The sociologist on the role of the artist in gentrification, challenges to affordable housing, and the commodification of New York City’s loft lifestyle.
Image courtesy of Sharon Zukin.
Gentrification is driven by myriad factors, among them global investors, real estate developers, and the media, which celebrates “destination neighborhoods.” But there is one group of people who in this fraught urban process have been painted both as perpetrator and victim: the artists.
Brooklyn College sociologist Sharon Zukin has placed this paradox at the center of her work. Her landmark 1989 book, Loft Living, examined the gentrification of New York City’s SoHo neighborhood. Loft Living—whose title was a neologism at the time—chronicled the transformation of the cast-iron downtown lofts from industrial spaces to live/work artists’ studios to upscale real estate commodities, a trajectory which, in effect, diminished the neighborhood’s arts scene.
When Loft Living was first published, artists’ laments about real estate in New York City mirrored the concerns that have plagued residents for much of the last century. Namely, it’s tough to find a suitable and affordable place to live. Since the late ’80s, the tenor of that complaint has shifted from one of anxiety to one of fear. In recent years, rents have climbed rapidly and inexorably. New economic realities have prompted artists and other low-income residents to flee the city for cheaper locales—among them, upstate New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit. Zukin says that this exodus threatens to undermine the diversity and vibrancy of the city, as well as its economic health.
To discuss Zukin’s work is to reference, inevitably, that of an earlier urban theorist: Jane Jacobs. It was Jacobs who, in her groundbreaking book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, documented the metropolitan street life that makes a place like New York City tick. But as vital as Jacobs’s ideas are to preserving the city’s integrity today, the policies she promoted—often related to aesthetic diversity and street life—tend to protect the city’s building façades more than its citizens. “[Jacobs] did not support more permanent rent controls to ensure a mix of poorer and richer tenants,” Zukin points out in The Architectural Review. “What Jacobs valued—small blocks, cobblestone streets, mixed uses, local character—have become the gentrifiers’ ideal. This is not the struggling city of working-class and ethnic groups, but an idealized image that plays to middle-class tastes.”
Zukin readily acknowledges that protecting a dynamic urban population may require policies that verge on socialism. She doesn’t flinch at critiquing the “developers who build, and banks and insurance companies who finance the building that rips out a city’s heart.” In scrutinizing the structural challenges within cities, Zukin reveals the contours of gentrification, a phenomenon that has come to define the aesthetic and lived experience of New York City and several other metropolises. And in analyzing the particular role of artists in gentrification, she sheds light on this often misunderstood group, which she calls “the working class of the twenty-first-century economy.”
I talked with Zukin upon the release of the twenty-fifth-anniversary edition of Loft Living. In discussing the legacy of gentrification and the future of diversity and affordability in New York, Zukin spoke with a frenetic energy and keen attention to detail. Her office at the City University of New York was neatly arranged, windowless, and tiny—an apt setting for a conversation about the increasing scarcity of urban space.
—Bryce T. Bauer for Guernica
Guernica: How did Loft Living come about?
Sharon Zukin: This was my first piece of urban research. The framework of the book was: How does it happen that a kind of space that everybody takes for granted becomes a hot commodity? Who would think of living in a factory space? It is never low-income families with three children who are trying to live in lofts. It’s not that kind of material need that drives people to live in such places.
After World War II, there were some artists, like Robert Rauschenberg, who were living in lofts. But for most people it was not a style of life, not an abode. Then gradually in the 1960s some adventurous people—they were artists—decided that it would be really practical to live in these large spaces and there really wasn’t that much demand for them. The creation of the loft market is a model for similar kinds of development that we call “gentrification.” I didn’t fully realize it when I did the research that this is just a special case of gentrification with a very special group of people, which is artists.
Guernica: In a very special city.
Sharon Zukin: In a very special city, yes. I think you really cannot generalize based on New York. It’s very unusual. As a lover of New York, I hope New York remains as successful as a city, even though the very groups on whom the city depends—like artists—are not finding it easy to stay here. That’s what it’s been about, really, since the 1980s. You can kind of see that coming in the 1980s even though the rents were ridiculously low compared to what the rents are now.
If you rented a decent-sized loft around the time that the book was published—around 2,000 to 4,000 square feet—maybe you would still pay around $400 to $450 a month. But some lofts, especially in Tribeca or SoHo, might cost as much as $1,500 a month. And it was apparent that the financial value of these spaces was going to rise, and one could sense the whole marketing apparatus. You could see what I wrote about in Loft Living, the promotion of a very luxurious, bohemian lifestyle, and that propelled the loft market for quite a few years.
