The Capitol Hill Arts District was launched Saturday. It has plenty of work to do.
“There’s a chance that half of these artists, myself included, won’t be able to live here in five years,” says Amanda Manitach. She’s standing beside fellow artist Jesse Higman inside Hugo House, amid 11 fresh-baked artistic renditions of a day in the life of Capitol Hill: sketches, video, poems.
Manitach says she knows one artist who’s already considering homelessness in order to remain on the Hill. “It kill[s] me,” she says. “This guy has a job. In my opinion he makes some of the most thoughtfully political and aesthetically poignant art in the region.”
With property values and rents skyrocketing in the country’s fastest-growing big city, Manitach isn’t alone in her fear that development on Capitol Hill will wash away all the interesting poor people who made it desirable in the first place, transforming a countercultural gayborhood into a wasteland of luxury apartments and trite party bars.
But there’s some good news. The City Council is ready to vote Monday afternoon to christen Capitol Hill as Seattle’s first bona fide Arts District. The Office of Arts and Culture describes the district as “an attempt to bring cohesion” to the “constellation of arts organizations” splattered around E Pine and 12th Ave via a combination of community organizing, public advertising, and zoning incentives that will hopefully prompt developers to provision for the creation, and creators, of art.
The Arts and Cultural Districts program was formally unveiled at Hugo House on Saturday. It was an interesting choice for the district’s launch pad. The 100-year-old former mortuary is slated to be demolished in early 2016, according to executive director Tree Swenson, to make way for a new six-story mixed-use project. It’s a rare, one-of-a-kind project where an arts organization is part of the plans. “The ownership team has been so generous to us” as land prices have risen, she says, and the old building’s internal systems are faltering. “I haven’t been able to work for the first hour in the morning because my fingers are too cold.” Swenson says the owners have pledged to make room for Hugo House to return in the new building.
City Council finance and culture chair Nick Licata said he hopes Seattle will lead the way in the creation of arts districts. “We want to create a model here that can be duplicated across the country,” he said.
“This is a community where so many of the organizations and artists rent, and it’s a hard time to be a renter,” said Capitol Hill Housing Foundation executive director Michael Seiwerath.
The real action, though, was with the art itself. To celebrate the launch of the District, 11 local artists had spent the preceding 24 hours producing original works to document the surrounding neighborhood. Jed Dunkerley, for instance, came up with a three page comic-book montage of the Capitol Hill bar scene. “I just plopped down with my sketchbook and turned on all my recording apparatus,” he says. “My ears, my eyes.”
About an hour before the event, Jesse Higman finished editing a sped-up video loop of his previous night’s travels through the neighborhood: frothing crowds, a Hummer limo, an underground party. “I’d go out and shoot, duck in and dump [the video, then] go back out” to do some more “white water rafting”—Higman’s term for navigating the Hill’s constipated sidewalks during drunk hours. “I did a painting, smoked some pot, had some friends come over, and edited the video all night.” An hour after he finished, it was on display.
So what is the Art District, exactly?
It’s partly a rallying point for beleaguered arts organizations, partly an advertising strategy to attract more patrons, and partly an incentives program for developers who might be persuaded to build arts spaces into new buildings. The latter is still in development, says city Cultural Space Liaison Matthew Richter, but should roll out next year and could include zoning perks for buildings that provide art spaces. CHS talked in 2013 with Council member Licata about the possibilities of the district and its Capitol Hill genesis. Other “tools” in the program’s “toolbox” include special signage, crosswalks, kiosks, organized busking, and landmarks.
But performance spaces won’t keep artists themselves from being elbowed off the Hill. Richter admits that “there’s not a tool in the kit right now for artist housing.” He’s currently brainstorming with the Office of Housing to figure out solutions to the “housing puzzle,” but doesn’t expect anything concrete from that process until 2016. In the next two months, he says, he’ll concentrate on connecting poor artists with existing affordable housing resources.
One example of the kind of arts-and-affordability development Richter and others hanker for is the new 12th Ave Arts building, a six-story mixed-use building developed by Capitol Hill Housing. Its name displayed on the second floor in human-sized cheese-grater letters, the building boasts a basement full of police cruisers, two ground floor theaters, and 88 (already taken) low-income apartments.
Manitach says that this is exactly the kind of building the city and local businesses need to support if they’re serious about preserving the Hill’s cultural primacy. “The city, the neighborhood patrons, businesses, developers need to put their money where their mouth is if they want to nurture a genuine arts district — not merely a nominal one.”
“What excites me about the formation of a Capitol Hill Arts District is locking in our history,” she said. “Establishing [what] we are, and have been for decades—for instance, LGBT friendly. That we are a safe community for anyone and everyone, of every orientation and race and background. That we are a place where kids and artists and weirdos flock. And I hope that the people moving to Capitol Hill during this boom time come here, in part, for that reason—as well as for the night life and the bougie cache.”
For his part, Higman — the video-loop artist — is philosophical about the recent antagonism between new money and old hippies on the Hill. “Most of my other friends resent what’s happening,” he says. “I just look at it as friction.”
And where there’s friction, there’s energy. “I think that we’re at the top of a wave here, in a Great Gatsby kind of way,” he says. “The arts scene is really thriving… in parallel.”
Manitach is hosting a “casual” LIVE/WORK community meeting “for artists and art students living and working in the Capitol Hill Arts District.” Monday, November 17, 2014, 5 PM at 12th Ave’s Hedreen Gallery.
The Seattle City Council will vote Monday afternoon on Resolution 31555 “designating Capitol Hill’s Pike/Pine/12th Avenue neighborhood as the first officially-recognized Arts & Cultural District.”