Saturday, Dec. 20, 2008 | Cheryl Nickel, a sculptor and a landscape architect, has lost artist friends from the center of the city. It was too expensive for them to live in metropolitan San Diego and still create, so some moved to Valley Center, others to Vista. Others, unhappy with the prospects of moving to the boonies, left the county entirely.

The city has had a share of neighborhoods hit with New York City’s “SoHo Effect,” she says. The creative pockets where artists live attract development and developers that raise the cost of living in that pocket, forcing artists out.

“It’s those kind of creative people that are the magnets to those areas, making them cool and hip, and then the cool and hip people can’t afford to stay there anymore,” she says.

She’s seen that happen here, as shining condo towers and their associated development sprang up this decade downtown and in Little Italy and East Village, shooting up the cost of land and rents and homes for purchase.

So Nickel has teamed up with some artists and art-group organizers to launch an effort to develop affordable living space for artists in the city of San Diego.

“Some artists enjoy working in isolation; most of them don’t,” she said.

They’re called BL/Eve, a play on the Barrio Logan and East Village monikers, and are sponsored by the Synergy Art Foundation. They’re betting the city would prefer its creative types stay close-by. Informed by the popular work of researcher Richard Florida at the University of Toronto, Nickel and her partners hope to ratchet up the dialogue in San Diego about its “creative class.”

She shared some thoughts with us this week via e-mail.

Who’s part of your effort and what’s your role?

My role has been to focus on permanent, affordable artist live/work space, researching  how other cities have dealt with this issue. Artspace, a national not-for-profit real estate developer — Artspace was the one organization which has had expert experience doing large projects of this nature.   

Three of us formed a core group — Mario Torero, one of the original Chicano Park artists, who has been promoting the concept of Barrio Logan as a Latino arts district; and Naomi Nussbaum, one of the founders of Synergy, who realized that artists were leaving San Diego because they couldn’t afford space here. And myself, an artist concerned about downtown becoming sterile, lacking in a lively arts and culture district.

Earlier this year our core group joined with the North Park and El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement/Arts Districts who are also interested in affordable artist and arts organization space.

And at the Artspace Presentation last week other groups from around the county expressed their interest — clearly indicative of the need in many San Diego County communities — so we may come up with an “umbrella name” for an affordable artist space network in San Diego County. … At our (recent) evening public meeting we had well over 125 attendees.

How did you become interested in developing affordable housing for artists in San Diego?

Artist friends were literally ousted from their studios downtown when development began approximately five years ago. And many of them didn’t want to live in the more affordable outer suburbs. And downtown, although MOCA and large theaters and performance halls are there, has no lively arts presence — it is mainly condos and tourist bars.

When I heard Naomi talk about the BL/EVe project, I offered to help, because I want to live in a “creative city” where art and artists, and therefore, all types of creative businesses, research and technology efforts, etc., flourish. I had previous experience in Ithaca, New York, founding a successful arts festival and working on downtown development .

When we realized that “Arts Districts” actually serve to escalate property costs and displace artists (for example, in North Park with the success of Ray at Night …), I began doing some research on what was being done elsewhere in the country and discovered there are many instances of city governments and arts organization who have taken the lead in creating permanent, affordable artist live/work space to attract and keep artists in their downtowns.

What kind of artists are we talking about — just visual artists? Writers?

Definitely all disciplines — performing, visual, design, writers, filmmakers and all of the permutations!

What’s your dream for this effort? What form would the development take?

More or less permanent creative “centers”/clusters in areas throughout the city/county. Some artist live/work spaces would be available for fixed lower rents subsidized by city, state, federal, and private funds. Some might include lease to own options, some to include families, some may be structured as cooperatives. Each would evolve organically and in accordance with the needs of the artists involved. My dream would include beyond work/live space, an exhibition space, a performance space, perhaps even a community organic garden. In some communities, the performance space would be shared and enjoyed by community citizens, and in some, even a specialized museum to acknowledge the cultural heritage of the community. Artists’ support services could possibly be integrated into the building (i.e. printing facilities, recording studios, framing shop, etc.)

These centers would be magnets, attracting other creative enterprises, supporting local small-scale economic development, mass transit, emphasizing local character. In some areas, affordable low-income housing would be part of the centers, thus helping retain the socioeconomic and ethnic character.

What neighborhoods are you eyeing?

Our initial focus is BL/EV and those nearby urban areas because those are the areas that most affect the character of the city — (North Park, El Cajon Blvd., Barrio Logan/East Village, Downtown, possibly City Heights). Elsewhere in the county — El Cajon, Encinitas, Vista, Oceanside — there is interest in creating arts districts.

What neighborhoods have already priced artists out?

Downtown, Little Italy, probably North Park, East Village, North County coastal — for almost all artists, especially the young ones who are the usual innovators.

What groups in San Diego are you bringing to the same table to talk about this?

El Cajon Blvd. and North Park Business Improvement Districts (the groups organizing economic investment and development in those neighborhoods), Oceanside, [Centre City Development Corp.], Redevelopment Agency, Housing Commission, elected city, state, federal officials, Commission for Arts and Culture, NTC Foundation, developers, architects, college and university art departments, theater groups, San Diego Foundation, financial companies and other charitable groups

What’s the biggest challenge facing artists in San Diego?

The high cost to rent or purchase space, and the limits spent on art in San Diego. Many supporters of the arts go to L.A. to buy art.

Richard Florida has written extensively about the creative class in the United States and the struggles it faces in high-priced cities. How does his writing inform what you’re working on here?

If, as he states, the “creative class” comprises about one-third of the work force in the most successful cities, and is the sector that will define successful, dynamic cities of the future, San Diego government and civic leaders must realize that the best investments in the future are not giant ballparks or technology parks, but are the much less costly, much more cost effective investments in supporting the creative economy.

What does a community stand to gain from artists planting stakes there? What could it lose?

Different for different areas of the city. For poorer neighborhoods, an opportunity to grow economically with the creative businesses in their neighborhoods, and exposure to the arts and arts education. Interaction of various ethnic and social groups. Art unites people. A cluster of artists living in a poor neighborhood will enliven the community, provide greater safety, protect and value cultural heritage, reach out to community to participate in projects. The results are increased community pride.

But if in low-income neighborhoods, if there isn’t some protection of their housing, then they’ll be ousted just like artists. Ideally there should be affordable housing which includes a whole variety of people.

For more affluent areas, renewed creative elements in neighborhoods, more appreciation of local character and culture, aesthetic quality, economic development, arts education, etc.

— Interview by KELLY BENNETT

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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