Last Wednesday I attended CityClub’s “civic cocktail,” where they mix together two seemingly unrelated topics in a participatory panel discussion and happy hour. The program, which will air on the Seattle Channel soon, featured Peter Hahn from SDOT representing the transportation POV. You might not think that transportation and art have much to do with one another, and to be honest a good chunk of the hour would not have disabused you of that notion. Nonetheless, there were a few flashes of insight worth highlighting.
David Brewster, peeping up from the audience, noted that both arts and transportation in Seattle have a downtown orientation. The problems of a downtown-centric transit network have been covered extensively on this blog (duplication of routes, lack of all-day neighborhood access, etc.); the downtown orientation of our major arts institutions is similar. Later, a musician/bus driver noted that getting home from a concert late at night on public transit was incredibly difficult. This is a point that can’t be overstated. A thriving arts and cultural sector is absolutely dependent upon late-night public transport. This might be a bit of a stretch, but it doesn’t surprise me that The Seattle Opera and Seattle Repertory Theater were founded within five years of Forward Thrust going to the ballot.
My thoughts, however, kept coming back to the role of artists in redeveloping (some might say “gentrifying”) neglected urban areas. Since at least the 1980s, there’s been a tried-and-true pattern of urban redevelopment in many American and European cities: artists move into marginal neighborhoods in search of cheap rents, neighborhoods become fashionable, artists get kicked out. This is the subject of a recent documentary about artists getting kicked out of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood as rents reach Manhattan levels. (Native Americans would likely take issue with the idea that the artists of the 80s and 90s “discovered” Williamsburg, of course.)
Even though this pattern of artist-led redevelopment has been true of many cities around the world for some time (including Seattle), part of me wonders if it’s still the driving force it once was. My sense is that we’ve gotten to the point in infill development where we jump right past the artists-move-in stage and skip right to the high-end condos. This was especially apparent to me on a recent trip to Washington D.C., where basically every neighborhood in the city is being redeveloped at a dizzying pace. Perhaps it’s due to the changing nature of art itself, with many artists trading large warehouses for MacBooks. Or maybe their role has been co-opted by a generation of self-proclaimed creative types who want the cheap rent but don’t need the industrial space. Or, maybe I’m dead wrong, and artists are still doing their thing and I’m just old and out of touch and I don’t see it anymore.