American graffiti

Street art was the catalyst for urban renewal in a former no-go area in Miami, and now the ‘Banksy effect’ is transforming other neighbourhoods around the world.

Street art in Chelsea, Manhattan (Alexander Spatari/Getty)

There is a district in downtown Miami where nobody used to go — nobody in their right mind, at least. Home to a sea of warehouses used by the city’s drug cartels to store cocaine in the 1970s, this was once a bleak industrial wasteland, known as recently as a decade ago for poverty, violence and crime. It is where graffiti artists roamed, spraying every wall, door and warehouse they could find, safe in the knowledge that they were unlikely to be bothered. Back then, nobody really cared about Wynwood.

It’s a different story today. Those street artists unwittingly kick-started a regeneration that has been gathering pace ever since. Wynwood is still known for graffiti, but the walls and warehouses are now regarded as valuable canvases. The murals are curated annually, and a new collection is launched every December during the annual Art Basel Miami Beach fair, when 150,000 visitors gather to get a first glimpse of the latest work.

When this new creative mecca emerged, the hipster restaurants and artisan coffee shops weren’t far behind — and property prices in this once downtrodden neighbourhood have soared by up to 70% as a result.

It’s an age-old tale: where the artists go, increases in real-estate values will follow. Just look at Shoreditch, in east London, where the crumbling warehouses were colonised by artists in the 1990s because of bargain house prices and rents. Today, the area is full of smart boutiques and luxury flats with superprime price tags.

As the Banksy effect shows, the perception of street art has changed: two decades ago, it was regarded as little more than vandalism. But can a bit of spray paint on a wall — once more likely to earn its creator a court appearance than a fat pay cheque — really be the catalyst for a spate of regeneration, and even gentrification, in different cities all over the world?

The story of Wynwood Walls seems to suggest that it can. The walls — covering 400,000 sq ft of old warehouses — are just one element of the wider Wynwood Arts District, which includes 70 galleries, five museums, three private collections, seven art complexes, 12 art studios and five art fairs.

Street art in Chelsea, Manhattan (Alexander Spatari/Getty)

The story began in 2004, when Tony Goldman, a New York-based developer, bought up the warehouses to offer companies cheap storage space. He took inspiration from the local graffiti artists and, rather than banning the murals, started curating street art on the outside of each building. And so the arts district was born.

“This used to be a ghost town,” says Susana Baker, an expert on the local art who curates tours in Wynwood. “Artists would come here to paint because they knew they wouldn’t be bothered. Now we have them flying in just to do a wall. Every building has become a canvas, and the walls are a collection. Like any art collection, it is always changing.”

As a result of growing global interest, the area has changed dramatically. “We have a whole new demographic, attracted by the galleries and high-end retailers,” Baker says. “Landlords are able to charge up to $75 [£49] a sq ft, rather than $10 just five years ago. For some artists, this has been fantastic. Now they can use their real names, and they’re not afraid to make a living from their art.

“There are others who are being priced out. But that is part of a wider pattern. Fifty years ago, Coconut Grove was the creative district, then South Beach, then Wynwood. Now the artists are being pushed out to Little Havana and Little Haiti, where there is, as yet, not much retail, and there is still a degree of economic hardship. These areas will become the new wave for the next decade of regeneration.”

In New York, street art has followed a similar trajectory. Modern graffiti on the East Coast is thought to have originated in Philadelphia in the early 1960s before arriving in the Big Apple in the 1970s. Appearing first in outlying districts such as Washington Heights, in the north, and Brooklyn, in the south, graffiti slowly began to infiltrate the rest of the city, travelling along the subway routes.

The craze took on a life of its own and started to grow in popularity, in tandem with the hip-hop movement. After being dismissed as vandalism and pushed underground in the 1980s and 1990s, the murals have become a more accepted part of the city’s creative and cultural make-up in the past decade.

This time, street art is boosting the property market, rather than bringing it down. Chelsea, Manhattan’s art district, is famous for graffiti and is now one of the most expensive areas in New York to buy, with the average sale price coming in at more than $1m.

But what happens when something with a gritty, underground reputation becomes mainstream? Does it lose its value along with its edge? Baker insists not. “Street art is an expression of political history,” she says. “Like all art, it is a form of conversation, to engage with people through the murals. For that reason alone, there can be nothing bad about the shift from being a worldwide underground movement to one that is out in the open for everyone to see. All eyes are on street art now.”
Emily Wright is features and global editor of Estates Gazette

The writing’s on the wall

Berlin The German capital has long been a hotbed for avant-garde artistic activity. The Wall was an obvious blank canvas for Berliners to express their views, and today the “city of design” is home to some of the best street art in the world.

Cape Town Street art is a powerful tool for protest here, and some artists are now celebrities. Property in the run-down suburb of Woodstock — home of Freddy Sam’s colourful murals — is being snapped
up by developers, and local families are being priced out of the market.

Melbourne The Australian city has an official graffiti plan, commissioning new pieces (and erasing the bad ones), which could be why median house prices are tipped to reach Aus$1m (£470,000) by 2021.

Valparaiso In the Chilean home town of the poet Pablo Neruda, tour guides will take you to “meet the artists” who have covered the hilly streets, stairways and doorways of this boho Pacific port city. There’s a mural on every corner, encouraged as an art form by the city authorities as long as it is creative.

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