Gentrification and the Grand River Creative Corridor

Last week, Bridge Magazine published an article about an artist community in the Grand River Creative Corridor that is being evicted by Allied Media Projects (AMP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to “cultivating media for liberation” and “dismantling supremacist systems as the operate upon us and within us.” AMP’s director said that the group is committed, “in this very difficult and contradiction-wrought situation” to “preserve the history” of the artist community by completing an oral history or mural to commemorate their term in the building. The article generated debate about what gentrification entails and who gets to define and use the term to describe displacement and urban change.

A reporter for the Detroit Free Press expressed frustration with the article on Twitter, calling the writer’s take on the situation “facile” and “salacious” and implying that people who think that an anti-gentrification group like Allied Media Projects could do gentrification don’t really understand what the term means.

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But AMP didn’t just buy a building, they bought a building and evicted a community that had been there for 18 years, after initially telling them that they would set aside space for them. Their own director describes what they’re doing as “gentrification” in the Bridge interview. Many people on social media objected to fact that AMP–which does good, important work in their community–is being held to a much higher standard than your run-of-the-mill condo developers, property speculators, and billionaires (i.e. the groups we normally associate with gentrification in Detroit). But AMP helped set the standard to which they’re now being held, and they seem to be aware of that fact. 

Another artist collective weighed in on the AMP situation on Facebook, placing some responsibility on the displaced artists, saying that if they’d “done their homework” they would have recognized that the long-term plan of the building’s owners was to sell and make a profit. Here the onus is again on the artists/renters to ‘know better’, taking for granted the fact that everything is profit-driven and plan accordingly, instead of questioning why the city has allowed speculators to amass and sit on large numbers of properties (often without maintaining them or even paying property taxes on them) and then sell them from under their tenants for a nice profit whenever it suits them. But even if the artists had recognized their landlords’ motives, would it have enabled them to find somewhere affordable to relocate to? Probably not.


We see so few examples of equitable development that we tend to fall back on “at least it’s not lofts!” instead of using situations like this, which challenge our ideas about what gentrification is and who does it, to investigate and intervene in the conditions that create displacement and gentrification in the first place. These debates tend to pit community against community, distracting us from the real drivers of inequity. The Bridge article discusses some of these larger contributing factors, including rising rents in parts of the city, property speculation, rising property taxes, and the new drainage fee that dramatically increased water bills. These are all concrete issues that we could be focusing on and addressing instead of arguing with one another on social media about whether or not this or that particular group can really do gentrification.

Detroit’s newly-hired Director of Arts and Culture declined to comment on the situation, and the city is not especially known for its support of artists and creative communities in any official capacity. Mayor Duggan has waged a war against graffiti and mural art that has resulted in over 50 arrests and $1.2 million in fines. The war expanded to involve private property owners who had commissioned murals on their buildings or who had simply created a space for free expression only to be fined by the city. City law requires that property owners submit all building art for city approval, including images of the proposed artwork and the creators’ names. This can make artists whose work might have been legal in one context but not in another vulnerable to having legal action taken against them. Given this history and climate, expecting the city to step up for and protect artists (these particular artists or others) is not realistic.

When AMP says that they want to “remediate the impacts of gentrification”, who are the envisioned/implied participants and beneficiaries of that remediation? What are the realities of attempting to memorialize a community that one is actively displacing/destroying? There was no indication that the artist community would participate in an oral history or do a mural project to grace the new workspace of the organization that evicted them. AMP had opportunities to not displace this community or to at least mitigate the impacts of gentrification, including buying another building or setting aside space for the artists in this one, but they ultimately opted not to do the things that would have made the most difference to the affected community, and they seem willing to take the flak for it.

“The Workingmen’s Colony”: Labor Conflict and Historic Preservation in Campbell, Ohio

In August, I visited the town of Campbell, a former hub of Ohio’s steel industry. Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company established operations there in 1902, on the banks of the Mahoning River. Originally called East Youngstown, the city was renamed in 1926 for industrialist James Campbell, then chairman of Youngstown Sheet & Tube.

Of particular interest to me were the company homes that Youngstown Sheet & Tube built for workers after a 1916 regional strike for wage increases, many of which stand today. In this post, I’ll discuss the historical context in which the homes were built as well as the practical and ideological concerns that shaped their design. I’ll also briefly discuss how the deindustrialization of the Mahoning Valley has impacted the community and the challenges that the Campbell development faces today.

“The Natural Ending of an Intolerable Situation”: The Strike of 1915-16

WWI resulted in increased production in Ohio’s steel mills by late 1915, and unskilled steelworkers–who were often working grueling 12-hour shifts, 6 days a week–were struggling to live on meager wages (19.5 cents/hour for an unskilled steelworker). The influx of new residents had also strained local infrastructure, and workers and their families endured cramped, unsanitary, and unsafe living conditions.

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The January 18, 1916 edition of The Day Book

By early January of the following year, 16,000 Mahoning Valley steelworkers were on strike. Tensions between the steel company guards–who were hired to protect the mills and the employees who continued to work in them–and strikers in East Youngstown escalated on January 7, 1916, when, as the Mayor of East Youngstown later testified, guards lined up on the public bridge that linked the town to the steelworks and fired into a crowd of strikers and their supporters, killing three people: George Get (23), Robert Davis (24), who was struck by a stray bullet while working as a brakeman on the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad, and an unknown worker.

