American Warehouse: DIY Undergrounds and Urban Displacement
BY SEAN J PATRICK CARNEY
June 15, 2021
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, experimental venues proliferated in cavernous, disused factories and warehouses from Providence to Oakland, Chicago to New Orleans, and Baltimore to Seattle. These collectively organized DIY (do-it-yourself) spaces furnished non-professional artists and musicians with unprecedented opportunities to exhibit and perform for real audiences. Artist-run spaces existed long before the 1990s, but the turn of the millennium represented a veritable DIY boom. Vibrant scenes exploded in far-flung cities previously perceived as subcultural vacuums.
Regional DIY quirks abounded, owing as much to local climate as to the architectural parlance of a given geography. A drizzly February evening in Portland, Oregon might find underground filmmakers projecting onto brick interiors of a former riverfront auto parts distributor. That same night, the concrete courtyard of a decommissioned railway icehouse in downtown Phoenix might host an open-air rave and street art show. Sundry communities gained access to approachable exhibitions, concerts, classes, and more. The large industrial buildings also provided affordable studio and rehearsal spaces, shared shop facilities, peer networks, and, in many cases, homes.
“Almost immediately, I began making the art and music that I am still mired in,” said Liz Harris, who has released music as Grouper and Nivhek, in a January email. In the mid-2000s, Harris lived at LoBot and was later one of the founders of Huffin House, two storied live-work spaces in Oakland, California. “I benefited greatly from being around other artists who were also devoted to their work—hearing and seeing other people working, borrowing their gear, and from having a ton of communal space to play around in.”
A gospel-like refrain from now-influential visual artists, bands, and filmmakers is that DIY spaces gave misfits the permission to call themselves artists, while instilling anticapitalist values of communal solidarity. “My first release was on the label of a housemate,” Harris recalled.
By design, or through osmosis, many non-commercial venues incorporated extant strategies of space-making and mutual-aid established in preceding decades by diverse labor, community, and social movements. Various spaces were all ages, queer-organized, open to their neighborhoods for community events, or involved with grassroots resource redistribution efforts. They frequently advertised antidiscrimination policies, and acknowledged that both the music industry and art world were alienating and exploitative.
DIY and Displacement
Despite community-conscious efforts by many spaces, others acted like exclusive art school islands, showing little regard for the histories of their working class or low-income neighbors. And no shortage of individual, aspirational-class artists heedlessly signed market rate leases on apartments in these communities. To longtime residents—frequently people of color—differentiating between groups of artists felt pointless; artists writ large were auguries of impending displacement.
The arrival of artists to a neighborhood can signal the first of four specific phases of gentrification outlined by MIT professor Phillip L. Clay in 1979—the final phase is essentially Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. As more-monied populations move in, generations of residents, business, and culture get displaced. But do artists cause gentrification?
In How to Kill a City (2017), author P.E. Moskowitz argues that Clay’s framework overlooks “phase zero,” wherein a city “opens itself up to gentrification through zoning, tax breaks, and branding power.” After all, who rezoned Brooklyn and Oakland? Who sold the waterfronts, greenbelts, and industrial corridors to private developers? As Moskowitz makes clear, “the entire process would grind to a halt if it weren’t profitable. Developers don’t build condos to lose money or support the arts.” Today’s cities are zoned and developed to generate as much capital as possible, residents be damned.
When DIY warehouse spaces started closing in the mid-2010s, not everyone wept; there was a chewy irony to perceived gentrifiers gentrifying themselves out. But the actual narrative isn’t that simple—or as satisfyingly slapstick. Increasingly, DIY spaces were being organized by and for artists from communities facing displacement. And spaces closed for a variety of reasons: cash-hungry landlords, catastrophic fires, red-tagged buildings, development-drunk mayors, or collectives simply burning out.
More broadly, the rapid mushrooming and subsequent atrophy of alternative spaces is as convoluted as it is uniquely American. The story is inextricable from, and a byproduct of, decades of economic, labor, and housing policies. Further muddying the narrative is the conflation of artists—most conspicuously, the anarcho-communist ones—with the professional “creative class” evangelized by snake oil urbanist Richard Florida.
To properly understand how so many artists from Philadelphia to Los Angeles ended up living in defunct industrial spaces, it’s worth exploring why cities had so many empty buildings in the first place.
The Postwar American City
In the early 1940s, World War II precipitated a remunerative manufacturing boom. Cities escalated industrial production of ammunition, land vehicles, aircrafts, and ships. Expanded demand for laborers fostered a provisional workplace racial liberalism, and urban demographics shifted substantially as over one million African Americans left the South for work in the Northeast, Midwest, and West. Wartime racial liberalism, though, was narrow; discrimination endured in union representation, housing, policing, and other aspects of civic life.
