Artists sick of living on borrowed time & borrowed land

Casey JenkinsCommentary1 Comment

The Anti-Gentrification Festival, held in conjunction with Craft Cartel, kicked off on Sunday at The Birmy. Highlights included a talk from Earthsharing’s Karl Fitzgerald about land tax reform, a highly professional lagerphone making workshop directed by Alica Bee (she was colour coordinating the bottle-caps, this lady takes her lagerphone making VERY seriously) and a surprise performance by legendary poet Pi-O.

Pi-O delighted us with two awesome poems while I donned the magnificent Tote carpet dress crafted by Kathryn Jamieson

The festival sparked a fair bit of media attention, most objective and/or supportive such as our interviews with 3CR’s DIY Arts show, ABC 774’s Derek Guilles & Radio National’s Life Matters program and Dewi Clarke’s piece ‘Fitzroyalty snubs gentrification’ in The Age, some rather less than positive like Marcus Westbury’s article ‘Artists kick-start gentrification’, also in The Age, & some down-right hostile such as this blog post by a bloke called Brian.

We were happy with all of these responses,  feeling quite proud that our festival has given the media a chance to address the issues of housing affordability and community displacement WITHOUT causing mass nap-attacks. We would have liked to have discussed the fest with Marcus first, though, & because this didn’t happen, we asked The Age if we could write a response piece. They turned us down, but we’ve decided to just publish it here anyway.

Here it is:

Artists sick of living on borrowed time & borrowed land

The cycle of artists moving into areas, establishing desirable communities and then being displaced by the wealthy repeats like a stuck record and most people are familiar with it. So depressingly familiar that we’ve grown used to meekly following its flow and moving further & further out into the ‘burbs with hardly a complaint.

Many will tell you this process is unavoidable, but in fact, it doesn’t have to be this way!

It’s true that we’re not the first artists to complain about being kicked from our stomping grounds. We’re quite pissed off about it. It may come as a shock, but as crafters and activists we’re poor (in Aussie terms). Generally this is okay as there’s not much we want for that we can’t craft but we have yet to devise a way to craft land and we’re getting pretty sick of the rich not wanting to share it with us and of the Government facilitating their greed.

This does not mean that we want our communities ‘preserved’. Artists by definition are creative and the prospect of living in static suburbs is unbearably restrictive. We don’t want our homes and communities to stagnate; we want the right to be involved in their evolution.

Artistic communities aren’t the only ones being displaced, of course. Even in a world with no artists (visualise Perth if you find this concept hard to imagine…) the gentrification process rolls on. Under a system that encourages inflated land prices in prime areas, all low income groups are eventually pushed out to the fringes of society. The problem isn’t about individual landlords and wealthy people acting like bad guys – it’s about the Government tax policies encouraging this behaviour.

As a centrepiece for the festival we ripped up the old Tote carpet, chopped it into doormats and branded them, ciggie-style, with a branding iron of the pub logo. The carpet reeks of community history (literally), so yes, the festival has elements of nostalgia, but the point is, people didn’t collect pieces of the Berlin Wall because they wished it still stood, they collected them because the falling of the wall marked a seminal time in their history.

The carpet itself is stinky and revolting. We’d much prefer some deep plush pile, thank you very much. But it is symbolic of a seminal time in the history of Melbourne’s artistic community, when thousands marched in the streets to protest the closure of yet another inner city artistic venue, displaced by gentrification.

There’s nothing wrong with reflecting on times gone by and getting a bit nostalgic now and then but the thing we find sad is not the loss of our past in these areas – it’s the loss of our future. We are aware that there is only one Earth and we’re going to have to share it. We don’t want to close the good bits off to others; we just don’t want to be pushed out of them ourselves.

Many will say that resisting the gentrification cycle is futile because government policy is set up to encourage it. This is true but whatever happened to system overhaul big picture thinking? We’ve gotta stop being wussy and start lobbying for some real reform.

After thousands marched the Tote is once again opening as a band venue – a welcome stall in the process of the displacement of a community but, unless government tax policy is changed to encourage the opening up of land in prime areas to people of all economic levels, there will very soon be no locals of the type it caters for (low income artists) to visit it.

The truth is that there is a lot of underutilised land in the inner-city. A recent Earthsharing report showed that the vacancy rate was 6.9% overall and as high as 29% in Carlton South! Housing supply and affordability in the inner-suburbs is a problem because our tax structure encourages speculative land vacancies. Land transactions and developments are taxed (stamp duty etc.) but land holding is not. There is no motivation for landlords to make their properties available for rent or development so supply falls behind demand, prices rise and less people are able to live in communities than could be easily accommodated.

If land value was taxed, the profits from community resources we create would return to our communities, speculative land hoarding would be discouraged, more properties would come onto the market, land prices would fall and more people would be able to afford to live where they want to and where the infrastructure is best. Challenges relating to how the denser communities could co-exist harmoniously would inevitably arise and ideas flagged for discussion at our festival to cope with these challenges include the introduction of art zoning and increased social support services.

We’re holding this festival to encourage the community to brainstorm practical solutions like these. Gentrification is by no means unavoidable and we’ve decided to stand our ground. Because it is our ground too.

Check out upcoming festival events at The Workers Club

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