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Minneapolis, Minn. — For the last eleven years Robert Johnson has called Northeast Minneapolis, or Nordeast, his home and workplace. Johnson is a neon artist. He makes commercial signs to pay the bills, and neon art installations and fine art pieces. Johnson says over the last half decade or more, this part of the city has been discovered, and is gradually being gentrified.
"You've seen a lot of the old buildings being remodeled," he says. "And rents are going up as larger businesses come in that make more money. And as much as we try here to make it, it can be difficult for artists. You have to really think like a business person."
Johnson rents his studio space for $800 a month. He believes for artists to truly have a secure future, they need to own the places where they work, but in Northeast the cost is too high. Sooner than later, he plans to move.
More than 500 artists live and work in Northeast, and many feel a sense of dread about the future. Rebecca Arnoldy is an upholsterer who works out of a cooperatively run studio and storefront complex called the Art Collective.
"I think that eventually big business will move in," she says. "The rents will be so high at that point that people will, they'll just have to go somewhere else. Where that is, I don't know."
Ernest Miller is a partner in the Art Collective and a potter. Miller thinks artists and residents of Northeast, and the city, are faced with a choice.
"Do we want this to turn into Uptown Minneapolis again, all over? We got one, do we need another?"
In one part of Northeast, the uptownization if you will, has already occurred.
Heidi Andermack points it out as she drives through the East Hennepin section of Northeast, just across the bridge from downtown. It looks rather swank.
Andermack is the former President of the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association or N.E.M.A.A., a mainly volunteer artist service organization.
"Here you'll notice condos that are starting from upper 300," she says. "And then as we get a block closer I think they start in the upper 500s. We have a nice new gym."
Around the corner, a burrito restaurant owned by McDonald's and a chain bread store are recent arrivals. Andermack says most artists in Northeast aren't opposed to progress, but they are worried about how quickly things are changing.
"Thoughtful progress is better, instead of rushed progress," she says.
Andermack says there's a delicate balance between helping a community grow, and keeping it affordable for the people who inspired its growth. To ensure that balance is kept, N.E.M.M.A., with the help of Andermack, developed the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Action Plan. According to Andermack, it's built on one central tenent.
"Instead of artists having to be driven out when the community gets popular," she says, "How about keeping them here so they can be part of that vitality?"
The Arts Action plan contains dozens of recommendations. They range from creating a temporary exhibition program and displaying more public art, to developing more technical support for artists and expanding their relationships with local businesses.
At the top of the list however, is to designate an arts concentrated zone in Northeast, as a city-approved arts district. Andermack says that would greatly enhance Northeast's identity as a place for art viewing and purchasing.
"Northeast Minneapolis is 12 square miles," she says. "That's a big area to just point someone to. An arts district would create a particular zone where people could find destination points."
Perhaps the most provocative proposal in the arts action plan is the creation of a separate non-profit arts trust or conservancy, modeled after the Nature Conservancy.
It's goal would be to preserve or maintain artist inhabited buildings as artist inhabited buildings. In exchange for a negotiated sum of money, a building owner would agree to place a deed restriction on the property, limiting its future development as anything other than arts related.
"That's not to say that the rents won't go up," Andermack admits. "But it says that this property is dedicated to the arts."
One Northeast edifice that's long been dedicated to the arts is the California building. 90% of its occupants work in the arts.
California Building co-owner Jennifer Young believes the action plan's Arts Conservancy idea would be very appealing to other building owners in Northeast. Young also likes another recommendation, which calls for the city to provide tax and zoning variances for people who restore buildings into arts spaces.
"The entire process can be expensive," Young says. "And if you can provide incentives to encourage developers to do it, by either tax abatement, or zoning changes that would make the system more flexible in terms of how things get renovated and when, both of those would be huge incentives to continue the renovation of the area."
The making of the arts action plan was largely funded by the McKnight Foundation. Foundation President Rip Rapson says the plan is valuable because it examines the question of revitalizing an aging commercial corridor through a very different lens. Second, and maybe just as important says Rapson, is it encourages the city to consider the needs and opportunities of artists, who in the past have sometimes been taken for granted.
"I think the warehouse district is a good example of where we thought we were doing the right thing by injecting lots of vitality through bars and restaurants," Rapson says.
"And in effect the unintended consequence was to raise rents and change the environment and make it actually a very inhospitable place for people to make art. So I think the second reason this becomes such an interesting attempt is that it puts the cultural agenda front and center on the city's development agenda."
The arts action plan is a long range 15 year proposal, and several of the recommendations will be expensive to implement, most notably the creation of an arts conservancy. So far, the Minneapolis City Council, led by President Paul Ostrow, who's district includes Northeast, has been supportive. Ostrow says the council has directed city staff to help in the continuing development of the plan, and report back to them in July.
"There's not any funding that is attached to the current action the council has taken," Ostrow says. "It's a matter of the city staff and elected officials showing our committment to the artists that live and work in Northeast Minneapolis and a committment to the importance of this area as an arts district."
For his part neon artist Robert Johnson wholly supports the spirit of the arts action plan, but he's also fearful.
"The notion that we're all getting together and trying to build something and stabilizing it is a grand idea. My concern: it might be ten years too late. I hope I'm wrong, and I hope I'm proved wrong. But I'm concerned that without big big backers coming in to anchor and create something, it's gonna be a tough fight."
Others say that ten years ago, the Northeast arts community didn't have the leverage it does now, to influence policy. Some also believe Northeast is still full of opportunity, and is too big to become overly gentrified.