Will Capitol Hill's new arts district really do anything?

Rising rents are pushing in on Capitol Hill's thriving arts scene. Can a city program fill the gap?
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Rising rents are pushing in on Capitol Hill's thriving arts scene. Can a city program fill the gap?

It’s a timeless problem: artists take cultural ownership of an area, make it beautiful, quirky, unique and then people with money – those very people the artists were trying to move away from in the first place – come in, raise rents, and price out the creative folks. But, what if there was a way, in Seattle now, to combat that problem?

“You can’t stop the development,” said Hugo House executive director, Tree Swenson, this weekend. “But you can steer it in a way that works if you can see the change coming.”

Swenson was speaking to a group of about 50 artists who gathered at Hugo House Saturday to celebrate the launch of the Capitol Hill Arts District, the first in a series of official arts districts the city plans to create and promote.

This idea of steering development to include the arts, artists’ ways of life, and compassion toward working people is paramount to the program. Maybe there is no fighting development (read: gentrification), but perhaps there are ways to work with it and make compromises.

The Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, which created the concept, has provided a 'toolkit' to help the new districts establish themselves that includes marketing, branding and signage within specific districts, special markers for culturally important places within a district, a plan to hire public performers and artists and to expand the existing Storefront Seattle program and, perhaps most fun, pop-up art spaces, public parklets and artist-painted crosswalks.

“The toolkit,” said Calandra Childers, the communications manager for the city’s Office of Arts & Culture, “certainly does help with marketing, but it’s really more than that. It’s also about wayfinding and incentivizing new artspaces in new buildings. It funds artists to create new work, it preserves existing artspaces and it celebrates cultural history. It activates vacant retail spaces with art, and it creates new spaces in the right-of-way for art and recreation.”

Childers noted that there are also other options, outside the toolkit, to help artists – though these are a bit more vaguely understood at this point. “There are programs created by the district’s members that will exist outside of the city’s toolkit,” she said. “This is one of the side effects of putting the district’s organizations together in a room for the first time. There is funding directly for artists, through direct commissions and busking and plein air painting support. We will not be directly subsidizing individual artists’ living spaces, but we are in the process of developing tools with the Office of Housing to address the affordability of housing in the neighborhood.”

Swenson seemed hopeful about the project. “Making this designation,” said Swenson, “will affect what happens here and will bring a lot of attention to the neighborhood and the city.”

Amanda Manitach, who curated the visual art portion of Saturday’s gathering, and is on the advisory committee for the Capitol Hill Arts District, said she is very concerned about artists being able to live and work in Seattle neighborhoods. She herself has lived on Capitol Hill since 2001. And she’s hopeful this new arts district designation is a step in the right direction.

“There are so many things at play: working with developers, making the neighborhood actually affordable for working artists, how branding can help preserve the history here – a place where the weird, unexpected, underground happens,” Manitach said.

The first designated arts district in the city, an Office of Arts & Culture press release explained that Capitol Hill was chosen because of its “constellation of arts organizations, as dense as any in the state of Washington.”

That vibrancy was evident in the work Manitach curated at the event: Ben Beres polaroids of quirky, well-worn Capitol Hill spots; an essay about sobbing, heart broken, in front of the 12th Avenue Arts Building by writer Sarah Galvin; a poem about riding in a Cadillac, making puff paint t-shirts.

Jed Dunkerley, another artist whose work was on display Saturday, reflected on Manitach’s assignment: to document the spirit of Capitol Hill in the 24 hours before the event. “[It] made me notice things I otherwise wouldn’t,” he said, “– like I’d never seen that skull at Linda’s Tavern before, even though I’d been there many times.”

The Office of Arts & Culture is involved in discussions with six other neighborhoods, including Georgetown, South Park, Rainier Valley, Uptown, Pioneer Square and Lake City. “We’ll announce the next Arts & Culture District later in 2015,” Childers said.

In the meantime, Hugo House will ironically be moving out of its home at 1634 11th Ave. sometime in 2016. A big apartment building will replace the craftsman-style house that now houses the organization.

But, said a smiling Swenson, “We will be back here when that construction is done, happy, on the first floor of the building.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jake Uitti

Jake Uitti

Jake Uitti is the co-founder and Managing Editor of The Monarch Review. He plays in the band, The Great Um, and works at The Pub at Third Place.