I am really looking forward to the launch of this project – from the looks of what’s been posted in the last while at the project website, there’s some great food for thought and discussion in the work being developed. I’m hoping to be able to catch Kendal Henry’s talk on the Saturday as well, as I think he will have some valuable insights regarding Edmonton as a whole, and ‘The Quarters’/Downtown East as it heads into redevelopment mode in earnest. I think there’s some thoughtful, and thought-provoking work in this public art project, and it will be very interesting indeed to see how the individual works are greeted by the area residents and by the wider population.
I was speaking with a friend about this project yesterday – and the relationship between art making, urban ‘renewal’, and the whole (problematic) notion of the ‘creative class’ as popularized by Richard Florida. The cycle is quite familiar by now: old neighbourhoods in a city’s core are hollowed out by business and residential migration due to suburban sprawl; there’s a rise in crime and social problems in the old neighbourhood, and property values drop; artists and other creatives move in (because they can afford to live and have studio/work space here); moves to revitalize the area begin, since the artists have made the area more viable; development takes over, property values soar … there’s some gentrification that goes on, and the artists move out be cause they can no longer afford space. Lather, rinse, repeat. Some of this has gone on in ‘The Quarters’ over the last few years.
… Not all bad (to my mind, we could do with fewer peep shows and crack houses for sure), but far from ideal in many ways. But that little summary of ‘progress’ leaves many factors out of the picture:
– What about the long-time residents of the area in question? How will they be treated, and what place will they have in the redevelopment? There tends to be a perception of core neighbourhoods that they are wastelands inhabited only by ‘undesirables’ and rife with violence and crime. But these are established neighbourhoods, in which people have lived and raised families … just like their (now) more affluent counterparts farther afield in the same city. It could be argued that these people are the real creative class – they carve out lives and raise families in less than ideal circumstances. What of them? Will development improve their quality of life, or will it make life more difficult financially and socially?
– What about the already marginalized members of the population currently living in the area? How will their needs be properly addressed in the face of profitable, upscale housing and the potential for profit for developers? All well and good to tear down places like the York Hotel – but the people who lived there still need a place to live – preferably one that’s safe. Erasing spaces in which ‘street people’ of various types congregate and/or stay doesn’t make them – or the underlying issues they face has humans – go away.
– Who really profits from this type of redevelopment … and who is being exploited in the process? How much do initiatives of this sort reinforce structures of social and economic inequality? Does it really improve the lot of artists in the long run? Who really benefits most from the vanguard of people willing to move into an area because they can’t afford space to do what they do best otherwise?
The work being presented in the Dirt City Dream City project looks at these (and many related) issues, from a variety of perspectives. These are conversations that need to be started, continued, debated … and it is my hope that the work being presented will begin some of that. The many assumptions about race, class, gender, (and on and on) inherent in the push to redevelopment of urban core neighbourhoods need to be made transparent; perhaps some of them could even be set aside in time, if we’re lucky.
It remains to be seen if any of the young artists involved in Dream City Dirt City will be able to afford to live in the area and maintain an active practice once ‘revitalization’ is complete of course … but that’s perhaps a conversation for another day.