The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 minted handsome veterans benefits, including longer-term, federally backed mortgages, but few African American veterans reaped its rewards. “Redlining” maps produced by the Home Owners Loan Corporation, part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, designated minority neighborhoods hazardous for lending. Banks employed this as fiscal cover to deny would-be borrowers who weren’t white. Jim Crow had found purchase far beyond the South.
White veterans enjoyed the benefits of the social welfare program immensely. Recognizing this new purchasing bloc, developers heavily marketed suburban living, claiming that integrated neighborhoods suffered diminished property values. Segregation by suburbanization wasn’t racist, they insisted, just fiscally responsible. Whites purchased suburban homes and automobiles en masse, departing cities on recently paved highways. There, they developed a popul-ish economic identity, voting to minimize property taxes. Suburban leaders courted manufacturing giants, offering incentives that dense urban environments couldn’t match. Jobs moved to the suburbs, too.
Industrial suburbanization and white wealth hoarding in the 1950s and 60s gutted urban centers like Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. Factories sat vacant and millions encountered increasing poverty. Cities pivoted to “urban renewal” projects, razing low-income neighborhoods to install expressways, parks, and stadiums. They sold public land to capitalists who promised new developments to lure back a (white) middle class tax base and stoke the post-industrial urban service economy. What they ultimately innovated was just more apartheid.
Throughout the 1970s, global petroleum shortages, high unemployment and inflation, and production competition from industrializing nations rocked the United States economy. Reactive federal retrenchment purported to soften overlapping economic recessions. Instead, fiscal diminutions only further choked already wheezing urban populations. When New York City nearly went bankrupt, liberal politicians everywhere buckled, implementing austerity through brutal cuts to social programs. Lacking functional tax bases and federal support, city leaders abandoned the managerial mindset preoccupied with infrastructure and civic services in favor of entrepreneurship. If cities wanted to sustain, they would now need to independently pursue perpetual economic growth.
Simultaneously, sprawling Sun Belt cities like Phoenix, Dallas, and Atlanta were wooing industrial manufacturers south with inexpensive land, pro-business tax incentives, and aggressive anti-union labor laws. But only a decade later, the economic recession of the 1980s coincided with the offshoring and outsourcing of US manufacturing to cheaper markets in Mexico, China, and Malaysia. By the 1990s, automation and the North American Free Trade Agreement had hacked away at the remainder of domestic manufacturing.
Across the United States, millions upon millions of vacant industrial square footage languished. Cities and property owners let buildings sit empty, because while manufacturers would not return, investments in land almost always do. While cities played the waiting game, they let artists move in.
Illustration by Thomas J Gamble
DIY warehouses seldom pursued profit and were rarely licensed—adding to their underground appeal. And most weren’t zoned for residential use, meaning ad hoc bedrooms, kitchens, and showers were technically illegal. Landlords knew and didn’t care, or didn’t care enough to know. City officials ignored DIY spaces for two primary reasons. First, they were typically in neighborhoods where nobody called the cops. Second, cities knew that young, high-earning, liberal professionals valued culture as an urban amenity. Industrial manufacturing had long since vacated cities, but inside their former facilities, artists were manufacturing a wealth of culture, essentially for free.
By the early 2010s, urban centers attracted thousands of new residents annually, in part by actively marketing their creative clout. Phillip L. Clay’s later phases of gentrification manifested rapidly in major cities like Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Brooklyn. Identical cycles soon repeated in “more affordable” cities like Portland, Philadelphia, Austin, and Oakland.
The high water mark of DIY warehouse culture varied regionally, but by 2013, broadly, the wave was receding. Artists had helped to make cities cool and marketable, so much so that the once-derelict buildings where they lived and worked were now prime real estate for condos, tech firms, and e-commerce fulfillment. Again, DIY spaces closed for diverse reasons, but a consistent theme was that the buildings could now be used more profitably. Developers in the Northeast, Sun Belt, Pacific Northwest, and beyond descended upon post-industrial corridors, buying up buildings and either evicting artists or letting the properties go to seed until cities condemned them. Municipal governments welcomed them with open arms—and tax breaks.
After Ghost Ship
The deadly 2016 Ghost Ship fire in Oakland shook DIY communities. Many called similar spaces home, squeezed into makeshift lofts, unable to afford market rents in “Creative Cities.” Still, fires presented a less immediate threat than municipalities’ predictable, draconian reactions. After ignoring DIY spaces for years, officials invoked the moral cloak of safety, quickly inspecting and evicting longtime live-work spaces in Oakland, Denver, Baltimore, and beyond.
