This article was originally published on October 17th, 2013 and may reflect a different time in our business cycle at The Milton Schoolhouse.
This morning it hit me: this is the singularly most exciting time to live in a city like Alton. While I might bemoan the lack of a decent bookstore or choice of cultural weekend activities, I am thrilled to own this mammoth schoolhouse in an economically depressed town.
Alton is not unique in the difficulties it has faced in the last few decades. After the peak of American manufacturing in the 1960s, our professional structure in this country began to change. As a country, we began to emphasize higher education and place more value on emerging white-collar professions. Alton thrived on manufacturing for generations, but when established companies began to succumb to this change- like the Owens-Illinois Bottle Works and the Alton Board Box Company- employees were forced to find work elsewhere. Those who could afford to leave did, and neighborhoods began to slowly fill with lower income groups as property values declined. Depreciation has continued. We are at the point in Alton where property owners are now faced with the decision to lower selling prices and rental rates or to abandon buildings completely. Unfortunately, many of Alton’s most gorgeous and stately historic properties are owned by people who would rather cling to the mirage of what their buildings were worth in another era rather than take advantage of a changing situation.
Here’s why it’s so awesome: this is normal. It has happened to hundreds of thousands of communities across America. It’s a cycle that repeats itself over and over in history throughout the world. But what makes Alton exciting is that in the last four years I have seen signs of Alton transitioning into the best part of the cycle- the ride up.
Alton is perfectly poised to undergo this thing called “gentrification”- if you want to get bookish. It’s a process that occurs when lower income areas are bought and renovated into housing or commercial areas catering to middle or upper class demographics. Commercial property owners in Alton- especially in the downtown area- have a choice: to slow the process by charging ridiculous rental rates for our particular market, or to speed it up by realizing the importance individual artists and shop owners play in this inevitable cycle.
Artists (and “off beat” business owners) have an extremely interesting role in the process of gentrification. They are generally the least affluent group to settle within a neighborhood, and yet they are the most significant catalyst for its change.
Artists are attracted into an area by low rent or neglected properties they can use for pennies. A bohemian artist class will immigrate into the neighborhood- resulting in a hodgepodge community of previously existing low-income groups and the artists, revolutionaries, activists, dreamers, and such who would rather spend their hours finding expression in the universe than finding a way to pay rent for a decent place. It’s bad news for property owners who intend to get top dollar for their space- but watch what happens. While the buildings and areas may deteriorate and become an eyesore to the outside, something inside the neighborhood develops. A rhythm unique to the patchwork of people in the neighborhood begins to set a new mood for the area. Bars, coffee shops, bookstores catering questionable materials and hip atmospheres spring up to serve the local flavor. The area gains a sense of popularity due to its unique "back alley" way, bringing in more business from the outside.
Once such a neighborhood has been discovered, it is only a matter of time before the upper and middle class moves itself back into this now, new, "hip" area of the city. Gentrification has been hailed as the savior of the inner slums in large cities; turning dangerous, crime riddled streets into places thriving with successful business and clean cut condominiums for the affluent.
Let me say this again: The bohemian class is solely responsible for the influx of unique businesses- clubs, clothing stores, cafes, bookshops- that cater to and attract a more edgy consumer base. They are providing an attraction by creating an area of trendy interest. This reels in an upper class who begin to visit and spend money for the chance to mingle with those who lead a romanticized free spirited lifestyle.
Artists not only provide the draw to an area, they provide a buffer between the lower income groups and the wealthy. As Rosalyn Deutsche noted in her article The Fine Art of Gentrification,
“For all the manifest political and social liberalism of the gentrifying classes, its members display the same anxieties with respect to living among or near racial minorities as everyone else…it was not until artists, and the middle class’s own avant-garde had established secure enclaves that the rear guard made its first forays into the ‘wilderness’.”
The upper classes, even the less conservative who claim to be followers of social justice and who generally are the first to visit an area and begin to move back, would not feel “safe” simply moving into a questionable neighborhood with predominantly lower income families. Despite the attractiveness of trends or location, the upper business class needs a cushion between them and their prejudices. The artist is this barrier, especially when the area undergoing gentrification becomes affluent enough to support artists who either come from the middle class or cater to their tastes.
