The “Other Side of Town”

Have you been to the “other side of town”? You know, the abandoned warehouses, the old storefronts, the vacant land that populate the landscape typically about 20 minutes from your house, wherever you live. The places that time forgot, the economy abandoned and the people deserted. The only salvageable qualities of these areas tend to be old furniture someone stumbles upon or the prospect of a developer razing the old buildings for something new, or at least empty land.

These abandoned industrial areas have become commonplace across America and the world. As mills faded in the later part of the 20th century and factories closed up shop due to a sluggish economy, jobs moving elsewhere, or just plain old bankruptcy, vacant lots and structures have become a visible beacon of our 21st century economic cycles and progress. There is truth in the advice from our parents and grandparents to never venture to the “other side of town”. Typically when a major factory, warehouse or string of businesses goes under and becomes a vacant property, the neighborhood surrounding it deteriorates with it. People who once worked their lives within walking distance to their job now are out of work, under water on their mortgage, and lack the confidence that once created their neighborhood. The next things to go are the quality of the streets, parking lots; street lights burn out and are never replaced and other infrastructure suffers due to lack of use and attention. A once thriving area of town becomes “the other side of town”, home of the “riffraff”, and indeed typically an area not conducive to green lawns, picket fences, neighborhood cookouts, boutique shops, community attractions, festivals and the countless other things that ironically were present in years past.

But then something happens – or at least has begun to happen all over America and the world.

Someone takes a chance either out of passion or because there are no other options. And that someone is, more and more often than not, an artist or arts organization.

Across the world, and indeed right here in Greenville County, arts groups negotiate with the owner of the property to get either reduced or free rent for the vacant building. Artists, typically young artists, roll up their sleeves and begin transforming these previous eye sores into functional and beautiful facilities. Everything from studios to performance venues to office spaces begin dotting vacant properties on the “other side of town”. Then, artists begin living in neighboring houses. Due to the affordability associated with these areas of cities, artists, who usually hold two jobs and make a small percentage of their earnings from creating art to begin with, find the prices in these areas very welcoming. But the artists also see potential where community leaders do not. Housing conditions also begin to improve due to the commitment and design of these artists. Sooner or later, the “other side of town” becomes the “hip side of town”. The area begins to see infrastructure improve, property value rise, small businesses and boutiques open followed by unique and pioneering restaurants and green spaces. The so called “SoHo Effect” has taken hold.

And finally, after all of the risks taken, all of the blood, sweat, tears, laughter and beauty put into this new community asset, artists are economically forced out of the very area they helped create.

It doesn’t seem fair does it? That despite the fact that the community owes this new development entirely to the artist, once the rent gets “too damn high” the community unknowingly kicks out their greatest asset.

But while there are organizations and business models that help keep artists in the community they helped form and have done so with wild success and whom I support [organizations such as Artspace based in Minneapolis and founded in 1979 by the city’s arts commission, are leading the way in “nonprofit arts real estate & development”, proactively purchasing vacant properties across the country and developing them into live/work spaces for artists for the long-term (they’ve completed and manage 21 sites across the country so far)], there’s a part of me that thinks that not all artists should stay where they first made their impact on the community after it becomes successful.

Artists have this innate ability to adapt to change, not only to adapt to it, but also capitalize on it. It seems almost that the calling of the artist is to “go where no one has gone before”, to create something not seen anywhere else, to change the conversation. In a way, if an artist’s goal is to change the world, then they should position themselves somewhere where it can be changed. And after one corner of this world is improved, they silently move on to the next one.

While I do wish for income equality for artists and arts groups that take this kind of risk in underdeveloped areas, and I do agree that some artists are meant to stay behind with the communities they change; I ultimately think that artists are “kicked out” of these types of communities not because there is an outright opposition to the artist but rather somewhere, deep down and though many people will never admit it, we’re all secretly depending on the artist.

We need the artist, not to merely make us laugh, cry or smile, but to continue to take the risks many others are not willing to take and to do something that most people would never think of doing..

…moving to the “other side of town”.

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