Jane Jacobs, of course, was a gentrifier, but she represented a minority view: “Aren’t cities great? Aren’t cities exciting?”
Guernica: You say that when you first set out to do this, people thought you were writing a glossy book. At the time, how did the media portray lofts in terms of the lifestyle?
Sharon Zukin: I blame it all on New York magazine. In the late ’70s, early ’80s, New York, like other US cities, was just coming out of twenty years of middle-class flight. When Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she, of course, was a gentrifier, but she represented a minority view: “Aren’t cities great? Aren’t cities exciting?” I think, still, most Americans would rather live in homogenized, clean suburbs than live in gritty cities, certainly in gritty areas. But New York magazine upheld the good of cities. And from a certain point of view, you can’t complain that they were making city life look vibrant.
When they started dramatizing the decor of lofts, a lot of people took that literally and started to copy the style of lofts. A lot of people were able to rent or buy lofts, which, as we know, exerted a lot of economic pressure to raise rents. And that was the death knell for artists.
Guernica: Let’s step back a bit. You mentioned there were still manufacturers in lofts. How did these manufacturing sites transform into real estate?
Sharon Zukin: Think about the actual decision-making of individuals. Let’s say you own a building. You’re considering renting to a manufacturer who is paying eighty cents per square foot or an artist who can pay two to four times as much. It’s still a really small amount of money, but you think to yourself, “Why not? There is a lot of empty space. Somebody can move in there.”
A few real estate agencies began to specialize in renting lofts illegally to non-manufacturing tenants who they knew were going to live and often work in the lofts. They were counting on the lack of enforcement by the building department and the fire department. They were praying that no fire would break out. From 1975 on, the city was in terrible financial condition. So it was unlikely that the police or fire department or building department would have the staff power to strenuously enforce the laws against living in these spaces. It was a moment most of us celebrate now for its creativity and grittiness and so on. It was a time when anything seemed possible.
But it was also a time of severe economic and social stress, so the decision-making on the part of building owners was, “Let’s rent this to whoever will rent it, and if we can make a little bit more money before the end of the world comes, that’s great.” I don’t mean that I forgive them for this. I am just saying that when we ask, “How was this possible?,” you have to think of all these little guys who were trying to make a buck.
Guernica: What drew you to a loft?
Sharon Zukin: It was not premeditated. My husband was at the time designing and building furniture. We lived in a small apartment near Columbia University, and he rented a commercial loft where he had his woodworking equipment. He needed a larger loft for his work and he looked for a month or two, and he couldn’t find a place. We must have been looking [for apartments] in The Village Voice, and the lightbulb went off: “Oh, we could look for a live/work loft!” And that’s what we did.
We looked at some really terrible spaces. After we had looked for two months, I said, “Just one more and that’s it.” That turned out to be the space where we still live. It’s in Greenwich Village. The building was built in 1906, and initially I think it was a garment factory. The landlord made absolutely no attempt to look for a manufacturing tenant. It would have been irrational from his point of view. We were not the first people to live and work in the loft, but there were still manufacturing tenants. It was one of the last generations of loft buildings that were in manufacturing use.
Guernica: The point about manufacturing tenants reminds me a lot of the conversation about Willets Point in Queens, where city money is being poured into “development” and local auto body shops are being razed in order to make room for retail space and housing.
Sharon Zukin: Well, I don’t own a car, so I can’t say I am a habitué of Willets Point. But there are still pockets of small enterprise—manual manufacturing—that are being cleansed and completely reshaped for the new economy. There is a place for manufacturing, but a) it’s green manufacturing with some kind of environmental limits on the production process, and b) it is creative manufacturing.
I’ve started to do research on what I call the creative ecosystem in New York to see how art and digital industries and real estate fit together. You can now see that loft living was the first stage of destruction. Now we are in the creation of the new production space. It’s much more limited in terms of its size than the old manufacturing space. And it’s different.
Guernica: So how do artists fit in there?
Sharon Zukin: As I predicted at the end of Loft Living, artists are the working class of the twenty-first-century economy. So are computer engineers, video game designers, visual artists, sculptors, advertising creatives. There’s a huge workforce that’s being formed now. You can really see that the workforce that could only be glimpsed dimly as a prediction in the 1980s is now really being formed. They are freelancers or working on a project basis. They are not terribly well paid. And the rents are too high for them.
If you even utter the words “rent control,” you don’t get a polite hearing in New York City.
Guernica: In the updated introduction to Loft Living, you write that, at first, it looked like a disaster for cities. But now it’s turned into an opportunity for redevelopment. So the legacy of deindustrialization isn’t necessarily bad.
