[Editor's Note: This is the second of a two-part series on the role of the artist in gentrification. Click here to read part one.]
The concept of artists moving into low-income neighborhoods for affordable housing, or to find older houses with interesting architecture, is not unique to Charlotte; think New York's East Village in the mid-'80s or Brooklyn in the '90s. The artists who move into these forgotten neighborhoods, whether in N.C. or NYC, have the keen ability to highlight the culture of spaces and places through the artistic vibes they emanate, a vibe that pulls people in from various walks of life.
However, once upper-middle-class folks become aware of this new culture, and then become regular visitors to a new arts neighborhood, developers take notice. Those developers — focused only on the bottom line — eventually push out those whose families have called the neighborhood home for generations; alongside them go the artists in need of affordable housing and affordable rental prices for art galleries.
And so the cycle continues in cities across America: the artists make a neighborhood trendy, rental costs rise, and then the artists and original residents are pushed out of the 'hood they made cool in the first place.
The typical story of artists as first signifiers of impending gentrification is the story of the NoDa (former) Arts District in what was once called North Charlotte, as outlined in a 2013 Creative Loafing blog post, "Question the Queen City: The forgotten history of NoDa." In that post, the author outlines the Charlotte-based narrative of visual artists seeing the beauty in a struggling neighborhood and creating artwork and artistic spaces that attracted the middle-class to North Davidson Street.
- NoDa now looks much different than when it originally became an arts district.
After the textile industry in Charlotte evaporated in the mid-1970s, the houses in North Charlotte had fallen into disrepair and the small businesses had closed up shop. It was a rough area with a porn theater (now the Neighborhood Theatre) and lots of pool halls. The neighborhood was forgotten until the mid-'80s, when Paul Sires and Ruth Ava Lyons took an interest in the mill village.
The pair fell in love with the beauty in the architecture of the mill buildings. They were able to envision what North Davidson could be based on what they currently saw in the neglected neighborhood. Sires and Lyons envisioned North Davidson becoming an arts and entertainment district for the city of Charlotte. And that's exactly what happened.
The two opened up Center of the Earth gallery and began to help the city see North Davidson as the NoDa Arts District. By the early 2000s a new generation of Charlotte artists and middle-class residents rediscovered the neighborhood. Now, with the LYNX Blue Line adding tracks and stops in NoDa, even more Charlotteans will rediscover the arts and entertainment district — now more of a bar district than anything else — whose its roots had grown stronger in the mid-1980s with Center of the Earth gallery, which closed its doors in 2010.
As more middle- and upper-class residents made NoDa their home, local artists, long-time residents and small businesses that had been neighborhood staples found themselves being pushed out due to rising rent prices.
One such NoDa art staple that more recently found itself outside the lines is the art boutique Dupp&Swat, which recently left the NoDa@28th shopping center made locally famous by Amélie's; Dupp&Swat moved to The Plaza, where it's slated to reopen on July 27. It is also working on opening up a second location at Camp North End. That "concept location" will be a part of an open house at Camp North End's Boileryard on July 28.
- A man works on an art installation in Dupp&Swat's new Plaza Midwood location.
Davita Galloway, co-owner of Dupp&Swat, addressed the reasons for the move in a recent Creative Mornings talk: "You see it. Venues are closing. You see it. Rent is increasing, forcing different businesses and organizations out. And after five years, that thing came knocking on our door, and we were forced to close."
- Davita Galloway.
She then asked a deeper question: "Don't we matter? That question supersedes Dupp&Swat. It is literally questioning the survival of the art and creative community here in Charlotte."
The gentrification of NoDa from forgotten mill village to beautifully gritty arts district to its more recent transformation into a polished, touristy entertainment district is a change that is pushing out long-standing residents and artists alike. Galloway knows that many influential Charlotteans look to the arts community to attract middle-class development to the city's spaces and places.
"You use our work to entice people to come to the city and to live here. [But] who wants to move to a place with no culture, no scene, and nothing's popping? No one wants to do that. No one wants to be a part of that," Galloway said.
As new developments gain more relevance in Charlotte, the role of the artist in the gentrification process is beginning to evolve. The artist's role is to help with the social integration process of the developments in a manner that adds to the economic revitalization of an area. Artists like Janelle Dunlap (profiled in the first part of this series) and Galloway are both taking on this newfound role of the artist in the process of gentrification.
Dunlap is finding ways to work with, and to influence, developers. She explained, "When I got brought into Camp North End, I made sure that all the people and artists that I have known for years, like Dammit Wesley, and artists I wanted to get to know and develop relationships with, like Marcus Kiser, were brought in."
- Davita Galloway.
And the city is listening, at least in theory. Charlotte recently published a long-form interview with Galloway on Medium, and pushed it onto social media and the official city website.
In the mean time, Galloway is taking to public stages like Creative Mornings to bring the story of local gentrification from the canvas to the stage and directly challenge influencers to question their impact on how pushing out people, specifically artists, hurts both their bottom line and, more importantly, the vitality of a community. For Galloway, as neighborhoods across Charlotte continue to change, the expression of creativity will become even more "necessary and apparent."
"Art will become more raw in its presentation and in its content. The more an artist endures, the realer, the rawer, the more powerful the message," Galloway said. "Even amidst closing venues, galleries and gathering places, art will thrive and survive, as those that truly depend on it won't have it any other way."