Cheap Housing Could Be Michigan Art’s Best Friend

The hue and cry from members of the arts community over the cutbacks of government subsidies is overblown. ArtServe CEO Jennifer H. Goulet recently opined in the Feb. 25 Detroit Free Press that Gov. Granholm's recommended 2010 arts appropriation of $1 million (down from $8.1 million in 2009, according to Goulet) eliminates "cultural institutions' capacity to provide the rich programming that transforms individuals and communities." I would argue that art and artists are better served if left to their own devices, as recent news stories of burgeoning Detroit arts communities brought about by cheap housing attest.

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Defenders of government arts subsidization frequently resort to high-flown, abstract claims of arts' ability to perform an Oprah-style personal and group psyche makeover, concluding without offering concrete evidence that it's up to government largesse — which is to say taxpayers — to preserve art and artists' lifestyles. Nothing could be further from the truth as the collapse of property values in Detroit is attracting artists from around the world who wish to pursue their respective muses unencumbered by the high cost of living. According to news reports, two such communities have sprung up already, the first near Klinger Street and Davison and the second in Old Redford near Lahser and Grand River.

In fact, there are many historical instances where artists migrated to a given area because it was cheap and subsequently created great art because it was far less difficult to keep the wolf from the door. Cheap living enables artists wishing to focus exclusively on their creative pursuits to do so rather than being sidetracked by unfulfilling tasks at dead-end jobs simply to pay the bills. One artist friend of mine has lived for years in an abandoned storefront near Livernois and Michigan Avenue in Detroit because it allows him to pursue his music, photography and painting without exorbitant overhead.

Arts and artists typically thrive when life's basic necessities come cheap. Think of the bohemians living in garrets in New York's Greenwich Village during the fin de siècle or Paris' Left Bank in the 1920s and '30s, where Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Henry Miller and hundreds of other writers and painters plied their trade. Think of Stephen Crane and Walt Whitman roaming the Bowery, willingly seeking inspiration in the depredation found there. Think of Harlem, where Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Dizzie Gillespie reconfigured jazz by creating bop, and Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg invented Beat literature. Think of the Haight-Ashbury District in San Francisco where the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, the Charlatans and Country Joe and the Fish psychodelicized the world. Think of Lincoln Park's own MC5 and their Elektra Records cohorts the Stooges sharing cheap housing in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti while crafting some of the most sublime musical anarchy ever dispatched to vinyl, or, more recently, the Hamtramck loft where Jack and Meg White kick started the garage rock resurgence when they released the first White Stripes album in 1999.

None of these cultural explosions occurred because some government entity decided that pouring taxpayer dollars into an area or throwing grants at institutions or individual artists would promote an artistic renaissance or "cool city." Cool cities happen organically. They can't be planned. Organic revival happens because people see the price-point as too good to pass up. An artist community attracts new like-minded citizens to the neighborhood as well, eventually prompting coffee shops, book stores, clubs and restaurants to cater to a widely diversifying clientele. The Old Redford location, for example, is planning to build a coffee shop where artists can meet and share ideas. Eventually older couples, who could live more expensively, relocate to areas seeped in the creative arts because they like the pervasive cultural vibe.

Rather than bemoaning the cutting of government subsidies for the arts, perhaps artists should celebrate the opportunities that low-cost housing affords them by following the lead of those artists migrating to the Old Redford and Northeast Detroit areas. If history is any indication, we just might witness the spontaneous blossoming of Detroit as a new cultural Mecca.


Bruce Edward Walker is communications director for the Property Rights Network at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

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