Gentrification's Advance Team?
Gentrification’s Advance Team?

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.

43 Replies to “Civic Cocktail: Transportation and the Arts”

  1. Seattle Opera and The Rep were both started immediately after the closure of the 1962 World’s Fair in spaces that had been built for the Fair. Forward Thrust (1968 & 70) was organized by many of the same people who organized the World’s Fair. In those days a small group of successful business men had a large influence on local civic and cultural affairs.

    It would be interesting to imagine what Seattle would look like today if the 1968 or 1970 rapid transit packages had passed. In those days, there was no 1% for art requirement, so most of our stations would likely be drab, BART-style concrete edifices and Boeing likely would have been the builder of our light rail vehicles.

    Also, in those Forward Thrust propositions, light rail ran from Lake City and Ballard through downtown to Bellevue (via I-90) and Renton or West Seattle via the Duwamish industrial area. The Forward Thrust proposals did not plan to build light rail to the airport. Think of how that might have changed the future–Renton might have become Redmond.

    1. You could drop detached “1% for art”-type pieces into BART stations and they wouldn’t change the reality of the system a bit. They’d be the same drab and un-walkable stations except with some random mural or statue in them. Yawn. I mean, is this a train station or a fast food restaurant? Put a mural by the turnstiles, same thing.

      Rather than “1% for art” we need to think 100% for design. Of all the nostalgia and love for great old transit systems of the world how much of it is for art, how much of it is for the great practical elements of the system, how much of it is for the people that flow through it?

      I was thinking recently about the difference between old urban highways and newer ones — (Seattle’s) Highway 99 and (Chicago’s) Lake Shore Drive on one hand, I-5 and the Kennedy on the other. The old highways were often built practically around the constraints and contexts of their locations. The new ones were built with a focus on internal, specialized, road-building expertise, the engineers given a blank check to blow up everything in their path. The BART is a mid-century freeway of a transit system, built entirely around vehicle speed with little regard the people using it or how it could contribute to the cities it served. We should build a better system, a more practical system, by remembering our external constraints and context. Dropping some art in has almost nothing to do with it.

      1. Public art in the modern era is almost without exception completely horrible, and the world would be better off without it. Look at the ridiculousness stapled to the Ballard Bridge, or the front of CenturyLink Field. Hmm; maybe it’s just the flat, hammered metal I don’t like.

        I miss the old midcentury “plop art” which was so ridiculed by early New Urbanists but has turned out to be pretty classic, like the Henry Moore sculpture across from the library, or Noguchi’s “Black Sun”.

      2. @Fnarf: I’m not saying the art is bad or good. I’m saying it’s irrelevant, totally disconnected from the design elements that determine whether the space works well for people or not.

        The Ballard Bridge is an example. I use the Ballard Bridge every few weeks; I cross over it and under it… and mostly on foot, not at any especially great speed! I have no idea what ridiculousness is stapled to the Ballard Bridge. Whether it’s great art or lousy art or OK art in a lousy place doesn’t matter to me at all; what does matter is that the sidewalks on the bridge are too narrow and that light timings crossing under the bridge were concocted by the DOT as a punishment for using the area on foot.

        Another example is the Boston City Hall and its plaza. A terrible public space that some people think is great art. Leave that dispute to the critics and historians — as a public space it needs to be fixed!

        Or Wrigley Field in Chicago. What are its beloved elements? Signs, scoreboards, and flags, conveying meaning and information. The people and the surroundings. Intimacy, not grandeur. Nothing about it is high art; much about it is functional.

        Sometimes art is an attraction, drawing people to a place they’d otherwise ignore. At varying scales we have… the Statue of Liberty on an uninhabited island in the Hudson; the famous Picasso on an otherwise anonymous Chicago plaza; the Fremont Troll off a residential side street under the Aurora Bridge; that odd sculpture walk everyone here hates because of the streetcar barn thing. People go to transit stations to use transit, there’s no other need to draw them there. The question of what will make these stations useful and enjoyable is entirely separate from the question of what makes good art.

      3. Henry Moore’s sculpture still looks hideous. Get rid of it and put something else in the space that will gather people to it, rather than being a large empty “open space”. Or put a garden there with lots of different plants.

    2. The 1972 subway would have had a significant effect on King County’s subsequent growth. Northate, Southcenter, and SeaTac were left out because they were not the major places they are today. I-5 and 405 were brand new. Southcenter was really an outgrowth of the decision on where to locate the Interstates, because until then the mall was planning to be in Burien. The Kent Valley was also farmland until the freeways changed it. The anticipated development patterns even in 1972 were northeast (Bothell), central-east (NE 8th St), southeast (Renton), and southwest (Burien, Des Moines). Not east-northeast (Kirkland, Redmond) or south-central (Kent Valley).

