THE GENTRIFICATION OF BRATTLEBORO
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- When I first moved here, Vermont was similar to the Third World countries I had been living in for years in South and Central America. It was cheap, difficult to survive in, and very, very beautiful. That was fine with me, because I wanted a quiet place to write and wasn't sure I'd ever make any money at it.
By the time I got here, there were already many artists - writers, poets, painters, photographers, sculptors, musicians, dancers, cooks - living here, all drawn by the same things that drew me. Tucked away in the woods, they worked at their art and lived by their wits. It wasn't easy and there was never a lot of money, but they survived. And along the way, they created the funky cultural stew we enjoy today.
Greg Brown, in his prescient 1994 song, "Boomtown," describes the scene perfectly: "Here come the artists with their intense faces, with their need for money and quiet spaces. They leave New York, they leave L.A.. Here they are - who knows how long they'll stay."
Yes, who knows? Maybe we should all start packing? Because damn if the city fathers haven't decided to make Brattleboro the next artistic boomtown.
Yes, they've looked around, and what do they see? Manufacturing has disappeared down a rat hole to China. Warehousing has slip-slidded away to New Hampshire. What's left? All those artists living in the woods. Hell, let's make some money off of them.
Trying to turn artists into something akin to a gushing oil well in the backyard is called "the creative economy," and it's a hot topic in Vermont these days. It can mean anything from using art to draw tourists who will spend money and then leave (Gallery Walk) to nurturing entrepreneurs who might someday create new businesses and provide jobs - like the successful Cotton Mill Hill business incubator.
A creative economy sounds like a great idea, and that's why there was a well-attended two-day symposium on the topic at the Marlboro College Graduate Center earlier this week.
The keynote speaker was Bill Ivey, who created the County Music Association and helmed the National Endowment for the Arts before becoming director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University. He pointed out that "knowledge workers," or creative types, are a growing part of the national economy - only the service sector is growing faster. And these people are mobile. They can live and work anywhere, but they are attracted to "funky" cities and towns, places with "street-level cultures, large gay populations, bohemians, places with participation in the arts. It's not about sports stadiums or big performances centers."
According to Ivey, it's desirable to attract these people to your area. Once you have funky - and the Brattleboro area excels in funky - these creative money-making types come. They, in turn, attract second-home and McMansion-building wealthy people who like to rub shoulders with art and culture. And as more and more of these people arrive, the property values and the property taxes climb. The original artists - those who were funky by nature instead of nurture, as well as working people, the young and the retirees, are forced out.
As Greg Brown says, "The rich build sensitive houses and pass their staff around. For the rest of us, it's trailers on the outskirts of town. We carry them their coffee, wash their shiny cars, hear all about how lucky we are to be living in a boomtown."
One word for this process is gentrification. It happened in Soho in Manhattan. It happened in Woodstock, NY. It's happening in Waitsfield, Vt. Now it could be happening in Brattleboro, too.
When pressed, Ivey admitted he had no solution for this problem. The original artists are always, eventually, pushed out, he said. Indeed, he has come to think of artists as Johnny Appleseeds - sowing their seeds and moving on. Change his gender and put a powdered wig on him and he looks a lot like Marie Antoinette saying, "Let them eat cake."
Personally, I don't want to move on. I want to live here, work here, die here and be buried here. Haven't I paid my dues? Haven't I earned that right?
It's hard to make a living anywhere, but in Vermont it's especially difficult. The winters are from hell. We learn to drive on ice and heat with wood while trying not to burn our houses down. Salaries are low. Rents are high. And don't even get me started on the property taxes.
Whether we're artists, newspaper reporters or factory workers, we're all facing a coming era of scarce resources. As we saw in New Orleans, the wealthy survive and the poor - who, in New Orleans, created that city's deeply revered culture - they just float away.
Greg Brown has it right: "The guy from California moves in and relaxes. The natives have to move - they cannot pay the taxes. Santa Fe has had it. Sedona has, too. Maybe you'll be lucky - maybe your town will be the new boomtown."
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.