Can Art Cause Gentrification?

Local street artists discuss the complicated relationship between art and gentrification, exploring how the city can protect Boston’s vulnerable communities from developers.

Street art can bring life and vitality to neglected urban environments and has become a familiar characteristic of gentrification. However, the relationship between art and neighborhood regeneration is complex: when does public art serve communities and when does it lead to their displacement?

Within Boston, areas of Dorchester, Roxbury and South Boston are among those that have gentrified, with more of the city’s neighborhoods expected to undergo the same transformation during the next few years, according to this analysis of Boston census data.

A walk through the South End, where condominiums are constantly under construction, or through Seaport, where developers have started building a 414-unit apartment building on Congress Street, tells the same story.

Public art, murals and sculptures, can have a positive impact on communities, bringing residents together, creating conversation and giving areas an identity that was previously underappreciated or undefined.

Douglas’s recent mural in South Peabody, which he says portrays “grandmothers and children that are often under represented in communities.” Credit: Cedric Douglas.

Cedric “Vise 1” Douglas, a local artist and founder of community art lab, the Up Truck, in Uphams Corner, says “public art has the power to unify and bring people together.” This is what he hopes his latest project in Newmarket, a collaboration with fellow artist Julia “Julz” Roth, will do.

Aside from colorful murals, another common aspect of gentrification is raised rents. If developers adopt street art, either with altruistic motives or as a marketing tactic, it can make the area appear safer and more desirable. But, if rents start to increase as a result of these improvements, residents who are unable to pay are forced to move away from their communities. When the positive intentions behind public art are lost, Douglas argues, it becomes a “double-edged sword.”

A collaboration with artist Daniel Anguilu, on Parker Street near Northeastern University. Credit: Google Earth, Cedric Douglas.

Julie Burros, chief of arts and culture for Boston, is adamant that “public art absolutely does not cause gentrification,” and Douglas and Roth would, in large part, agree with her.

It may not be intentional, as Roth sympathically explains that “there’s something to be said for cities and developers, that’s their job,” believing that a city should grow and evolve over time. On the other hand, both artists believe that “there’s also something to be said for communities,” suggesting that while art does not necessarily cause gentrificiation, it can be an unitended side effect.

In order to stop residents being priced out of their neighborhoods, Boston needs to put in place policies that protect communitites and promotes home ownership, say Douglas and Roth. “We won’t find solutions unless we ask why people don’t own their own homes and why the streets aren’t taken care of,” argues Roth.

Find out more about their thoughts and experiences and hear from a Newmarket resident, who has witnessed first-hand the affects of gentrification on property prices, in this short video:

Douglas and Roth are currently painting the side of an abandoned junkyard in Newmarket, recently bought by South Bay developers, who are endeavouring to preserve the positive relationship between communities and street art by employing local artists.