      Since the freeways were chosen in the early 60s, they would have been a fact by the time the subway opened, so it’s not worth imagining what things would have been like with a subway and no freeways. But if both the freeways and the subway had been available or anticipated, it would have affected development decisions in the 70s and 80s, and hyper-growth in the 90s and 00s.

      The presence of subway termini in Renton and Crossroads would have concentrated development there. Microsoft might (just might) have moved to Crossroads rather than Redmond. (It was previously on Northup Way near 108th.) The 169 would have been a more major bus route, perhaps centering Kent more on 104th/108th, with less in the valley. Workers and residents would be able to live near rapid transit in Renton, Bellevue, Lake City, Rainier Valley, and (GuyOnBeaconHill says) Ballard. This would have created pressure for jobs to concentrate at those locations, and perhaps (perhaps) for increased density around them. Bellevue and Renton were not flatly opposed to midrise buildings; there were 6-story office buildings in both downtowns in that era. That’s not to say that all jobs and housing would locate at subway stations, but there would have been a greater incentive for them to do so than what occurred in the freeway-and-bus environment, where everything spread out pretty evenly and was utterly dependent on cars.

      1. Development is about personalities, too. What would Kemper Freeman Sr. have done if the subway had come in 1972? Bellevue Square was still open-air then. Would he have packed up and left?

        Microsoft would never have gone to Crossroads — Gates was and is utterly devoted to the campus. Look at the monstrosity he dropped across from Seattle Center. Corporate headquarters are located where it’s convenient for the CEO to drive his supercar; nobody gives a crap about the workers.

      2. Kemper would still have built up the Square in place, I’m sure. There’s only one downtown Bellevue, and Kirkland or Juanita isn’t it.

        Even if the Microsoft campus were still in the same place in Redmond, it would have been a short bus ride from the subway’s terminus. That would have affected where his many employees had decided to live, and in what kind of house. Some would have chosen exactly the same sprawl. Others would have been attracted to living near a subway station, even if the house were smaller or attached.

        CEO commutes are an interesting phenomenon. Christopher Leinberger says the same thing you do, and I’m inclined to agree: corporate headquarters are located in the prestigous quarter of the metropolitan region, between two radial freeways, so that the CEO can reverse-commute to work avoiding traffic. Little thought is given to where employees would live or how they’d get to work. But again, a subway station would be a factor that even Bill Gates couldn’t ignore; it would at least force him to consider locating there even if he didn’t do it.

        As for the Gates Foundation, it may be an isolationary building, but it is in a close-in location. He could have built it in Issaquah, as many companies have done. (Cough, Costco headquarters.)

      3. I didn’t think about subway extensions. If it was started in the 70s and opened in the 90s, there would likely have been an extension to Kent by now along 108th/104th. Bellevue’s extension might have gone southeast to Bellevue College and to a commercial district south of I-90 at 150th. I don’t see it going to Issaquah because Issaquah’s growth is so new it was probably too late to catch the first round of expansions.

  2. Concentrate on developing a city that people who work with their hands can both work and live in, and you’ll also have not only an art scene, but a live and healthy one.

    Mark Dublin

    1. And the way to do that is to build more housing, to try to address the supply and demand imbalance that keeps people who aren’t high-paid white-collar employees priced out of city neighborhoods.

      1. Artists have never been “high-paid white collar employees” that live in the fancy neighborhoods. Most artists have lived on the outskirts of high society. Seattle in the 1970s and 80s was a great spot for artists to work. The Boeing bust combined with white flight to the suburbs created an abundance of housing and studio spaces conveniently located close to downtown Seattle and the Belltown/Downtown arts scene flourished. Today those locations are too expensive (and unappealing) for the bohemian lifestyle.

        There’s also the question of what changes will technology bring to the arts world. [… 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.] Today, would a modern-day Baudelaire be rapping over Beethoven beats? Would Imogen Cunningham be tumblr-famous? Would Jackson Pollock be inking tattoos? Are the people we see on the bus with their earbuds in and their finger tapping away on some small electronic device creating their own masterpieces (1%) or are they just lol-ing some friend’s facebook post (99%)?

      2. GuyOnBeaconHill, there’s an assumption implicit in your post, assuming it’s a response to mine, that city neighborhoods are all fancy neighborhoods. If you define a “city neighborhood” as a very dense neighborhood, and “fancy” as “expensive,” right now that’s true. But the whole point of my build-more-housing crusade is to try to change it, so that artists can live in the city like they did in the old days, rather than being shunted to places like Georgetown or White Center by housing/space costs, whether or not they want to be.

