DIY Urbanism: When a Recession Creates a Canvas

POSTED BY ED PARILLON
September 8, 2010

DIY Urbanism is a movement that arose in part from projects born out of the recession and resulting limited funds. But one project that has a more direct link than most is the San Francisco Arts Council's Art in Storefronts program. The economic downturn brought with it an uptick in empty storefronts, causing some harder-hit commercial strips to look blighted. Art in Storefronts seeks to counteract this by using art installations to enliven these vacant spaces. Efforts in the Mission, SOMA, the Tenderloin and Chinatown have been popular with merchants and pedestrians alike, and the SFAC has worked to make the installations into attractions in their own right, including publishing walking tour maps.

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The Ms. Teriosa fortune-telling window in the Mission [Photo courtesy SFAC]

The recession has also hit other cities, of course, and many of these are trying similar approaches. In New York, groups like Chashama and No Longer Empty have worked to find vacant spaces for artists to display their work in the past, and now some commercial landlords are getting in on the act. A New York Times article profiled storefront art in Brooklyn:

"Any sort of activity is better than no activity," said Jed Walentas, a Brooklyn developer whose company, Two Trees Management, routinely lends space in Dumbo and Downtown Brooklyn for art projects. "As long as it's short enough and it's flexible, then there's no real cost. So the question is who can you find that's going to make an investment in a space with that level of uncertainty, and often it's the artist."

Meanwhile, in Southern California, Palm Springs undertook a similar effort last year to keep its shopping districts from looking too empty. As reported by the Los Angeles Times:

Eager to safeguard its image as an upscale tourist resort, Palm Springs is prescribing art therapy as a partial cure for downtown shops caught up in the economic doldrums.

The city is expected to adopt a plan requiring vacant stores to hang paintings, photographs of old Hollywood movie stars or come up with their own picturesque remedies to head off creeping blight in the city center.

"We have more vacant storefronts than we did in the past," said City Manager David Ready. "Many are transitioning or looking for new tenants. This program wouldn't cost the owner anything and would greatly improve the appearance of the buildings."

Local artists will be invited to showcase their work and the city will finance the installation.

Of course, while the economy will likely recover and many of these storefronts will once again become occupied, artists will still need opportunities to display their work. One hopes that this is one DIY Urbanism trend that outlasts the recession, and that even occupied stores will see some value in sharing space with the city's aspiring artists.

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[Photo courtesy SFAC]

DIY Urbanism: Testing the grounds for social change, now on show at SPUR's Urban Center, features innovative "do-it-yourself" projects, providing a snapshot of this burgeoning and distinctively local movement.