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Thoughts on street art and gentrification.

According to some, street art plays a large role in the first stages of gentrification. Those who are schooled in urban planning will have sophisticated explanations of how cities grow and shift, evolve and devolve. For the layperson like myself, gentrification is often described as having a formula. Artists and artisans move into a neighbourhood where the rental is cheap and/or plenty of industrial spaces are available for workshops. The surfaces of that neighbourhood experience an injection of creativity: mural pieces and street art, spilling over and out of art studios. Then come the (hipster) coffee shops, and once an area is suitably trendy, the retailers arrive followed by developers and more corporate elements.

Some imagine this process to be a positive evolution. They say that buildings require investment to keep from falling into disrepair and that the city doesn’t want to be sitting with dilapidated building stock. An argument for gentrification says that if an area upgrades its buildings, if there is a growing interest in an area, if there is increased economic activity and better service delivery in that area, surely this would benefit the local community.

Here’s the crux, the locals don’t usually get to stay. When gentrification pushes out people who can no longer afford the rising rates and rentals or when newly priced properties are sold to developers without legislation, evicting tenants who have lived in those properties for most of their lives or uprooting family businesses that have been part of an area’s heritage for years, gentrification is no longer a process of upliftment for all. Of course this happens all over the world where market forces are left to their own devices, but when it happens in a South African city like Cape Town, it has the double blow of perpetuating an already unjust apartheid spatial layout.

Anti-gentrification voices have claimed that street artists effectively act as agents for rich property developers – a statement that might seem heavy-handed. Is it possible to imagine an injection of creativity in an area (and by that I also mean creative collaboration and education) without the casting aside of heritage and those who already live there? Within the realms of possibility, of course this must be achievable but what are some of the things that need to be in place to ensure locals stay and reap the benefits?

Other major cities around the world have areas where rent regulations are in place. Simply put: rental prices have a ceiling i.e. you cannot charge above a fixed rental amount for a certain type of unit. The percentage that rentals increase per year is also capped. In South Africa, new legislation (The Rental Housing Amendment Act) will open the way for rent regulation but this has yet to come into effect. Perhaps we aren’t applying the necessary pressure or educating ourselves properly on how this could work and manifest.

A restorative process, is for the state to develop as much affordable housing as possible in an area that is gentrifying so that if worse comes to worst and people are evicted, at least they have options to stay in the neighbourhood where they have jobs, where their children attend school and where they are part of a community.

Since the state is constitutionally required to reverse our legacy of spatial injustice, when will we see the City of Cape Town deliver substantially on inner city affordable and inclusionary housing? When will we see proper legislation that provides incentives and/or requirements for private developers to include a percentage of affordable housing in their developments? In Cape Town, local government says it has plans for social housing developments at six different locations in Salt River and Woodstock, but we all need to get behind this drive to ensure it happens. We also need to get people thinking creatively and changing perceptions of what affordable housing looks like and how it works, educating ourselves along the way. What is inclusionary housing? What is mixed income housing? What is cross subsidization? What is a social housing institution (SHI) and how does it manage such housing?

Working to solve our housing crisis is to the benefit and social health of everyone who lives here. According to Cape Town urban planners, the city can and should densify; mixed neighbourhoods are healthy neighbourhoods; we must prevent urban sprawl; we must reverse spatial injustice; and we must give those on the city’s outskirts affordable inner city living options.

Another route, and this is admittedly a longer shot, is to appeal to the better sides of property developers. No one should be buying property without knowing the full story of those in residence. If evicting people is inevitable to the development (which, hopefully, is already sensitively planned with regards to what it will bring to the neighbourhood) developers should be thinking long and hard about what they are planning to do to accommodate those people, or to put it simply, how they are planning to avoid ruining their lives. Naming and shaming/callout culture is also one option as bad reputation is bad for business. Realistically though, this would need legislation.

If neighbourhoods are improved (exactly what ‘improvement’ looks like is up for debate), it should be for those who live there and plan to stay living there. Giving colour and creativity to an area shouldn’t necessarily result in a certain type of development, there should be other potential outcomes and futures.

But what about in the interim between our current situation and this imagined future we need to create? Woodstock is already well into the throes of gentrification, with stories of the pain of eviction. What about artists and their positionality during a time when the rumblings of gentrification are now being felt in the adjacent Salt River? Does one simply abstain from creating work in this area in the event one is an ‘agent’ for property developers? Would all artists agree to not work in the area? From my limited personal experience, it seems as though many street artists are the sorts of people that don’t need to be sensitised; collaborating with communities with regards to what people would like in their public spaces, is something that these artists do regularly. Asking the local community what they would like is one thing, abstinence is another. And if one wants to be clearcut about it, if it is a matter of personal morality, then erasing one’s own existing work in a gentrifying area, ala Blu, is something that should be considered.

Such actions may or may not slow the processes of gentrification down, but would they really be an effective longterm deterrent for development? Would gentrification go ahead regardless, considering the prime location of Salt River and how ‘the gentrification wave’ so to speak, has a life of its own?

In essence, does cutting off the branch of a tree (if that were even possible) solve a problem that is in actuality at its root - in this case the root being how our property market is structured and unregulated?

An alternative is to show up and join the conversation by using one’s work to help create a different vision. Movements need mass consciousness, and who better to provide the necessary traction for those movements than those who decorate public space?

When it comes to the processes of gentrification, if street/public artists have agency, they might be able to use that agency to help popularise what is needed to remedy spatial injustice. That goes for the public at large - one can be anti-gentrification but that won’t stop gentrification. One can be idealistic and say that an area should remain untouched, but one’s words won’t hold gentrification back unless one is simultaneously finding positive movements to get behind that counter the process or mitigate its effects.

The choice is up to the artist as to how political they want their work to become, but we need to see the issue at its source and not blame street art for a problem that needs to be tackled at its root.


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