  3. Rent was based on Puccini’s opera La Boheme, about the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1840’s. Interestingly, the Internet tells me “artists, musicians and bohemians” can be found here. How has the Latin Quarter been spared this scourge of gentrification for 170 years?

    1. The Latin Quarter is across the river from Notre Dame and it’s Paris’ University District. There are lots of students and tourists in the Latin Quarter and the art stalls that line the Seine River have been a backdrop in a million movies, but real estate in that area is very expensive and it’s way beyond “gentrification”. Students and the people that work in that neighborhood will be using Paris’ excellent transportation system to commute between their homes and their jobs or schools.

    2. The Latin Quarter is a solidly tourist district now. Any artists to be found are state-subsidized. Paris is a museum — a lovely museum, but Picasso and Sartre and Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and James Baldwin are all extremely dead.

      1. Always amused by your “Paris is a museum” epithet, but it’s really not true. Paris proper remains a demographically-dynamic city of 2.2 million, and arrondissements 12-20 are anything but ossified.

      2. Frankly, I’m shocked that you would cite that paragon of financial-sector sterility as an example of the “real” economic locus of France.

        It seems contrary to your normal insistence that the economy happens where people are innovating, implementing and executing, rather than paper-pushing. I can’t imagine you arguing that Canary Wharf is the lifeblood of England, or saying anything kind about the orchard of cubicles on the Jersey City waterfront.

        The throbbing commerce of Paris proper cannot be so easily discounted. Nor can the potency of immigrant footholds like Belleville, or Chinatown in the 13th. (Belleville’s gentrification has been steady but gradual; that neighborhood most closely evokes the Bohemianism of old, for what it’s worth.)

  4. I’ve been waiting for some time for artists to start renting old barrel-roof Safeways and other box stores in depressed suburban neighborhoods, but I haven’t seen it happen yet. One of the things that we forget with our modern perspective is that artists moved to hip neighborhoods when they were deeply UN-hip, shitholes in fact. Those fabulous Soho or LES lofts in New York used to be abandoned space that no one wanted; many of them were actually squats when the artists first showed up.

    Freshly abandoned K-Mart on Aurora, I’m looking at you. What else could possibly go in there? Is it hip? Hell no. Is it big and available? Who wants a space that big? Wal-mart, but is Wal-mart looking to go into that neighborhood? With the collapse of retail, as everything goes online, there are surely going to be places with space they can’t rent.

    Or, if not in Seattle, what about places in fly-over country? The artists, if they truly want to pioneer like their forebears, have to go places that no one else wants. Cheap buildings in Detroit, I hear, or St. Louis.

    1. Funny you mention the Bitter Lake area–hello from abandoned K-Mart land! We used to have two artist families living on our block. The first was a husband filmmaker and wife visual artist. They and their adorable daughter moved to the Olympic Peninsula to build their own house/farm and run a general store. They are both still doing art. The other was a brother and sister who were performance artists. They lost their house to foreclosure last year and I have no idea where they are now. Our block party is going to be less vibrant this summer, I suspect–the brother used to bring his band and they’d just jam during the party, it was pretty awesome.

      In addition to the abandoned K-Mart, there is also the extremely uncool abandoned car dealership on the NW corner of 130th & Aurora. If we put up a sign that said “Welcome Artists” would that chase away the crack whores from that space? Because, that’s who’s currently using the abandoned car dealership.

      1. The K-Mart space is extraordinarily difficult, set down in that hole like that. I guess it’s a buffer from Aurora, but it’s going to be impossible to put anything attractive there — no one’s ever going to want to put a big building there, scaled to the size of that hole. If Albertson’s ever decides they’re sick of it, that whole area is in deep trouble. I love Aurora so much, even that bad stretch, but I worry about what’s going to happen to it.

      2. Plenty of room for lots more housing. It’s an imminent RapidRide station, potential rail station someday, and on a potential bus route to Lake City.

      3. I could see it having a below-level that was garage parking. As a way to do something with the giant hole. And then put a retail-below-apartments-on-top building that’s at street level, on top of the parking garage that is at the current ground level. If that makes sense. But it’s a really really big lot, I mean, that’d be a big apartment building. You’d need a developer with a lot of guts to take that risk in Hookerville.