Local backlashes ensued, and city leaders pivoted, pitching temporary halts on evictions if spaces identified themselves, ostensibly so municipalities and landlords could bring buildings up to code. Bureaucratic task forces formed but proved slow, taking a year or more to publish axiomatic findings: cities were unaffordable. Means-tested emergency grant programs assisted some collectives with sympathetic landlords, but several building owners opted instead to skip costly upgrades and cash out with developers.
One year after Ghost Ship, journalist Sam Lefebvre reported in the East Bay Express that Oakland mayor Libby Schaff’s plan to temporarily halt evictions of unpermitted warehouse residences, except in the event of life-threatening safety risks, had not slowed evictions. Inspectors largely disregarded Schaff’s plan, instructing landlords to “discontinue residential use.” These contradictions weren’t unique to Oakland.
Nationwide crackdowns incited debate within DIY communities about pursuing venue permitting, or even 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. Some artists considered seizing opportunities to work aboveground. Others questioned municipal motivations, or cited the nonprofit industrial complex’s service of capitalism, not culture. But even legal legitimacy won’t guarantee artists sustainability, or opportunity. Cities need to generate constant capital, something non-commercial spaces don’t do.
“I feel extra cynical about how cities privilege developers,” said Jes Skolnik, a musician and senior editor at Bandcamp Daily, over email in February. For years, Skolnik and collaborators had pursued a legal, non-commercial, all ages venue in Chicago. They had an itemized budget, startup funds, and a concrete audience. Ultimately, no property owners would finalize a lease.
“Here in Chicago,” Skolnik explained, “commercial real estate owners are allowed to pay lower property taxes if a building sits vacant, so they’re more likely to wait for a chain store or some other kind of stable, moneyed venture to move in than take a chance on a small business, let alone a DIY collective.”
Art-Frosting and Antagonism
Today’s cities have grown patently antagonistic to solidarity, mutual-aid, and non-aspirational tenors—organizing principles in DIY communities. Simultaneously, cities profit off DIY creativity, co-opting the ambient buzz to market municipalities as progressive, artsy hubs. This extractive branding increases the value of properties where artists live and work, thereby increasing value on adjacent properties, leading to displacement of longtime residents and, eventually, artists.
Commonly called “art-washing,” this gentrification process instrumentalizes artists as a regenerative detergent; artists effectively sanitize urban areas for future, higher-earning residents seeking nonthreatening cosmopolitanism. Conveniently, art-washing also positions artists as visible foils to working class and low-income residents, diverting scrutiny away from officials who, by engineering Moskowitz’s “phase zero,” made displacement profitable.
In a 2017 Artsy article, Moskowitz posits that because of gentrification’s ubiquity, development no longer even needs artists. Art-washing can take decades, so developers have learned how to mimic the aesthetics of artist-led gentrification while “plunking new condos in abandoned parts” of mid-sized cities across the United States.
Cities appropriate artists first as tragedy, then as farce. Market-rate, warehouse-style loft living is available from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine. Algorithmic urban wallpapering techniques create the vibe that artists are—or were—somewhere nearby. Today’s urban real estate offers toothless toothless street art, middling lobby sculptures, and questionable “residencies.” These saccharine accents amount to nothing more than art-frosting.
As DIY’s viability suffers continued erosion, it will be essential to inventory what was lost: consistent all ages shows; opportunities to experiment with scale; lateral, communal living; physical sites for mutual-aid efforts; safer nightlife spaces for LGBTQIA+ people; the list goes on. It will be equally essential to critically articulate who rendered longer-term venues unsustainable. Cities are not changing organically; gentrification is planned and incentivized by people with power.
“If your space seems threatened, if you worry about disappearance, identify your antagonists and prepare to meet them,” advised journalist Sam Lefebvre in a February interview. In addition to covering Bay Area tenant and labor issues for East Bay Express, KQED, and Hyperallergic, among others, Lefebvre is a musician and member of the Bay Area Tenants and Neighbors Council union.
So, who exactly are the antagonists?
“They’re landlords,” Lefebvre elaborated. “They’re also the representatives of landlords in city government, the laws stacked in favor of the landlords, and the police who enforce those laws. Particular to the arts, there are the recuperative forces of nonprofit organizations.”
Choom Towns and Zoom Towns
Illustration by Thomas J Gamble
New antagonists have recently emerged. Legalized recreational marijuana cultivation has exacerbated competition for warehouse space in California, Colorado, Washington, and Oregon. Large-scale growers require secure indoor facilities with controlled climate and lighting to maximize yield. They’ll pay top dollar per square foot, as will edible companies, breeders, concentrate manufacturers, and other extractors.
