It used to be a commonplace to live above the shop. Before the Industrial Revolution and the invention of dark, satanic mills, people lived and worked in the same place. It wasn’t uncommon at all to start your day’s work by going down the stairs and end it by traversing the reverse journey.
Two stories came to my attention, today, that made me wonder what an artist is supposed to do.
The gist of both of these articles is that creative industries had miraculously taken root in certain communities and were flourishing, but were being driven out.
The first group of artists were being moved on because of zoning laws. They were resident in commercial premises. Zoning laws exist to protect people having to live in close proximity to noisy, hazardous, disruptive industrial processes and to ensure that residential premises were fit to live in. What zoning laws should never be about, in my view, are people choosing to live in close proximity to their artistic processes, provided that the premises are fit for habitation and the processes the artist uses are not hazardous to their own well being or disturbing others. There doesn’t seem to be anywhere that provides both the space, light and industrial wiring of a commercial property that is also zoned for residence. How is an artist supposed to live in close proximity to their work, then?
If you’ve ever tried to pursue an artistic career from home, you’ll know the pitfalls. Even singing teachers and guitar teachers fall foul of noise restrictions, no matter how well sound-proofed their studios. I know recording artists that struggle with the fact that their children sleep on the floor above their booth. There are many that have to ply their craft from a poorly insulated garden shed, steaming in the summer and freezing in the winter. It’s not good enough. Considering the value created for export by the creative industries, there really ought to be purpose-designed places, zoned appropriately, that permit artists to live in close proximity to their studios. They ought to be within the reach of an artist’s income, too, especially when they are just starting out. But there aren’t any. A quick browse through the property listings will confirm it.
I’m not suggesting that fellow residents should be inconvenienced or put at risk, just because an artist chooses to move into the area. The studio would need to be purpose designed to obviate risks, hazards and annoyances to neighbours. However, we need to recognise that you can’t create material wealth from art well, unless the artist is able to work and live in the same place. It just can’t be done as efficiently. Forcing an artist to commute daily to a studio on an outlying industrial estate, which by the way is so unfit for habitation you aren’t supposed to live there, but you are required to spend your working day there (go figure), is wasteful of fossil fuel and of time and it lessens the productivity and happiness of the artist. Why? What greater purpose is served, by preventing the artist from creating value in the way that is optimal for them to do so?
The second article was about all the start up people that had congregated in Shoreditch, where rents were cheap, to become high tech entrepreneurs. Being those sorts of creative people, they came together, experimented, tried risky things that failed and moved on to each other’s ventures, until something succeeded. It was a high tech playground, of sorts, where people with technical and entrepreneurial skills could incubate ideas, try them in the market and move on to something that could succeed, revealed through the learning that goes along with every failure they produced. The important aspect of this environment is close proximity of a group of people with complementary skills, who can afford to be there, while their ventures are not working so well. That’s what makes it possible to do what they do.
What happened? Property developers sniffed that the area was hot and upcoming, so began buying up, boarding up, tearing down and redeveloping the properties in the area, forcing rents up and putting the replacement premises far beyond the means of struggling entrepreneurs. The result is drearily predictable. The entrepreneurs are priced out of the area, as rents rise and boarded up or torn down buildings replace the funky, old, cheap offices. That agglomeration, so important in agglomeration economics, is suddenly dispersed. The area loses its critical mass of creative people.
Again, consider the value created when just one of these high tech ventures succeeds. We can see that a place for these ventures to germinate and blossom came into existence, by some miraculous accident of happenstance, but the greed of property developers and landlords is granted supremacy and so the very conditions that cause value to be created are driven out of existence. The property developers never pay the opportunity cost. Nobody is ever held accountable for the value not created, because these nascent ventures can no longer organically flourish.
We, as a society, permit this wanton destruction of centres of value creation, without batting an eyelid and then wonder why we aren’t the economic powerhouse that other places are. As creative as our people are, they are constantly thwarted by the greed and stupidity of those that have primacy over their endeavours, by dint of owning or administering the land or buildings these ventures occupy. We’re hell bent on preserving the rentier economy, where land speculators and landlords are the top dogs and the rest of us, their fodder. It’s never even questioned. We don’t rethink our priorities.
Unless we change our policies toward artists and creative entrepreneurs, we’ll never reap significant economic benefits from our collective creativity. Value creation will simply not take place because it can’t. The whole lot will go up in the inflated smoke of rising property prices, instead.