Artist Displacement and the Resurgence of Cities

By Camron Bridgford

The enormous blaze that engulfed and destroyed a warehouse-turned-artist collective in Oakland on December 2, killing 36 people, had a ripple effect across the country during the days afterward, including in Denver. While the conversation originally addressed the building owner skirting code inspections essential for ensuring the facility’s safety—in fact, Oakland’s interim director of planning and building said that the warehouse, known as the Ghost Ship, had not been inspected for 30 years—the discussion quickly evolved to what many saw as a greater root cause for this tragedy than lax enforcement on fire safety regulations. Ultimately, the spotlight turned to an affordable housing crisis leading to the rapid displacement of artists in urban centers across the United States.

In cities from New York to Pittsburgh, artists have steadily confirmed the existence of other enclaves similar to Ghost Ship, and lay claim to their growing necessity, not only as studio space, but as a way to house working artists who can no longer afford median rents due to fast-paced price increases in major city rental markets.

To this trend, Denver is certainly no stranger—as recently as October, Denver’s rent index, at more than $2,000 per month, was the highest of any major city not located along a coast, with projections of another 5.9 percent increase to come in 2017. This makes Denver third in national rent increases, only to be behind Seattle and Portland. Further, despite 11,000 new apartments arriving in 2016, the vast majority of these were geared toward a middle-to-upper class clientele in select urban neighborhoods. 2017 does not look much different, with a major corner of the housing market focused on the current development of 10 high-rise luxury residential projects at 12 stories or taller.

While the City of Denver has taken initial efforts to combat its affordable housing crisis in the form of an affordable housing fund, critics would say this has been a slow reaction to a steadily growing problem and likely not enough to counter the tidal wave of luxury development, especially in neighborhoods like River North (RiNo), which may become a victim of its own success if it loses the artists that originally provided the Denver neighborhood with its uniquely gritty and creative charisma.

In addition to the growing lack of affordable housing, response to the Oakland fire has also prompted tightening on building code noncompliance, with Denver Fire Department shutting down a well-known artist collective in RiNo, Rhinoceropolis, for safety violations less than a week after the Oakland fire, displacing five people living in the space. Artist advocacy groups like RiNo Art District quickly addressed these actions after several other surprise building code checks occurred, stating that while code adherence is critical, so is working with the artists in these spaces to provide the best opportunity for them to stay in place.

Overall, this crisis begs the question of why the contribution of arts and culture to a city’s urban landscape is not taken more seriously, not only as a staple of good urban planning and design, but as an economic engine that drives development investment, population growth and tourism. While a city can have a beautifully-designed built environment, without the development of unique character—often driven by, or experiencing contributions from, local artists—that turns a city’s space into place, the success of an urban environment may be time-limited.

With recent densification trends, our cities are simply not doing enough to provide assistance or advocate for preserving the spaces artists need to work and live in order to make their vital contribution to the vibrancy of a city. Rather than focusing only on code enforcement and penalization of those who struggle to revitalize these spaces, city governments should be creatively looking to incentivize building owners, such as through property tax breaks, to not only ensure code compliance, but also support the unique circumstances of these tenants and preserve the urban character they generate. Ultimately, what is overlooked is that excessive and constant loss of artist space drastically increases the chance that, over time, artistic neighborhoods will fall to inauthentic character and deactivated space, for when you remove the creatives, you lose the atmosphere they produced.

However, even if you go beyond these more intangible aspects of artists’ contributions to urban character, hard numbers still support the vital purpose of the artistic community, especially in Colorado. The Colorado Business Committee for the Arts’ biennial economic impact study, released in October of last year, shows that in 2015, arts and culture generated $1.8 billion dollars of economic activity and employed 11,000 people, which is up 5% from 2013 and outpacing total employment growth in metro Denver, Colorado and nationally. Further, more than 14 million people participated in a cultural activity in Colorado that year, with many residing outside the state, as cultural tourism accounts for $365 million in total economic impact on metro Denver.

What does this all mean? Plainly, that artists and the cultural opportunities they create are a driver for Denver’s economic engine, workforce development, job growth and tourism—all crucial factors to building and planning successful cities.

As the trend toward moving back to cities continues, housing prices will resume their upward drive, as supply is simply not keeping up with demand. In particular, cities like Denver, with its rapid growth in jobs, infrastructure and residents, are especially vulnerable to this volatile environment. It is at this nexus that its becoming more important than ever to responsibly grow and preserve the character in our cities by advocating for the artists that have played a critical role in their successful resurgence.