      4. Yeah, that’s what I mean — it would have to be HUGE. Like downtown full-lot huge. I don’t see a lot of demand for someone to build another Columbia Center or whatever it’s called now at 130th and Aurora. If you’re talking mixed-use, it would be larger than any similar project I can even think of. The city? They seem to be obsessed with building all their low-income projects as far away from retail and other services as humanly possible.

        If what is already the World’s Sketchiest Rite Aid up the way ever shuts, I’m really going to be worried.

      5. A lot that size could be divided into smaller lots, right? Probably should be. At least four different lots, two facing Stone and two facing Aurora… and something like a public street network between them…

      6. Al, I think you’re on the right track. The corner of the K-Mart lot closest to 130th and Aurora could be inexpensive (to build and rent) single-story, street-level retail space. The remainder could be medium-density housing, such as “new & improved” townhouses or (dare I say it?) rowhouses, with a couple of small streets separating them. Time to bulldoze the existing use and start over with a bit of neighborhood renewal.

      7. There’s a huge apartment building at 135th & Linden, not very visible from Aurora. I could see something like that in the K-Mart parcel, or even two of them.

    2. Big-box stores have been converted in other cities, not to artist studios that I know of, but to community centers, churches, libraries, and community-plus-retail. There’s a photo book about it although I don’t remember the title.

    3. is Wal-mart looking to go into that neighborhood?

      I believe they already are in the form of Sam’s Club (Sam Walton) just up the street. I think the problem with the KMart site is A) not enough parking and B) piss poor freeway access. Walmart has a store just off I-5 north of the I-5/I-405 interchange. They might be interested in a Walmart Grocery like they did at the old KMart site in Bellevue. Albertsons is working at going out of business. Old KMart sites seem to be universally a stinker. The one in Lakewood was open for nearly 40 years. I’m betting it’s going to be a crater for at least the next ten.

      1. Yes, there is a Sam’s Club right up the street. Agreed about the Albertsons, which is bizarre because it’s the only grocery store near there (except the Grocery Outlet, which always has meth heads hanging out in front) so you’d think they’d have a stronger business. But their produce is horrible at that store.

      2. It’s Albersons in general that is going down the tubes. The only one I know of that’s half decent is the one over in Four Corners outside of Kingston. They got swallowed up in a merger with SuperValue which is in the process of going bankrupt. Albertsons stores were split with some going to private equity ownership and others staying corporate. I’m betting it’s the corporate ones that have pulled the brand name down into the gutter. It’ unclear if what’s left of the chain can pull it out. It would probably be better if they were sold off to Haggens but I’m not sure Haggnes would want to try to right the ship. There’s little if any value left in the brand.

    4. One other point while we’re talking about my neighborhood: the city has proposed rezoning that entire strip of Aurora from what it is (giant stores with big parking lots) to TOD, so, retail below, apartments above. They had an open house type event to talk about maybe 18 months ago? They had like designs and stuff, it was pretty snazzy on paper. I asked some of the people there what it would take to make it happen and they said basically to make the economics of it work, to sustain all the retail that would be created by the plans, there would need to be a lot more people coming from outside the neighborhood to shop/eat/etc. here. There just wouldn’t be enough people in the neighborhood to keep that many businesses afloat. So, my guess is, developers won’t be making those plans a reality anytime soon.

      Also, some of the plans from that meeting suggested Link might run on Aurora and then there’d be a stop at 130th. And of course that didn’t happen. So, if you need to bring in outside people to sustain the businesses in the area, and there’s no light rail, just Rapid Ride…yeah, that’s another reason not to build here.

      1. There are several obstacles to bringing in retail traffic to the area. The superblocks break up access from nearby residential areas, and Aurora’s wacky interchanges and downtown orientation south of 80th draw people from those residential neighborhoods in other directions. I-5 tends to block off access from east of there. And that’s before even getting into reputation and perceptions… and some businesses that want to stop any kind of pedestrian access, let alone TOD…

        Unfortunately some of these things aren’t in the local area, and others will have to be addressed project-at-a-time. You’ll have to get momentum behind the network effects of breaking up superblocks, etc.

      2. I hope Aurora TOD takes off eventually because it could make a huge contribution to Seattle’s needs. Shoreline and Lynnwood are going full steam ahead with TOD zoning around their RapidRide and Swift stations, so there could be a continuous Lake City-like neighborhood from 74th to Everett someday (or rather, more like like San Francisco’s Mission Street). The last I heard was that the Aurora businesses had quashed removing parking for transit lanes because they’re heavily into keeping it a car-friendly neighborhood and they don’t seem as enthusiastic about density as Shoreline and Lynnwood. But if they’re ready to move on that, it would be great. The city has already penciled in a theoretical urban village around 130th and 135th; it just needs cooperation and prioritization to happen.

