Dallas Wants Homes for Artists, not Riffraff -- Like There's a Difference

And here we go with the discussion of cheap housing for artists in that triumphal and glitzy array of Mussoliniano mausoleums that we insist on calling our "arts district," even though art has the same chance of surviving there as a cockroach in a microwave oven. Say this for the Dallas Arts District: No other place gives us a better dental X-ray of this city's true teeth.

So in today's Dallas Morning Official News we get an editorial worrying about architect Robert Meckfessel's plans for subsidized (cheap) housing to allow actual real genuine artists to reside in the district. In its editorial, the private organ of the Dallas art-owner community expresses some very tentative and conditional approval of Meckfessel's idea but then raises its real concern: "It also remains to be seen whether the developer, using taxpayer subsidies, can legally limit residency to artists and potentially exclude the thousands of other low-income residents waiting for housing around the city."

Aha. Dammit. How to tell the artists from the poor people! Indeed, there is the rub. I think many of us have had that problem at one time or another. For one thing, from a block or so away they often look just alike. You can tell if you can get close enough to pry open the mouth and get a good look at the choppers, but that's not always convenient.

So we see the dilemma plainly: How can the arts district bring in some colorfully decorative artists to dress up its otherwise fascistically funerary avenues without getting a bunch of plain old poor people stumbling around in there stinking up the place and dragging down values?

Badges? Who would give them out? A board? Who would be on such a board? Rich people? Of course. Many of their own children are artists. That way the arts district would be populated by artists with excellent teeth. But does the state really provide tax-subsidized housing exclusively for the artistic children of the wealthy? And would any of them agree to give up the South of France in order to live there even for a short tour of duty?

In looking around just a tiny little bit, I was able to come up with examples of how other cities have approached this same problem. I came across the example of the Schermerhorn, for example, a permanent residence for artists and performers in downtown Brooklyn in New York City. Developers there have worked this same puzzle by not trying to exclude regular poor people at all. The Schermerhorn, in fact, meets local requirements by deliberately setting aside a portion of its units for formerly homeless people, persons living with HIV/AIDS and persons with mental health problems.

Gosh. No one here even thought of that, did they? Instead of finding a way to banish poor or otherwise genuinely needy people from Mussoliniville, we could satisfy the state's requirements for tax-credits to subsidize housing for the poor by actually inviting in a token few. But we don't really see that happening, do we? No, I didn't think we did.

Back when the arts district was still a gleam in the eye of one of the nation's biggest real estate tycoons, the late Trammel Crow, a friend of mine who was head of some kind of artists outfit told me he called her. Her group was a fledgling and short-lived attempt at a guild or union of some kind.

You never know how apocryphal this kind of I-told-off-a-rich-guy story may be, and Mr. Crow, whom I found to be a very intelligent man, is no longer here to defend himself. So I suggest we take this with a grain of salt and enjoy it anyway for its amusement value.

She told me Crow told her he had a bunch of Canadian investors coming into town, and he wanted her to get some artists out on the street for the Canadians to see from the limo. Ironically, the idea of artists actually prowling those streets was far less incongruous back then, because the area still had the requisite down-at-the-heels seedy patina one might expect of a place where art is actually created.

Anyway, with a rich guy on the other end of the line and sensing an opportunity for pay, she said she asked what Crow wanted the artists to do exactly. She told me he said, "Do your art. You could be painting or sculpting or something." She said when she asked what the pay would be, he told her there would be no payment from him but they could try to sell their art to the Canadians.

I believed all of that part of her story. I had a little trouble with the punch-line. She swore she told him she couldn't help on the artist thing and thought he might do better anyway hiring a bunch of high-dollar hookers to appeal to the passing Canadians in their limo.

Maybe. It was a good line, anyway, and I have always thought it expressed a certain core truth about the arts district. It will never be a place where people actually make art. But it's a swell place for people who don't mind paying for it.