Camron Bridgford is a master’s candidate in urban and regional planning at the University of Colorado Denver, with a particular interest in the use and politics of public space as it relates to urban revitalization, culture and placemaking, and community development. She also works as a freelance writer to investigate urban-related issues and serves as a non-profit consultant.

By | 2017-01-15T16:34:08+00:00 January 8, 2017|Categories: Attainable Housing, History & Culture, Urban Planning|Tags: |5 Comments


  1. Jim Nash January 9, 2017 at 2:47 am

    Cameron, good article. What do cities like Santa Fe do to support their artistic communities, like the Native American jewelers, potters and weavers who sell their art in the public square and the galleries around Santa Fe? What are your ideas about building similar relationships with Denver artistic communities? Seems like more than low rent for studio space is needed — and maybe local government can only do so much, in working with free spirits, who don’t work well inside the boundaries imposed in “artistic zones.” Your thoughts?

  2. James January 9, 2017 at 9:39 pm

    I agree that art and design are very important – I would bet the vast majority of people who follow this blog would agree with that. Unfortunately, the problems of gentrification are simple supply and demand – in the 1960s-1980’s, most cities downtown’s were seen as less desirable places to live. Artists and other different types of people with on-average lower paying occupations compared to professionals or those with more lucrative trades benefitted from the cheaper rent and could live in cities because those who could and were willing to pay more didn’t want to live there.

    The tables have turned – now those who can pay more to live downtown want to live there, and they are pushing people who used to be able to afford pre-boom downtown out based on buying up the properties. It is sad, but there is not a market-based solution to this aside from building more housing to stabilize prices – Denver is doing a better job of this compared to cities like Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco though from what I read.

    I would oppose government intervention to make it cheaper for artists to live in the most premium neighborhoods – this would have to look like government picking a certain group of people who can’t afford to live there by their own means to subsidize them in order to be able to afford it while neglecting someone else who also couldn’t afford it but is simply not an artist. Why does that artist get government help to live in a place beyond his/her means but not someone else? Furthermore, what kind of artist gets priority? Who decides what an artist is? This just devolves into an ugly mess that we have repeatedly seen when government tries to target a certain type of person based on race or occupation that excludes other people of similar socio-economic position who also struggle to make ends meet. Design and culture are important and Denver is doing well because it has a very well-designed downtown (in many areas) and has a unique culture that people are willing to may more to be a part of. It is sad artists cannot afford to live where they used to, but the city will not suffer because artists cannot afford to live in the most expensive neighborhoods of Colorado – they can do the same thing everyone else does who cannot afford to live in the most premium neighborhoods. They can commute and sell their work where their markets are. I am not convinced any one type of occupation needs to be mandated the privilege by a government to live in the most expensive neighborhoods of a city – I believe that is a very bad idea. The government just needs to make it as easy as possible for the most amount of high-quality TOD being built – that benefits everyone of all levels of income.

    • Mark A Castillo January 10, 2017 at 11:16 pm

      “Why does that artist get government help to live in a place beyond his/her means but not someone (non-artist) else?” Because James, this is an article about retaining artists for the sake of the culture they bring to a city. So an effort to subsidize artists would have the ultimate goal of increasing a city or neighborhood’s artistic atmosphere as a means of increasing the total value of the community. There are other efforts to retain other types of (non-artist) community minorities, such as the poor and ethnic minorities. This article isn’t about those other efforts. There can be multiple simultaneous efforts to help different types of community members. Can we get back to having a conversation about the retaining artists without having wonder what we will do about every other group that needs help?

      • James January 11, 2017 at 4:28 pm

        You did not seem to pay attention to the crux of my argument – I will try to be more clear: what utility is it to the city that requires the artists to have to live in the most expensive neighborhoods of the city? I do not see a real argument there. Why can’t they do what everyone else does – commute? If we are asking the government to cough up money and give them special treatment to live in the most expensive neighborhoods of the city, there needs to be really good reason for this. I am looking for a utilitarian, not ideological argument here.

        The greatest artistic works of history came about from patronage, yes – but this was largely not a patronage where the state paid the artist to live in the nicest part of the city. It seems to me there are MANY things the state can do to much better improve quality of life downtown rather than subsidizing artist’s housing because they’re artists. The burden is on your side to convince the rest of Denver that doing what you’re suggesting is a good and necessary thing – to have taxpayers pay for artists to live in a nicer part of the city. I am not convinced there is a real argument there.

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