In response to the violence, strikers broke into the company administration building and started a fire. For the next 12 hours, strikers burned and looted nearly 100 blocks of business and residences. The arrival of 2,100 members of the National Guard the following day and offers of wage increases from steel company managers ended the uprising, and days later, the strikers returned to work for 22 cents/hour. As part of a grand jury investigation, several steel companies–including Youngstown Sheet & Steel–were charged with conspiring to fix the wages of common laborers in the steel industry (but these charges were later dismissed).

A member of the Ohio National Guard and a member of the Youngstown Fire Apparatus stand amidst the post-riot destruction in this image from the Youngstown Sheet & Tube Audiovisual Archives

Using Housing to Provide For and Control the Workforce

After the strike, Youngstown Sheet & Tube addressed the issue of substandard living conditions for its employees by building a “workingman’s colony” in Campbell. They also built three other housing developments–two in nearby Struthers and one in Youngstown–for different segments of the worker population; the Campbell development was built specifically to house foreign-born and African American workers.

An October 1918 article in The American Architect describes the plans for the development in detail, noting the company’s goal of  “providing everything intellectually, spiritually, socially, and for the material needs of the colony”. The architects, Conzelman, Herding and Boyd, a St. Louis architecture, engineering, and planning firm, wanted to give the neighborhood a “countrylike character” while also reinforcing the importance of the family unit for recent immigrants by separating families and making units small to prevent the common practice of taking in boarders. The public square was the focal point of the neighborhood, with a ‘community house’, a gymnasium, and a school set off to the side. The main playground was near the school and there were several smaller playgrounds throughout the development.

At the time, the ‘colony’ was unique in its construction, consisting of pre-cast concrete units for one, two, and three families, and in the amenities it offered residents. Each unit had electricity, indoor plumbing (with a laundry and shower in the basement so workers could clean up before entering the living spaces of the house), and a small garden in back.  The walls dividing units were 8 inches thick.

In addition to addressing the workers’ practical needs, the East Youngstown ‘colony’ also furthered a variety of ideological goals. Because steel company management believed that foreign workers had been strongly influenced by the Industrial Workers of the World during the strike, a goal of the new development was to isolate the foreign-born worker population from other groups of workers, assume control over their living situations by becoming their landlord, and break up workers into individual family units through careful planning and design. The American Architect article discusses the role of the colony in “Americanizing” the foreign-born workforce and “teaching them American family ideals and standards of living”. The steel companies also organized “Americanization” classes for the foreign-born workers at this time.

The architects “naturally segregated” the African American section of the development by creating a separate entrance and central square for it, and by moving the homes’ front porches to the back, thus reducing the visibility of African American residents from the street and making this section of the neighborhood feel and appear more ‘contained.’ This development also appears to be the only company housing option for African Americans employed at the Campbell Works at the time; whereas Youngstown Sheet & Tube’s other housing developments in Struthers and Youngstown offered opportunities for homeownership to American and foreign-born workers (though in separate developments), African American workers were limited to renting in the East Youngstown development.

Despite (and because of) the goals driving the development’s construction, the Youngstown Sheet & Tube homes created a sense of community and pride, and are remembered by many former residents as a good place to live.

The Deindustrialization of the Mahoning Valley & Present-Day Challenges

Youngstown Sheet & Tube sold the company homes in the 1940s, which some residents felt marked the beginning of the structural degradation of the development. On September 19th, 1977 (known as “Black Monday”), Youngstown Sheet & Tube abruptly closed the Campbell works and furloughed 5,000 workers during a shift change; workers who were leaving were told not to come back and those showing up for work were sent home. Steelworkers and their supporters–including union representatives, local elected officials, and faith leaders–fought back against the closures, traveling to Washington DC to call on President Jimmy Carter to ease regulations and stop steel imports from China and Japan that were hurting the US steel industry. By 1987, however, the Mahoning Valley had lost 40,000 jobs and 50,000 people had left the region.

Black Monday didn’t just precipitate a collapse of regional industry and infrastructure, it had a devastating impact on the culture of Mahoning Valley communities. Just a year later, the Campbell Historical Society, recognizing that the development was in danger, submitted an application to the Ohio Historical Society seeking state historical site status for the Campbell company homes. That request was granted and the homes were eventually declared a National Historic Site in 1982. In the following decades, however, many of the units were abandoned and experienced vandalism, scrapping, and absentee ownership. The homes were placed on the Endangered list in 2011.

Today, Iron Soup Historical Preservation Company owns more than 20 of the remaining 179 homes and is working to acquire and (eventually) renovate all of them for use as housing for US veterans and other Campbell residents in need of affordable housing. The organization has also renovated one unit as the Company House Museum to show visitors what the inside of one of the homes would have looked like in 1918.

Postindustrial Landscapes, Communities, and Heritage

I’m excited to be in New Orleans this week for the annual meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology. Dan Trepal and I are chairing a session entitled, “Post-industrial Landscapes, Communities, and Heritage,” and we have a diverse group of presentations lined up, to be followed by comments from our discussants, April Beisaw and Melissa Baird.

Check out the full presentation line-up and abstracts here, and come see us in Gallery 2 this Thursday!