A note on Gentrification

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A viewer looks at a second graffiti house, created as a response to the surrounding project on a non-WRECK CITY house in the middle of the WRECK CITY block

Since WRECK CITY first hit the papers, there has been much discussion regarding the space within which WRECK CITY was housed – namely seven homes and two quadraplexes scheduled for imminent demolition. Most of these discussions were optimistic, wistful, and bittersweet, but some discussions centered around the topical themes of gentrification, demolition, and redevelopment in Calgary. The Artist-Curators behind WRECK CITY found these discussions fascinating, and now that the project is over and we’ve had a chance to breath, we would like to address the idea of WRECK CITY and gentrification directly. In particular, two of the Curators have responded to the comment below, posted in response to an article written by Drew Anderson in FFWD:

Panther wrote:

“This is really sad. The community is being gentrified. These artists (and many lower income people), many of whom were, are and will be economically evicted from the neighbourhood, are being used to make way for wealthy empty nesters, doctors, oil and gas professionals, etc. Instead of creatively protesting gentrification, these artists are using their creativity to play for 5 minutes, misusing their talents for mindless exploration and ‘creative’ destruction. Meanwhile, their own community, one that used to have ample social and affordable private rental units to allow many artistic types to live in the community and make it unique and interesting is being destroyed by gentrification, making the community into a boring, cookie cutter, latte sipping, bland and boring upper income neighbourhood.”

April 19, 2013 6:16 am

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Words, scrawled in spray paint by a WRECK CITY artist on a garage

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White flag at 819, created by Alex Achtem as part of WRECK CITY

RESPONSE BY WRECK CITY CURATOR, ANDREW FROSST

The FFWD comment says a lot and it’s hard to know where to begin. Do I try and attribute value to our “mindless exploration and ‘creative destruction'”? Do I get into analyzing the space in art for social protest? I feel defending WRECK CITY against these sorts of accusations is akin to defending the value of art, which is something I feel art manages to do very well on its own.

 

To me, the interesting thing that emerges from the FFWD comment is the idea that we were in some way aiding gentrification or playing the part of the developers promotional puppets. I feel this is a very rational worry, and one that deserves something more than a simple response, so I will do my best.

 

WRECK CITY was never an avenue for voicing the curators opinions in relation to the city block’s demolition and the subsequent construction of a 115 unit residential complex. It was a space for production where we could showcase over 100 artists and give them a freedom rarely found in a traditional gallery. It was a less daunting avenue for viewing art that became an entryway for many Calgarians into our diverse arts and culture scene. It was a swan song to an old city block full of asbestos ridden houses, some begging to be condemned, some with many years of life left in them. And of course, it became a place for discussion on not just gentrification, but development in Calgary.

 

Being both a co-curator and the volunteer coordinator, I was on site the entire time WRECK CITY was open and I talked with hundreds of our 10 000+ guests. Conversations varied in length, but almost every single one of them included some sort of discussion about the destruction of these homes and the 115 unit residential complex that will replace them. Some people were sad, some upset, some complacent and some optimistic, but everyone discussed the matter and gained a lot from learning other people’s opinions. Our swan song to the city block might not have been a large banner of protest, but I think that it in no way could have or should have been. Our artists have opinions as varied as the public’s and I am excited that the artworks that chose to discuss the block’s impending demolition took a subtle approach, creating an opening for thought instead of attempting to instill a conviction in the viewer.

 

The reality is that this neighbourhood is changing rapidly and I think there is a need for people to be involved in that change. WRECK CITY was not about directing that change. It made the best of a situation giving Calgary something unique, recognizing 809 Gallery’s contribution to the arts community, and bringing people together in an inviting yet challenging environment to enjoy art and thoughtful discussion. I can shamelessly say that I feel it did all these things successfully, and the thousands of excited and grateful faces and comments I saw and heard at WRECK CITY speak louder about it’s positive influence than any article I could write. Had WRECK CITY never existed, there would be less discussion surrounding this neighbourhood’s development, and it’s only because of the curators, the artists, the press, the public and the developers, that I believe we are better off now than if the block, hidden in a quiet nook of Sunnyside, had been quietly demolished and rebuilt.

 

On a last note, I have to say that if anyone wants to voice their opinion on this community’s development, there are fantastic and productive ways to do so. For example, on April 22nd there was an open house at the Hillhurst and Sunnyside Community Association to discuss how to use the Triangle Site (a large triangular section of land neighbouring Sunnyside’s C-Train station) until the City plans to “undertake a mixed-type affordable housing development”. I hope the commenter found their way there.

