manufacturing, the People's Emergency Center CDC is trying to plug vacancies along Lancaster Avenue. Painter David Lawrence started Second Fridays, nights when restaurants and businesses stay open late to increase foot traffic, along with Theresa Shockley, executive director of the Community Education Center.
Lawrence opened a gallery at 38th Street and Lancaster Avenue called Art on the Avenue a year and a half ago. He could have gone to Chestnut Hill or Manayunk, "but I would have paid twice as much for a third of the space," he says. The area is as affordable as Kensington was a few years ago, and Lawrence says police are more visible and there is less litter. Cultural organizations such as ArcheDream mask theater and the East Africa Resource and Study Center already thrive, and the Fringe Festival pushed westward last summer.
"I think culture helps bind the community, bringing a nightlife to the community with music, theater, dance, spoken word, dance," he says.
Still, Lawrence lives in Yeadon, not on Lancaster. And the PEC-CDC wants Lancaster Avenue to be a place where people live, not just visit. So after commissioning a study of its own, it began preliminary plans for 11 to 15 live-work apartments that could go up on a lot in the 4000 block of Haverford Avenue.
One developer, Hanley Bodek, currently has two apartments available in the 3800 block of Lancaster. At 1,400 square feet and $975 a month, he hopes the spaces will attract artists "or those who like the artist lifestyle."
"I'm a capitalist," he says, "but I think in the final analysis social responsibility turns out to be good business."
Bodek learned what artists want in the late 1980s when he overpaid for some buildings he thought would become commercial space. He instead tried to rent them for storage. "Whenever I ran an ad for warehouse space," he explains, "I got a call from someone who wanted to live there."
"You live in there?" a little kid once asked Vida as he looked up at one of two unremarkable warehouses called Sharktown at the corner of Mascher and Palmer streets in Kensington. "I'm sure we're a bit of an enigma to them, but they seem OK with it," she says, shrugging.
The installation artist and photography instructor says the environment has had little effect on her artwork, which mainly deals with the way objects shift from sacred to profane and back again.
For a 1992 installation at Nexus/Foundation for Today's Art gallery in Old City, she collected thousands of pieces of litter strewn outsidecigarette butts, shoes, scraps of paper, crack vialsand covered them in gold leaf. "One of my dreams was to wake up and see all the litter in the city gilded," she says. Asked if the exhibition made a statement about the neighborhood, she says no; her street was just a convenient place to find trash. (It still is.)
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
who is 68 and sports a shaggy haircut and purple-rimmed glasses, enjoys the sound of children's laughter that drifts over from the elementary school, but she doesn't know the name of the school (John Moffet Public School). She's more interested in the artistic pursuits going on inside her complex. The studioscomplete with heating and air conditioning, locking doors and nearby bathroomsare a stark contrast to the storage space for industrial machinery and railroad ties Vida encountered when she moved here in 1989.
Vida, jewelry makers David Forlano and Steve Ford and another buyer bought the buildings in 1994. Tax records show the place went for $15,000.
Her 4,700-square-foot apartment let in the cold for a long time and there were a lot of leaks. "Sometimes I wish I was in a regular house," she says, adding that she has no plans to move. "I like the space. It's kind of like my ivory tower. I'm away from everything. But I also like the grittiness of the neighborhood. It's autonomous."
Not everyone wants an isolated existence. Michael Frechette and Rob Sutherland both lived in Sharktown, but moved out at different times to buy properties and have made genuine efforts to interact with their neighbors. John Laurin, 40, grew up in the 100 block of West Jefferson Street in a modest row home across from Hancock Park and next to the Coffin Factory, where as a boy he watched the late owner line the caskets.
The warehouse went vacant for a few years in the mid-1990s and Laurin worried a fire might ignite until Frechette bought it in 1998 for $35,000. It took nine months, but he removed "a foot, literally, of pigeon shit," wired the place for electricity and added basics like plumbing and, in most cases, walls. Frechette, 40, says he has to turn away potential tenants that remind him of himself when he was younger. "These days you pretty much have to be legit to have a big space," he says.
Increasing property values are vindication for all the times he chased drug dealers away and called the cops when prostitutes set up shop in the park. "Everything I own is here so I have a real motivation to make it better," he says. "I also don't want to be a punk. I take care of the little old ladies."
Laurin says Frechette is a good neighborthey take turns clearing the sidewalk when it snowsbut it pains him to see elderly neighbors burdened by escalating property taxes. "It's a double-edged sword," Laurin says. "I have no problem with anybody, but you're used to your neighborhood the way it is, then they build developments that we have to pay for."
Still, leaving the neighborhood alone wasn't helping anyone either. "Unless your business is selling crack on the corner, it has gotten better," Frechette says. "Of course there's a downside to gentrification, but there's an upside too. I hear a lot less gunfire up here than I used to."
