The Changing Character of JP: What Does It Mean If The Artists Move Away?

Print More

I moved to Jamaica Plain in January 2002 because it was where I could afford to live. It was a two-bedroom in Forest Hills for $950. My first roommate was a woodworker and my second was a professional photographer. Once I moved to JP, I learned that the neighborhood was a haven for artists of all sorts. I felt like I fit in right away. But talk about how the character of the neighborhood was changing ensued rather shortly after I moved in.

Today, Jamaica Plain's real estate market is hot (not hot like in the 1970s and 1980s when arson was a way to make money off your real estate investment). Sellers and their agents know they will probably get the price they want and that most places don't make it past the first open house -- and sometimes, they don't even make it to the open house.

Jamaica Plain has become a very desirable neighborhood. Gentrification is in full effect, even stronger than the Whole Foods effect (but aren't those the same thing?). Rising rents are forcing longtime residents out of their homes, and the character of JP as an artistic community slowly fades away like a painting left in the sun. There have been continual street protests and uprisings at public meetings for several years about displacement, evictions and developers getting everything they want. (Why have a zoning code if they can get whatever variance is desired?)

Artists have been displaced due to their spaces being redeveloped, or they have chosen to move because the rent got too high. They head to Roxbury, Roslindale, Hyde Park and Dorchester. And we all know it's not just artist studios that have significantly jumped in rent. One-bedroom apartment rents start around $1,500 and can go well into the $3,000s. Two-bedrooms are in the high $2,000s and up. My 2002 self never could've moved into the neighborhood in today's climate.

On Brookside Avenue, two buildings have undergone ownership changes leading to the redevelopment of those properties, forcing the artists from their workspaces. The Brookside-Green street neighborhood banded together in a two-year losing cause: Creativity over Condos. There were numerous community meetings, neighborhood council zoning meetings and other public events. The city looked to intervene, as did the neighborhood association.

Theirs was a valiant try, but money usually wins out. Artists rarely win. This isn't "Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo," in which the local breakdancers raised enough money to stop a developer from bulldozing their recreation center.

The new owners of 120 Brookside Ave. were courteous enough to forewarn the longtime tenants that they would be redeveloping the location. Tenants were told in October 2017 that they would be evicted at the end of January 2018. Getting evicted is a very messy situation, but at least getting several months' notice can help someone find a different location.

The result is a new mixed-use 4.5-story development with nine residential condo units and three creative work spaces, and all three are being offered back to the previous tenants, with two below market rate. The tenants who get to return will be chosen through a lottery. Previously, the building was home to 16 artists and small businesses. Going from 16 artist studios to three creative work spaces is a significant decrease, although not nearly as bad as the mass eviction at 59 Amory St. more than a decade ago when more than 50 artists and 20 businesses were forced out.

Meanwhile, the longtime owner of 128 Brookside Ave. also recently sold the building (to a different developer than 120 Brookside Ave.). The tenants knew the former owner was trying to sell the building, and at least one deal fell through. But in mid-December, a deal was struck -- and within days, on Dec. 20, eviction notices were sent, notifying more than 20 artists they had to be out by Jan. 31.

Many of the artists have already moved from both buildings for rents that are double, triple and quadruple what they were paying. Many are not in Jamaica Plain anymore.

As JP's artist community dwindles, so does the character of the neighborhood -- the character that so many of us have loved for years, one of the main reasons many people moved here in the first place. You can be who you want. Quirkiness, weirdness, artistic expression -- they've all been staples of JP.

Now we have Whole Foods. Now we have Caffe Nero. Now we have yoga studios. We have two juice bars ready to compete against each other for which serves the best avocado toast (both are expected to open up later this year). We have a vegan ice cream shop. These are all popular businesses patronized and enjoyed by many members of the community, but they are a far different cry from a decade ago in JP.

What did it? Why did JP change? Why did it become such a desirable neighborhood? Was it gentrification? Do more people want to live in the city and there is a housing shortage? Will the young families stay in the neighborhood and invest in their local elementary schools and break the decades-long flight into the suburbs?

What is sure is that the artist community is slowly filtering out of Jamaica Plain. Thus, the character of the neighborhood has changed and will continue to change. We'll have a lot of mixed-use developments funded by deep-pocketed LLCs that can wait for the rent they want. They'll toss in a few environmentally friendly elements like bike racks and electric vehicle charging stations. Affordable housing units will be based on area median income, which is a horrible way to determine affordability because, as richer people move to the area, median income shoots up.

I'm not sure what can be done to stymie the changes. I'm not a real estate agent. I'm not a developer. I'm not an economist. I don't work for the city at one of its many departments (some created in recent years) that some think can help those being displaced.

What I do know is that I'm glad I bought a condo years ago when the landlord cleared out the building I moved into in 2002 (and initially gave one month's notice during a snowy February). I can lament the change of character in JP, I can write articles about it and I can grit my teeth in frustration. But ultimately I will be happy when I eventually sell my condo and (hopefully) make a very good profit just like the former owners of those Brookside Avenue buildings. Wouldn't you want the most for your property when you go to sell it? Yet I hope the buyers will be writers, painters, photographers or other creative artists.