From Space to Place

From Space to Place: Thoughts on the Creative Crisis of American Cities

Michelle Marie Esteva is the founder and director of Chinatown Soup, a creative community advancing art, justice, historic preservation, and civic engagement on the border of New York’s Lower East Side. The storefront gallery and studio provides artists with affordable workspace and built-in community, spurring cross-pollination between creators of all kinds.

Written by Michelle Marie Esteva

December 16, 2016

What is the difference between a place and a space? New buzzword “safe space” joins “placemaking” in the progressive lexicon of social politics. Many are using this language to talk about the Ghost Ship fire that claimed 36 lives in Oakland on December 2nd.

Understanding how these words evolved over time helps us think intelligently about their current memetic influence. Urban planners of the 1960s chose “place” over “space” to coin a process for promoting wellbeing apart from commercial interests in public developments. Today, “placemaking” references the role of artists in community building. The term “safe space” originated a decade later among LGBT student communities to describe anti-harassment zones and has since been adopted by various marginalized groups to create protected areas for communication and alternative lifestyles.

So, was Ghost Ship a place or a space, and why is this differentiation central to making sense of what happened? Many artists interviewed in the aftermath of the fire refer to Ghost Ship and similar communities as safe spaces despite tragic evidence to the contrary. Within the past two weeks, Baltimore and Los Angeles have evicted artist communities from non-inspected buildings to prevent another disaster. However well-intentioned, these preemptive actions perpetuate the underlying issue: artists don’t own land.

Artists who seek to live as such often tolerate dangerous living conditions as a cost of making work. As industrial districts gentrify across American cities, affordable housing stock is disappearing. What remains is wrestled over by landlords and factions of the soon-to-be displaced lower middle class. It’s not surprising that many artists forgo fights over small, stabilized apartments and opt for reclaiming spacious, abandoned warehouses.

The evolution of New York’s Cast-Iron District is a good example of what happens when artists lack the means and access to space. Despite the passage of the Artist in Residence (AIR) law in the early 1970s, which mandated that any industrial loft occupied in SoHo have at least one New York City certified artist in-residence, a once vibrant artist neighborhood is transforming to a flourishing retail destination.

Access to space for artists is limited in every sector. Many institutionalized artist residencies provide short-term live-work accommodations, but these are considered a temporary solution to the persistent threat of homelessness facing the creative working class. Artists need programs that can support their livelihood for the longterm.

Converting space into place requires a shift in values, perspective, and policy – namely from a protected private model to a participatory public one. It works both ways. Artists need to relinquish the glamor of “outsider” living and get involved with city governments to collaborate on subsidizing homes for creative communities. In turn, municipalities need to facilitate re-zoning and preservation plans that secure culture as well as real estate. If real estate determines culture, then we all need to collectively decide what’s worth saving. Creative expression hangs in the balance.

Learn more about the author’s work here.