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Arts communities deserve protection

By Jon Lowe (China Daily) Updated: 2015-11-25 07:52

In many towns and cities in the developed world, there is a pernicious relationship between the creative and the moneyed sectors of society.

It goes something like this: A once industrialized area of the city becomes a bit run-down and depopulated, with many unoccupied residential and factory buildings. Seeing a lot of lovely space and cheap rents, creative people move in. They are young artists, musicians, designers and craftspeople who need studio and work space (as well as cheap rent).

The area begins to thrive and attract attention from the media. Newly fashionable, the area also begins to attract young professionals and, of course, developers. Rents rise, the creative types have to move out, and those with deep pockets - along with expensive boutiques and restaurants - take their place.

Needless to say, this causes quite a lot of resentment in certain quarters. Various reactions have been seen. There was the rather mindless response to the gentrification of areas of the Borough of Tower Hamlets in London led by the anarchist group Class War recently, which was to organize a riot and attack various "yuppie" businesses such as a "cereal restaurant". The eatery may be a bit of a pretentious joke, but it was no joke for the patrons trapped inside during the mob violence.

I encountered a more constructive approach while visiting the English seaside town of Lewes, near Brighton. In the middle of this desirable property hot spot, known for its historic buildings, sits the 14-acre Phoenix Iron and Steel Works, dating from 1832 - one of numerous historic buildings in the town. It is home to a thriving community of about 200 artists, musicians - including the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, who brought the world the 1968 hit Fire - and craftspeople in a warren of workshops.

Unbelievably, the local council and a developer want to "regenerate" the site. They plan to tear down the ironworks buildings that house the Phoenix artists. The artists have mounted an impressive campaign to halt this destructive plan, but at the moment things do not look to be going in their favor. I was, frankly, shocked that this was going on in Britain, a place which I thought was sensitive to the issue of preserving historic buildings - if not artistic communities.

Hong Kong knows very well how difficult it is to foster this kind of artisanal colony. One can throw money at the problem, but there is no guarantee that it will produce any results. This is the case with the West Kowloon Cultural District. As Tisa Ho, executive director of the Hong Kong Arts Festival, said: "All arts venues start with the concept of identity. What are we going to express?"

This is a key point. Organically formed artistic communities such as the one in Lewes, or those which sprang up in London's Shoreditch and Clapton or New York's Chelsea and Greenwich Village, are a precious resource. It is time they were recognized as such and given some kind of protection under the law, in the same way historic buildings often are.

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