Sharon Zukin: Well, look at Detroit. If there was no new investment coming into New York City, the legacy of that period would be bad. And there are always going to be those who benefit, those who benefit a lot, and those who don’t benefit at all. The problem is to be in the group of those who benefit only somewhat—that’s really, really difficult because of two factors that could not have been predicted in the 1980s.
One is global capital investment in New York real estate. I think global real estate investors are not at all interested in providing low-rent space for artists, or anybody else. The second factor is co-oping and condoing—in other words, the increase in the proportion of housing that is owned by the tenants. With the demise of the rental market, conditions become really desperate for anyone who doesn’t have substantial capital to invest.
This, I think, is a disaster, and the lack of support for rent control is part of that picture. If you even utter the words “rent control,” you don’t get a polite hearing in New York City. Should there be rent control? I really do think so. Would there be severe competition to qualify for rent control, particularly pitting low-income artists against low-income non-artists? Yes. That’s the kind of negotiation that would have to be undertaken by elected officials. That’s why they are elected, right?
Guernica: I know you argue that maintaining the arts is very important for New York City’s economy. Why?
Sharon Zukin: As unproductive as many of these sectors are, there’s no way to have a twenty-first-century economy without acknowledging the huge contribution of culture and the arts. And it’s not just the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, and it’s certainly not the poor opera and ballet. It’s everybody.
One of the crucial underpinnings of New York as a culture capital is that there are multiple markets. There is not just one art gallery district, there are several art gallery districts.
I feel that there should be art galleries and art studios in every neighborhood without exception. They should be integrated into the social and physical fabric of the streets. Why not integrate artists’ studios, art classes, art display spaces in every shopping street? Not just Fifth Avenue or Madison Avenue, where rich people shop, but in Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, Jackson Heights, and every place.
Of course, when that is done, then everyone will see the writing on the wall. If we want a lively city, we can’t just have high towers and dense constructions, we have to have living organisms of streets and neighborhoods. And the arts are a crucial part of that.
Guernica: In a postscript to Loft Living, you write that “low-income populations have been sensitized by the success of SoHo and the general outlines of gentrification to fear the presence of cultural producers.” Is that fear justified, and if so, what form does it take?
Sharon Zukin: It is. But it’s not artists who are doing the development. Yes, artists have indeed been used over and over again since the early 1980s as the legitimizers of a neighborhood. And entrepreneurial artists, meaning people who themselves start out as painters, musicians, dancers, and who open a café, a bar, a restaurant, or even a co-op art gallery—they unintentionally develop the kinds of attractions that bring the middle class with some kind of cultural ambition.
I think the entrepreneurial activities that make art visible and attractive are what lure people into the amusement park that SoHo has become or that Bushwick or Williamsburg has become. It’s not that outsiders come to an area because they hear artists are living there. A lot of people came who were not that interested in living with artists, but they were interested in living like artists and socializing the way that they thought artists socialized.
Guernica: You also point out that the two communities often aren’t able to interact. The entrepreneur who is opening up the business for this new group of people isn’t able to draw in the old community because it feels alienated, and the new community doesn’t go to the same shops and the same spaces as the old community.
Sharon Zukin: This is the typical story of gentrification. Sometimes it is more complicated. When new businesses open that are trying to attract people with cultural capital or cultural ambitions, they are often more expensive than traditional neighborhood stores and cafés, they offer different products, and they have a different atmosphere. Longtime residents may feel uncomfortable there. Structurally, as a group of gentrifiers gets bigger, there is less room for longtime residents. When it becomes a pattern and you can see the effects, we call that displacement.
Guernica: Is there a way to change that dynamic?
Sharon Zukin: Absolutely. But, you know, I will say those wicked words: “rent control.” It’s true that there are other societies—the Netherlands, for example—where rental tenants have very strong rights and you can see where that is not so good, for everybody. There are a lot of thorny problems here that speak to private property, that speak to all kinds of ideology, that speak to people’s understanding of rational action and what circumstances will enable builders to build and what circumstances inhibit builders from building.
The existing laws we use in a pinch just do not adequately protect artists or any other group of rental tenants. For example, artist certification. You know, you can always get around that. Every society that does not want to really protect tenants’ rights tries historic preservation. But that says nothing about the right of people to stay in their homes. It says that the building cannot be demolished. But it does not say who is allowed to live in the building.
