Who gentrified ArtStreet?

Gentrification and displacement were themes in the artwork of several ArtStreet installations, and a frequent topic of discussion by ArtStreet participants and visitors. [Photo William Burg]

“I am not sure that artists should be held responsible for gentrification; it is not necessarily their fault that wealthy professionals follow their lead. After all, creeps tend to follow teenage girls around, but teenage girls neither create nor encourage them…The larger economic forces that produce those able to gentrify are culpable parties, along with cities that leave housing issues almost entirely to the free market, even when booms produce epics of social Darwinist struggle over housing.”

—Rebecca Solnit, Hollow City

The May 2 essay about ArtStreet and gentrification by local provocateur Sac Snark spurred a flurry of comments, but its hyperbolic tone obscured the nuances of an important discussion.

Framing the situation as a battle between earnest artists and greedy developers, with a manipulative M5Arts group in the role of “swindlers,” without evidence for any of these characterizations, oversimplifies a complex situation, and overlooks a real cause of gentrification. As a participant in both Art Hotel and ArtStreet, but not a member of the M5Arts collective, I took away a different perspective.

During Art Hotel, I operated an exhibit and events inside the lobby of the Marshall Hotel, on weekends and most evenings during Art Hotel’s run. For ArtStreet, I ran a bar/event space/exhibit called the West End Club, and was present nearly every day of the event. Both spaces included exhibits dedicated to the West End, Sacramento’s lost neighborhood, destroyed by redevelopment. I either overheard or participated in hundreds of conversations about lost and current art spaces, redevelopment and its consequences, the future of art in Sacramento, and the planned fate of both buildings.

Art Hotel set the local pattern for a temporary installation in a presumably doomed building. Years before the 2103 Golden 1 Center arena deal was proposed, the owners of the Marshall Hotel and Jade Apartments planned a new hotel for the site, using the façade of the Marshall as its exterior. The 2008 recession delayed the project for years, but in 2015 it was approved and construction/demolition appeared imminent.

The temporary nature of the exhibit was part of M5 Arts’ initial concept. Visitors to the Art Hotel site were far from happy to hear about plans to demolish the Jade and the interior of the Marshall for a Hyatt Centric hotel. Some lamented the loss of affordable downtown housing, the inherent character of both buildings, and the short-lived nature of the exhibit. Visitors and artists expressed dismay about the owners’ plans, even though Art Hotel might never have occurred without those plans.

More than a year later, the Jade and Marshall are untouched, with much of the Art Hotel art still inside. Did the event change the minds of the owners about the future of the buildings, or their value? Did an art exhibit that drew national attention help promote or excuse a developer’s plans? Or did it erase vilifying terms like “blighted” and “functionally obsolete” by reframing a long-suffering building into a work of art?

Or is the project delayed for other reasons? Every day the building stands, the more it becomes part of the expected urban landscape of downtown Sacramento.

The ArtStreet warehouse received similar treatment, but the associated project, The Mill at Broadway, was already well underway before M5Arts arrived. When artists first entered the buildings in December, most of the Setzer lumber mill still stood. As we framed walls, installed art and planned events, more of the surrounding buildings fell.

These murals already decorated the Setzer mill when M5Arts arrived to set up ArtStreet. By the time the event opened, these buildings were demolished. [Photo William Burg]

By the time the public arrived, this 1950s warehouse—one of the newest (and thus least historic) parts of the mill complex—was one of the few survivors. Despite its prosaic appearance, artists and visitors lamented the loss of the building even as they marveled at the art. Just as with Art Hotel, there was little sympathy for the developer. People talked about what the building could be, what purposes it could serve, and the waste represented by its loss. I heard no conversations by people eager to slap a down payment on a forthcoming unit in The Mill at Broadway.

Other than marketing materials already on the project site, the closest thing to a “sales pitch” for The Mill was a presentation by the developer, Katherine Bardis, during an event I arranged, Preservation Sacramento’s quarterly “Preservation Roundtable.”