 

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RESPONSE BY WRECK CITY CURATOR, JENNIFER CRIGHTON

The artists who were originally involved in 809 saw an opportunity, they chose to open a dialogue with the developers, out of which Wreck City has evolved. The resulting project has given opportunities to over 100 artists and curators and engaged over 10,000 members of the neighborhood and the public. It is hard to imagine having achieved that kind of impact had we simply chosen to oppose a situation which at that point was already inevitable.

From an artistic point of view there are things you can do to a house scheduled for demolition that you cannot do to a space that needs to be maintained. It also allows for a suspension of the normal rules governing a residential neighborhood, which opens the door to a discussion about how we are currently using the city, to reflect on its history, and imagine what we would like to see it become in the future.

 

As curators we are well aware of the issue of gentrification in Calgary’s Kensington neighborhood, as well as other “artsy” areas of Calgary that suddenly become appealing to a more wealthy, and possibly less colorful demographic.  If you look at some of the key people involved in this project you will quickly find the 809 Gallery and the Arbour Lake Sghool, both good examples of  longer term projects, which did expand the idea of how to use a domestic space, often in a way that was very much challenging ideas of gentrification.
I would like to believe that Wreck City provides a chance for new kinds of conversations to happen, and to engage a different kind of demographic in that process. Just because the organizers of Wreck City reached out to take advantage of a particularly interesting situation does not mean that we condone the ultimate result, we saw it as a necessary homage to the 809 Gallery, and a continuation of themes already at work in each of our practices.

 

We are just happy to have the opportunity to scribble outside of the lines for a little, and hopefully in the process give members of the public a chance to reevaluate the rules.

 

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5 thoughts on “A note on Gentrification

  1. Personally, I don’t understand the writer’s complaint that the artists involved with Wreck City were “misusing” their talents or just “mindlessly” playing. There seems to be an implication in those statements that artists have some sort of moral duty to produce polemics or “protest art” – otherwise their actions and artworks are meaningless. As an artist myself, I totally disagree with those notions. In fact, I find them sort of repugnant.

    The discussion about gentrification IS important, but there are ways to encourage that conversation besides producing heavy-handed “social protest” sorts of artworks. (Indeed, I think polemics often tend to turn people off rather than engage them. Not too many adults like to be scolded or lectured or told how to think!) I believe that Wreck City succeeded in creating those important discussions by attracting 10,000 visitors – who otherwise would never even have known about the demolition of those homes – with artwork that was engaging, interesting, playful and accessible.

    When I was house-sitting at Wreck City, I heard people ask over and over again about the fate of the houses and I had numerous conversations with visitors about gentrification, the destruction of affordable housing, etc. So, contrary to Panther’s concerns, the issues were not lost on the public simply because the art installation itself was playful rather than preachifying. (I know that’s not a real word. But it should be.)

    And as an artist, I was THRILLED beyond belief to see throngs of regular folks lining up to see contemporary art. In Calgary!!!! Amazing!!! I hope we’ll see more of these creative uses of vacant space in the future.

    • The idea that art is decoration undervalues a work. (Not my words but I do believe them.)
      I believe that art should be purposeful in some way, be it provocative, personal expression/therapy, sensational/emotional or as an artifact of societal values. (Not a fully developed list.) For this reason, I would be interested in seeing the proposal for Wreck City or an artist statement on the show as a whole. What was its intended purpose? That is, besides using available space to display work.
      Yes, there were conversations about the destruction of affordable housing and gentification but I think they happened despite the art, not in response to the art.

      • Hi Donna,
        You can read about the impetus for Wreck City in the about section of this website. Because it was such a large project each of the curators had a slightly different Curatorial idea, they also looked at over 100 submissions from artists in order to expand on those ideas. Reflections on the install process from individual curators, as well as information that was shared with us about the history of the area can be found by clicking on any of the house icons from the main page. Bios for most of the artists involved can be found under the artists tab. Hopefully this will shed light on some of your questions!

  2. I really loved that this happened thank you to all those involved and engaging us all. As a recording artist, I also believe it is really important to keep the dialog going and the letters flowing to MLAs about ‘rent control’ in Calgary, we are a really wealthy city and the working poor are just not getting by fairly, rent is ever so high and always on the rise, this is no way to thrive. Keep the faith and the struggle alive. Artists support each other and the communities in which they live, and work, it is time for every one to step up, to speak out, to act out and to cause a stir about Calgary’s expensive housing crisis. Art has to happen everyday and must communicate important values, dreams and aspirations all the time, people don’t like to see dirty things, they want everything in a neat package with a frilly bow, a coffee to go, but sometimes art has to be really ambitious and a bit rough on the edges. Love to arts eternally. Vi An Diep.

  3. Pingback: Signs Your Neighborhood Might Be Gentrifying | D.L. Mayfield

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