Oakland permits cannabis cultivation in designated “Green Zones” that overlay the exact deindustrialized corridor where DIY communities once thrived. This has led to clashes between long-time artist residents and the expanding marijuana industry. Recreational marijuana is now legal in 15 states, and municipal cultivation permitting could have dramatic impacts on smaller DIY communities in Arizona, Montana, Nevada, or Michigan.
Additionally, the Covid-19 pandemic has permanently altered how employers perceive remote work. Idyllic locations like Bend, Oregon and Flagstaff, Arizona are becoming “Zoom towns” as new telecommuters ditch major cities for smaller, amenity-rich, outdoorsy ones. This is exacerbating what is already an affordability crisis extending far beyond hyper-gentrified urban centers. All cities, regardless of their population size, need to generate nonstop capital growth.
Artist John Knight relocated from pricey Portland, Oregon to Missoula, Montana in early 2018. Knight was active in Portland, co-directing two alternative galleries and a formal space, Williamson & Knight (now Holding Contemporary). He’d worked full-time as an art preparator, and later in facilities maintenance, but topped out at $28,000 a year. At the deteriorating punk house he rented, enterprising realtors and developers frequently peered into the windows and took photos. Knight hoped the move to the smaller, intermountain Missoula would prove more economically sustainable, but 2020’s pandemic-induced, Montana Zoom boom has seemingly obliterated affordable housing.
“It is becoming more common than not to know someone who had to move from their rental during the pandemic, due to the house selling to an out-of-state buyer,” Knight said over email in February. “Renting in a community where people buy and sell housing like a cryptocurrency, instead of a place to live, creates constant precarity.”
Knight recently signed his home lease for another year and secured an art studio. He’d like to stay in Missoula long-term, and maybe open a project space. But forces outside of his control may dictate his future. Montana recently voted to legalize recreational cannabis which, depending on state and city permitting, could impact prices for the deindustrialized spaces that often house alternative galleries. And in February, Knight posted a grainy image of a person outside his rental home on Instagram. They were taking photos of the property.
Neighbors, Not Navel-Gazers
In How to Kill a City, Moskowitz frames contemporary urban renewal as suburbanization part two. During deindustrialization, developers and home buyers segregated cities from suburbs through disinvestment and abandonment. Today’s inverse process segregates through urban capitalization and displacement, whether it’s Manhattan or Montgomery, Alabama.
The halcyon days of DIY venues—a side effect of twentieth-century urban disinvestment—produced paradoxical value. Two generations of artists enjoyed innumerable shows, enthusiastic audiences, and instructive forms of mutual-aid. For local governments and real estate developers, DIY provided an in-kind, fiercely marketable cultural cache. While artists don’t singularly cause gentrification, they must confront how they’re instrumentalized towards the profitable displacement of working class and low-income communities of color. Today, Covid-19 is accelerating that displacement; there is an eviction crisis. Perhaps having become incidental in the era of algorithmic art-frosting could be catalytic for artists. Because while the incidental are displaceable, the displaceable are legion.
Through organizing in Oakland post-Ghost Ship, Sam Lefebvre determined that “artist warehouse” is a meaningless designation to municipalities. Artists living in warehouses have more in common, Lefebvre explained, with people renting unpermitted garage rooms or illegally subdivided apartments than they do with commercial businesses.
“To build power to affect change politically, artists should recognize themselves as tenants with the same interests as other tenants,” Lefebvre said, “even if they might not recognize each other along cultural lines.”
For artists living in more traditional housing, O.K. Fox, co-host of New York podcast Art and Labor, offered similar advice in a March email: artists should stop thinking of themselves as atomized culture makers, and start communicating, and identifying, with their neighbors.
“If you think your landlord is small, do some research,” recommended Fox, a member of the Ridgewood Tenants Union. “Plenty pretend to be small, but are often part of larger efforts to ‘curate’ a neighborhood. Then, depending on how committed everyone is to staying long-term, your group could consider forming an association in solidarity with a tenants union or housing movement.”
Hyper-gentrification, high-earning remote workers, and commercial cannabis footprints loom on the horizon for Tucson, Billings, Reno, Grand Rapids, and scores of other mid-sized cities. Instead of protecting existing citizenry through their authority to regulate municipal housing policies, local leaders have willfully become the minions of real estate developers. To artists across the United States: now is the time to build solidarity with your neighbors. Your antagonists are already organized.
Sean J Patrick Carney is a writer in Berkeley, California.