You can probably think of a neighborhood in St. Louis (or any city you are familiar with) where you have seen this happen: A place with gorgeous historical buildings or a once wealthy area becomes a slum. Lower income classes move in, creating a darker atmosphere riddled with danger and poor standards of living. Artists move in. You begin to see graffiti…and then someplace begins hosting hardcore music or “offensive” art shows. As wealthier people begin to seek out the area as a form of entertainment or escape, the graffiti begins to disappear, giving way to safer hipster shops who are displaced by bonafide art galleries later on. The entire cycle- slum to high rent district to slum- can take generations. The speed of each particular segment can vary, but typically the fastest transition is that between derelict properties and artistic/independent business mecca.
Alton certainly hasn’t seen the extremes of change as, say, Delmar or Cherokee in St. Louis. Because of our smaller population, our extremes tend to be less dynamic as a whole. This is good- it means Alton may have a chance of seeing economic growth before we deteriorate to the point where violent crimes and destructive vandalism become common. Still, there is the unspoken potential for the city to continue along the path of decline if the local political environment becomes once again unfavorable to economic growth and if property owners do not embrace the process of change.
Property owners, here is the take home lesson: Artists are not a nuisance. Nor are the people who hang around them who may have a less than polished look. In a town like Alton- where our own residents are blithely content to drive to Edwardsville, Florrisant, St. Louis, or Belleville for shopping or entertainment- a smart property owner would begin to look for ways to collaborate with unconventional people to bring an active feel to their locations.
Here are some suggestions:
-If your property is vacant- why not agree to allowing a music group, a bawdy art show, or a temporary haunted attraction to temporarily use your space?
Of course, be smart and make sure someone covers liability insurance. Consider not asking for payment over than the actual utility cost associated with the temporary event just to start. Think about the non-monetary payment of having people brought into your space who might give you money to lease it full time. It only takes one person drawn in by and event, who may have never considered walking into your space, to be inspired to rent it.
-If your property is vacant- do you know why? Are people able to afford your rates?
If they can’t, then you're pricing yourself out of tenants. If you can't lower your rates and/or you truly think your rate is reasonable for our economic situation, compromise by dividing space and taking some loss on rental income to have activity on your property. Artists attract artists- businesses attract businesses. People want to be in an area where things are already happening. Once the space is attracting outside traffic, your property value will increase. You might think of dividing that 3,000 sq ft storefront into four or five 400 sq ft studios- and leave a larger space that will be attractive to a bigger retail opportunity once you already have something interesting going on. Walls can always be torn back down later.
-If your property is being vandalized and you’re sick of scrubbing it off, hire a graffiti artist to create art on your building.
Seriously- business owners in the Netherlands do it all of the time. They found out that graffiti artists very rarely marked over already painted areas- especially when the artwork was good or created by someone prominent in their network. Depending upon the artist or situation, you might not have total control of what it looks like but you can certainly make sure there aren’t any phallic references emblazoned above your shop sign. Bonus: Weird looking buildings turn pass-through traffic into gawkers, tourists, and clients who stop long enough to give you the chance to sell them something. Take a look at this crazy art outside of a restaurant we visited in Phoenix and tell me it isn’t more attractive than tagging:
Most importantly: Evolve your business structure, property layout, and presentation to fit the market you’re in.
That’s just good advice all around- but specifically, stop waiting for some box store to save your property. It isn’t going to happen, we don’t have what it takes to attract them here right now. Stop waiting for grant money to save your property. Our government is broke. And stop holding out for some safe, bland old lady tea room or some mishmash craft mall to fill your space. Sure, these businesses aren’t going to paint your walls florescent hues and have people with *gasp * tattoos and piercings hanging around on the sidewalk…but that’s because they don’t attract people period.
Stop moaning about how Alton isn’t what it once was- be glad the old lady tearoom market is dead. That means Alton is on its way to rebirth in the economic lifecycle. Alton is ready for a renaissance, ready to make art, ready to make money, and ready to evolve.
Now is the time! Let’s do this.