Crime still comes with the territory on the other side of North Philadelphia in Brewerytown. Around 3 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, Sutherland was outside with his dog Buster when a wave of police cruisers, sirens blaring, screamed by in pursuit of a thief cops later shot dead. Like the families who have lived here for generations, Sutherland would like to see a stronger police presence and fewer guns.
Larry "Crow" Cain, 54, a lifelong resident who is helping Sutherland renovate three connected properties in the 1500 block of North 27th Street, agrees. Standing outside on an unusually warm January day, Cain points to boarded-up buildings whose owners have passed away or just disappeared. "This is a pretty quiet block," he says, "but they come through here. Wintertime everything slows up. Summertime it's like chaos."
Sutherland, 29, isn't so naive as to think his presence and a smattering of artists buying properties east of new townhouses and condos will eliminate the crime. He didn't see marked improvement during the year he lived at Sharktown, where circling helicopters let him know it was Friday. "We were like 'Whatever,'" he says. "Nothing ever happened." His
project could take a decade, but Sutherland remains undaunted: "We didn't come here to make it better just for us."
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Not every artist who moves into a neighborhood is going to be like Frechette and Sutherland. As more people latch on to the idea of nonprofit real estate development for the arts, communities and the city must have a stronger say in what happens to neighborhoods.
Even on Lancaster Avenue, which the PEC-CDC is touting as a place for artists, mask and mixed-media artist Eva Preston has until Wednesday to vacate the warehouse studio where she thrived for 12 years. She says her landlord, Lew Blum Towing, wants to make room for more cars.
At first, Preston had an empty shell on her handsno windows, no doors, no heat, crumbling walls and a broken furnaceand vision for a music/dance/ceramics studio. Now she's giving hundreds of molds away so she can take her most important supplies to the small studio she will share with another artist at 34th and Baring streets.
Preston is cynical about groups like Artspace that talk about artist lofts. "There's tons and tons of stores [on Lancaster Avenue] and nothing on the second floors," she says. "Everything's about money. It's not really about spirit. This is a capitalistic society and that's just the way it is." She certainly doesn't expect the city to help her.
Eva Gladstein, director of the mayor's office of Neighborhood Transformation, says "artists are part of a community that help make it a vibrant, interesting place." Still, no one in city government has devoted much attention to tracking what arts development could mean for neighborhoods. "It's a trend that we've noticed," Gladstein says, adding when asked about attracting artists in particular that "we haven't focused any resources specially on that area."
Calls placed to the Commerce Department asking for the city's take on the emerging trend of arts development were referred to several people before Gladstein was tapped to comment on whether the city cares that organizations are zeroing in on Philadelphia artists.
Instead of enthusiastically following projects that aim to better communities, she
says NTI supports neighborhood planning initiatives. If a neighborhood decides bringing in artists fits into their vision, they can use NTI funds to further that goal.
For example, David Gleeson, one of three partners who owns the Crane Arts Center studios and Ice Box Project Space gallery, credits NTI with cleaning up lots around the 1400 N. American St. property. NTI also gave money to Haile Johnston's East Park Revitalization Alliance; he's in the process of renovating a warehouse at 30th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue for a commercial and studio space called Eastern Lofts.
"I don't think you're going to see as strong gentrification here," says Johnston. "I think you're going to see an influx of new residents adding to the vibrancy that already exists here."
For Fringe Festival producing director Nick Stuccio, it's hard to see any downside to more artists. "The smart ones are realizing it's not just a nice thing for the vitality of the community, it's just smart business," he says. "It's great for the artists, but it's great for the city in all sorts of ways."
But as new people and bigger economic interests move in, change is inevitable. Al Alston, of the African American Business & Residents Association, has protested development pricing out longtime residents in Brewerytown [News, "Fight Brewing," Brian Hickey, April 28, 2005]. He's circulating a petition calling for residents to fight the abuse of eminent domain, including plans to take AABRA's Master Street headquarters and turn it over to a developer. Others fear impending property reassessments will deliver a crushing blow unless City Council members agree on a way to ease the tax burden.
Kevin Gillen, a Penn real estate research fellow, understands the downside of development, but, bottom line, he says, "Having people want to move into your neighborhood and make it better isn't such a problem." Seeing things from the detached perspective of an economist, Gillen says residents should welcome rising property values and building restoration.
One time, Gillen was a guest on a radio show when a kid squatting in an abandoned West Philadelphia building called in to complain about how people were moving in on his turf and making the neighborhood all fancy. The caller had no clue he was the precursor to exactly what he detested.
"Have you considered that you're the tip of the iceberg of gentrification?" Gillen asked him. "Dude, you're paving the way for the yuppies. You took a place that was abandoned and you're living there. You're making it better."