Most developers approaching a group of rabid preservationists about the building they are about to demolish would not consider them an easy crowd to please, but Bardis gave a fair presentation. She even mentioned the limited elements of adaptive reuse that were part of the Mill, including potential use of reclaimed wood from the warehouse in future construction. This was no cheery sales pitch. Bardis sold no condos to the Roundtable audience.

In short, Sac Snark implied, but in no way proved, that the developers behind these projects selected M5Arts to hold these events in their spaces, and that M5 were somehow swindling the artists or the public because they were selected in this manner. In fact, the reverse is true: the group approached the developers, who allowed the events to take place, presumably because they saw value in the artists’ presence, or as a showcase for their own projects, but that is not how the public perceived these spaces.

If ArtStreet or Art Hotel were efforts to get the art-loving public and artists to support the demolition of old buildings and turn them into advocates for gentrification, the new arena, and high-end condo housing, that effort failed miserably.

The only people who seem to share Sac Snark’s opinion that artists are supportive of Sacramento’s ongoing gentrification, with M5Arts as facilitator, are the local glossy booster and business web publications. Those publications implied that the artists’ presence endorsed gentrification, but artists and the so-called “creative class” are seldom great advocates for new development—in fact, they generally prefer old buildings due to their greater affordability and flexibility.

These projects did not obfuscate the developers’ end game; it cast them in sharp relief, and in extremely unflattering light. But, just as they did, by announcing their presence to the world, Sacramento’s artists facilitated the conditions for more gentrification.

  • Dan Osterhoff's "History Dies and Condos Rise" mural stood overlooked by many local media outlets whose advertisers are the ones who make the condos rise. [Photo William Burg]

Gentrifiers pursue artists, as Rebecca Solnit mentions above, because gentrification requires authenticity. Locally conceived marketing campaigns—whether for housing developments like The Mill, marketing campaigns like “Farm to Fork” and rebranding campaigns like Downtown Commons and “The Kay”—usually fall flat, perceived as contrived and artificial.

The wealthy urban customer (and gentrifier) seeks authenticity and genuine experience as an alternative to the perceived banality and sameness of suburban life. The gentrifying developer/builder generally has absolutely no idea how to fulfill this need for authenticity, so they try to fake it. As Sac Snark points out, consultant-derived cheesy videos and pithy slogans are no substitute for a vibrant arts culture. Where the marketing firms failed, M5Arts succeeded—entirely unintentionally.

For decades, Sacramento boosters focused their marketing on the banality and sameness of suburban life as Sacramento’s primary appeal. Even today, the efforts of the Greater Sacramento Economic Council sell Sacramento to Bay Area migrants based on availability of inexpensive suburban homes, a replay of the 1950s domestic dream.

Some Sacramento builders are starting to realize that people do want to live downtown, but don’t understand why. One of the factors that may have delayed gentrification in Sacramento for decades was the common assumption that the authentic, genuine artistic and cultural experiences sought by gentrifiers did not exist in Sacramento. Arts and artists were here, under the radar, while the Metro Chamber and local builders promoted Sacramento as a bucolic farm town transitioning to quiet suburbs.

If M5Arts facilitated gentrification through production of Art Hotel and ArtStreet, it is not because they were swindlers, but because they were genuine. Their success changed the narrative of Sacramento’s cultural potential by highlighting strengths that local business groups didn’t comprehend or recognize. There are many other market forces at work drawing money and attention to Sacramento, but the response to ArtStreet brought something new; external validation of Sacramento as regional cultural hub.

So, in many ways, our artists and M5Arts are responsible for an aspect of gentrification. But blaming ArtStreet and Art Hotel blames the victims of gentrification, not the perpetrator. We didn’t ask for it.

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William Burg
William Burg is a California historian who specializes in the history of Sacramento, transportation, urban planning and counterculture.