Some time between 1990 and 2000, probably on a wall in New York or London or San Francisco, some wag coined the rueful phrase, “Artists are the shock troops of gentrification”. Its origins may be uncertain, but its wisdom is spot-on.
It’s a highly negative sentiment - complimentary neither to artists nor to the recent waves of commercially driven urban regeneration around the world - but it summarises a common story in contemporary cities. Cash-poor, creative people colonise an unloved, unremarkable district located off the radar of the prosperous classes, and perhaps even reviled by them. Taking advantage of large spaces and low rents, these artist-pioneers slum it, building their own creative communities until the areas become sufficiently cool and unthreatening to attract the attention of trend-hunters, premium coffee-drinkers, tourists and ultimately developers. Then, allegedly, all is ruined by conversion, construction and commercialisation. The founding bohemians are dislodged, priced out by new locals who have bought into the
vaguest legacy of non-specific artiness.
Every city has its version of this drama, and it’s currently being played out at the Kunsthaus Tacheles in Berlin. In a formerly edgy, now comfortably trendy part of the Mitte district, this rambling arts centre, night club, cinema and bar, whose dilapidated buildings and land were first squatted by a collective of Berlin artists in 1990, is now due to make way for a luxury hotel, flats, shops and offices. It continues to provide cheap studio space for artists and a constant stream of events and exhibitions, and has become an institution in the city. After subsidising its activities for many years, Berlin’s authorities sold the land on which Tacheles stands to developers in 2000 and ceased funding in 2002. This year, the agreement that has so far guaranteed its survival in its current form expires.
Supporters of the Tacheles ethic bemoan the rise of a Berlin that is ceasing to accommodate free cultural expression, and succumbing to the homogeneity of expensive commercial, retail and residential development with all its upwardly mobile trappings.
Others think Tacheles is dying a natural death. A spokesman for the Berlin authorities, quoted in a recent report in The Guardian, justified the withdrawal of funding by suggesting that the place was no longer the experimental cultural powerhouse it had been. And indeed, now that every Berlin tourist guide lists it as somewhere to hang out and buy souvenirs, its iconoclastic status looks a little shaky.
So the saga continues. Creative people, in search of affordable space to work and live, bestow a little cool on an area and then take flight once it’s overrun by blandness. Since the city’s reunification in 1990, Berlin has been particularly hospitable to pockets of alternative
lifestyle and creative freedom. But just as bohemian Berliners are edged out of the gentrified zones of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, similar tensions are arising in central London – leading contemporary British artists including Tracey Emin have been campaigning all year against stifling overdevelopment at Shoreditch, a thriving creative enclave of central London. Yet the fact is that Shoreditch has long been too pricy and hyped-up to welcome most fledgling creative businesses, let alone impecunious artists.
Ultimately it’s unwise to protest too much over the rise and fall of bohemian hubs in our cities. Cultural innovation frequently thrives on fluidity and a tense relationship with commercial priorities. It will always find ways to establish itself in the ‘spaces between’ – even if those spaces have been an ever tighter squeeze in recent years.
But if artists really have been gentrification’s shock troops - an unwitting urban advance guard, softening up areas for more hard-nosed redevelopment - then artists are also ideally placed to benefit when those commercial forces slow, or even fall into retreat. Given the prospect of that scenario, those at Tacheles and similar outposts may manage to defend their territory successfully for some time to come.
Editorial , London
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