Every New Yorker spends a certain amount of nervous energy thinking, “How can I afford to stay here? What do I have to sell in order to stay here, where I have an economic life and where I like my life?” At least back to the beginning of the twentieth century, New Yorkers have always complained that it’s hard to find a decent apartment at a rent you can afford.
The screws have tightened since I wrote Loft Living, as we talked about before—the influx of global capital investment that exercises a kind of trickle-down or trickle-up effect. You’ve got these super-rich people coming in and buying super-expensive apartments. Everyone is in stunned disbelief at the prices. Someone who buys an apartment for $5 million is displacing someone who could only pay $2 million, and that person is displacing someone else, and so on. My students at Brooklyn College who may live in Crown Heights or East New York are saying that their neighborhoods are being gentrified.
We can’t do it ourselves. No matter how many rich people call this city their home, we don’t really have enough capital here to build and maintain the infrastructure that a population needs to live.
Guernica: Mayor Bill de Blasio has talked a lot about affordable housing.
Sharon Zukin: Well, he understands the situation. But I think any New York City mayor is really stuck. The city government is not in a structural position to build housing, and indeed public housing has not had any federal government funds for building since 1972, so they’re deeply constrained.
We can’t do it ourselves. No matter how many rich people call this city their home, we don’t really have enough capital here to build and maintain the infrastructure that a population needs to live. We don’t have the federal money, and for-profit investors are just not interested in anything other than making the biggest profit they can. So what’s left?
A lot of us New Yorkers have bought apartments or bought lofts or are struggling to do it because at least that gives you some respite from the inexorable tightening of the screw every year—rent. But that puts you on this treadmill where you are constantly thinking, “Should I sell this place and move somewhere cheaper?” Artists have migrated across the East River and eastward in Brooklyn—as have non-artist populations, apparently going back to the Lenape Indians. There’s been a migration to New Jersey, to Philadelphia, and farther afield.
Now we’re all reading in the New York Times, our bible of gentrification, that there are artists moving to Beacon, New York, and Hudson, New York. There are working-class populations who live in those towns who have been just as impoverished by the closing of factories as have people like them in New York City. And they are stuck in these towns that have now been chichi-ed and upscaled, and their downtowns have been turned into art gallery and antique gallery rows.
I think people need a certain amount of freedom from risk. Artists, for sure, need to be freed from the daily anxiety of whether they are going to be able to live in the space in which they are living and working. But there’s no guarantee for that.
Guernica: One of de Blasio’s attempts at an answer has been to develop more. He’s essentially said, “We’ll let you go over building-size variances if you include affordable housing.”
Sharon Zukin: So, yes, artists are now going to queue up for affordable housing? There are masses of people who need affordable housing. I think that, politically, it is very difficult to give preference to artists over another group.
Now, could there be an impressive envisioning process where developers would be asked to collaborate with urban designers? Maybe envision a large-scale development with local shops, dense housing, maybe a few towers, maybe a few mid-rise buildings, and art workshops in the mix? That would be great. I don’t see a call for those proposals. But I think that it would not be outrageous to propose that kind of vision.
Guernica: You told the New York Times that there was a “pervasive hunger of the upper-middle class for ever more homogeneous neighborhoods.” Can you expand on that?
Sharon Zukin: Yeah, I think that there is a middle-class desire, and maybe an almost universal desire, among many human beings to live in clean neighborhoods, among people like themselves, around people with whom they feel comfortable. That can be exclusive, it could be exclusionary. It could be racist, classist, genocidal, and so on. Most people like comfort. Now what provides a sense of comfort varies. I do think that people who like living in cities like small-scale human interaction and they like the social dimensions of aesthetic diversity that Jane Jacobs wrote about.
I think people like difference. Sometimes they may not be comfortable with difference, but they like it. It’s thrilling. When you walk out the door in New York City, certainly in a mixed-use neighborhood like the Village, you see exciting things! I mean, you just do. Partly because it’s New York, partly because it’s a mixed-use neighborhood. “Oh, this store is closing, that store is opening.” And especially if it’s not a chain store, then it is interesting because it is unique in some way. The small-scale familiar is also very comforting. Especially in the twenty-first century, when the world is rapidly changing and there are many risky situations, I think we need to build on and protect the comfort that we have in our neighborhoods in a way that does not exclude others.
I don’t think more chain stores are comforting. However, they pay $15,000 or more a month in rent. Is New York City not sufficiently saturated with drugstores and bank branches? When you have every neighborhood looking the same, you know the city is at a danger point. And why should anybody want to live here, why should anybody want to visit here? A metropolis like New York or London or Shanghai is built on a strong sense of individual neighborhoods, and we are destroying that.
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