  5. “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.”

    That’s the closest explanation I can think of. The hipster districts were all industrial manufacturing in the early 1900s. Changing technology, cheap foreign labor, white flight, and industrial suburbanization caused manufacturers and workers to leave these areas. Beatniks/bohemians/hippies/artists/misfits moved in. Some ordinary family people remained. Forty years and a new generation later, white flight reversed and rediscovered the city. They had more money than the artists, and the high-tech “creative” class was particularly well-off and also had a new attitude toward inner-city environments and the importance of beatnickery/art/granola. So they embraced the inner cities while simultaneously gentrifying them. Public policy has persistently understimated the size of this movement, and the number of ordinary family people wanting to move back to the city/walkability/transit. So even though these neighborhoods are growing, they’re not growing fast enough to avoid pushing up real-estate prices, which means only the more-affluent can afford to live there.

    Real artists have recognized this problem for a long time, and have thus moved to SODO, White Center, Tacoma, Vashon Island, Port Townsend, etc. The first three are the last remaining bits of formerly industrial land and adjacent low-cost neighborhoods, while the latter two are a rural or small-town lifestyle. Other artists have switched to commission-based work, which often pays more than personal art and enables them to live in better neighborhoods; it even demands that they live close to their clients and suppliers. Others managed to buy a building before the 90s boom, allowing them to stay in hip neighborhoods.

    The abandonment of industrial plants near old downtowns was a one-time occurrence. One criticism of Jane Jacobs is that she mistook the transitional phase for a permanent norm. Going forward, urban neighborhoods will be expensive until (A) enough infill is built to satiate demand, or (B) still-forgotten neighborhoods are rehabilitated. But the still-forgotten neighborhoods are not near downtowns so they have little non-automobile transit. Transit would have to improve in them in order for a non-driving artist-ish community to form and not just be sprawl. The other remaining near-downtown artist-renaissance opportunities are places like Detroit, Cleveland, and Cincinnati, where much bigger recessionary problems affect the entire city and would have to be addressed too.

    1. That’s why I mentioned Safeways. Why does it have to be ex-industrial? That kind of space doesn’t get built anymore, and hasn’t for a hundred years. What does? Big prefab slab-sided barns, box stores, etc., which are actually rather similar once you get inside the door. Why would an artist care, if it was cheap enough? The problem is that artists used to be all about taking spaces no one else wanted, but now artists are as much about the trendy lifestyle as they are about working, so they want to be near the bars and coffeehouses more than they want to slave away on whatever.

      Can’t have it both ways — not for long, anyways. There aren’t any starving artists in Soho these days, either.

      1. Density is just as important to spawning new artistic ideas as it is to spawning new business ideas. Maybe even more, as there’s often far more innovation in art. Being physically close to other artists, and galleries, and buyers is important. And not just for 9-5 work, but at bars afterword, in coffee shops, at gallery openings, at performances, even sometimes in bedrooms. Human interaction is important, and commuting long distances to treat art like a day job doesn’t sound conducive to the process.

        Not that you can’t build an art community around and inside an old Safeway. I’m just arguing that an art space alone isn’t enough.

      2. Yes! Artists will soon be moving into abandoned big-box stores and malls. Love it.

      3. “Why does it have to be ex-industrial?”

        Yes, it can happen in big-box stores or their parcels. That’s happening more outside the northwest where Walmart and the like have a bigger and older presence. But the difference between an industrial district and a big box store is that an industrial district is much bigger, so it can be redeveloped into an entire neighborhood.

  6. Not to be overly picky on a generally great blog, but it would be very helpful if you would be more clear in distinguishing between “city” (which here equals “downtown” most of the time), and not, as in outside the actual city limits. Or if you have your own map of what the “city” of Seattle is, please link to it. Not all of us density lovers have the same map in our head as you transit nerds. Georgetown, by the way, is clearly in the city.

    1. Georgetown is the most isolated enclave of any major city I can think of. Topographic or infrastructural barriers on all sides, awful transit (justified, sadly, by the isolation and dearth of consistent demand), not contiguous with anything. Just two trapezoids of former company-town tract housing stretching laterally from a commercial district that would make Bozeman, MT seem like Manhattan by comparison.

      The place is cute, it has some nice amenable spaces in which artists can work and, more importantly, bungalows for rent where they can lay their heads on the cheap. But unless you have a junker car or are a road-warrior biker, its off the map. It’s “in the city” in name only.

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