The degradation of culture is always a popular topic of conversation. It's something we all like to lament while sipping Starbucks in the shadow of corporate monoliths. We can't seem to figure out why life in a city—any city—feels increasingly empty, increasingly false. Haunted by the feeling that something irretrievable is slipping away, we become mired in nostalgia, romanticizing a time when things felt more alive and real. Maybe it's the Haight in the '60s or New York in the '70s. For me, it's Chicago in the '80s, when my parents would take me deep into the city's blight to visit friends—all of whom were artists and all of whom were poor. Living (legally or otherwise) in raw, cavernous warehouses in the grittiest parts of town, they formed collectives, dividing up dilapidated space into studios and makeshift apartments. Vibrant creativity and hotplates were common; plumbing was not.
Every one of those artists is gone now, scattered to suburbs and far-flung towns after their downtown warehouses were carved into offices and luxury lofts. By the time I left Chicago, I couldn't even afford to park in the areas where their studios once were.
The sentiment is groaningly familiar, I know. The displacement of the creative class is a problem plaguing every major city in the country, including San Diego. The dispersal of artists robs urban centers of character and authenticity and catalyzes the cultural degradation we all seem to fear.
The trouble is, artists are typically on the vanguard of urban development. They move into undesirable parts of the city, lured by the low rents and large spaces. They're willing to endure the rats, the crime and the lack of amenities for the sake of their work. But at the point that enough artists concentrate in a particular area, they seem to send out an unwitting homing signal to scenesters, retailers and developers. The artists are trailed into the cultural wilderness first by independent shops and cafés that spring up around their needs (which is fine), then by the hip, young professional class hoping to emulate creativity through proximity (which is bad), then by the quasi-indie chain stores that spring up around the professionals' needs (which is really bad), and finally by the developers who are responsible for one of the most absurd of modern phenomena, the $500,000 “artist's loft” (which is death). The result is an “artsy” area completely devoid of artists.
East Village? North Park?
“When artists can no longer afford rents in a city,” says Cheryl Nickel, “it's bad for the artists, yes—but it's really bad for the city. If San Diego is to have any longstanding character, it has to be more than tourist bars and a convention center.”
Nickel is a co-founder of sdspace4art (www.
sdspace4art.org), a diverse group of creatives who grew tired of watching artists get priced out of San Diego neighborhoods. So, rather than waxing nostalgic for the past, they're taking a proactive role in shaping the city's future.
The group, a subcommittee of the Synergy Art Foundation, is an entirely volunteer-driven effort that comprises local visual artists, architects, filmmakers, writers, musicians and dancers. The goal is to design and develop affordable live/work spaces for artists of all disciplines in key locations throughout the city. But the idea goes beyond the construction of physical space.
“I've been doing this for 30 years,” says Bob Leathers, an architect specializing in community-built projects who spearheads the group along with Nickel (the two are also married). “And I've learned that it's not just what you build at the time; it's the empowerment that you bring to the community in doing so.”
Here's what sets sdspace4art apart from other efforts to construct affordable live/work space for artists (notably Artspace, a national nonprofit development company): The group generates ideas through a series of design charrettes, intensive brainstorming sessions in which members of the local arts community work together to design projects for specific sites. The theory behind the charrettes is that with the input of artists from all disciplines, the space can be designed in a way that benefits everyone—from writers to welders. Beyond the charrettes, the group works with the broader community to determine the ways in which arts facilities can enrich the lives of neighborhood residents. A meeting with residents of Sherman Heights, for example, revealed that the community wanted a museum dedicated to the neighborhood's history.
“So, we're working with them on what we call ‘points of contact,'” says Nickel. “Mapping the way their goals overlap with our goals.”
The potential result could be a mixed-use facility in Sherman Heights that includes a museum and workspace that doubles as gallery space, allowing residents a window into the creative process. By working closely with the communities in which the facilities will be built, sdspace4art hopes to foster a symbiosis between artists and residents—making each an invaluable part of the other's existence and reversing the trend of creative displacement.
The group is presently scouting locations and is still largely in the design phase, planning a continued series of charrettes throughout the coming months. Leathers estimates that it will take anywhere from four to five years for the building to begin in earnest. In the meantime, the group is thriving on the involvement of young, local artists like Chris Warr, who sees sdspace4art as the kind of grassroots movement that can transform the creative environment in San Diego, making the city more hospitable and attractive to artists.
“I've thought about leaving here plenty of times,” Warr says. “But San Diego has its own unique identity. There are things here that you just won't find in cities like New York.”
“And besides,” adds Nickel, “New York is bleeding artists right now.” She interprets the exodus, due in large part to the fact that artists simply can't afford to survive there, as evidence that “the city isn't going to be the creative Mecca that it once was.”
So. Where next?
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