Artists' Lofts

The Elder Street Artist Lofts sold itself as a place for artists to live and work. So where are all the artists?

No one knows for sure when the first Paleolithic cave-dweller stuck a mammoth tail in crushed-up berries and began painting stick figures on the wall of his rocky abode, but you can bet the market value of the neighboring caves instantly went up.

Nothing gentrifies a neighborhood, for better or worse, like the addition of a group of freewheelin' artists. Just ask the longtime residents of Houston's historically black Acres Homes, who've seen their property values begin creeping up with the arrival of local bohos such as Paul Kittelson, Terrell James and The Art Guys. Just ask anyone who used to live in New York's Greenwich Village but who had to move to Williamsburg. Or anyone who used to live in Williamsburg but had to move to Greenpoint.

Want to inject a little life into your urban blight? Bring in a bunch of artists.

Built in 1924...
The City Book of Houston
Built in 1924...
...the Jefferson Davis Hospital was in a sorry state by the 1990s.
Wayne Lorentz
...the Jefferson Davis Hospital was in a sorry state by the 1990s.

Such was the reasoning of activists in the First Ward when they banded together in 2000 with the local Avenue Community Development Corporation to try to buy the old Jefferson Davis Hospital, a decrepit, red-brick landmark peeking its head above the Pierce Elevated.

"We really wanted to see that building be saved and be put back into a productive use for the community," says Mary Lawler, director of Avenue CDC.

The organization couldn't do it alone, so Lawler and company brought in ArtSpace Projects, a nationally recognized nonprofit from Minneapolis that specializes in taking historic buildings and turning them into affordable living spaces for artists.

Deals were struck. Tax breaks granted. Moneys raised. Jeff Davis Hospital was to become Elder Street Artist Lofts.

When the $6.3 million project was completed in 2005, just in time to house several Katrina evacuees, it was heralded by local and national media. The Houston Press gave the building Best Renovation in our 2006 Best of Houston® issue. HGTV handed over a Restore America award.

And it was one helluva restoration.

But it's not one helluva artist community, according to several current and former tenants. The environment is oppressive, they say, and fraught with favoritism. There are too many nonartists in the building's 34 units, they say, and ArtSpace and Avenue CDC don't really seem to care.

"To me it's not an artist loft anymore," says one resident who's been there since the beginning. "We receive the newsletters from ArtSpace in Minneapolis and we see the artist live-work spaces that are opening up in Buffalo, New York and in San Francisco and other parts of the country, and they're active and they're artist-run and they've got the support of the city, they've got the support of the community and they're vibrant. And we're not on that level, and I don't know if we ever will be."

Local artist Cecelia Johnson says she always loved the old Jeff Davis building, its crumbling cupola, its red bricks, its ghostly history. "We used to go there on Halloween and hang out with the security guard back before it was renovated," she says. "And me and my friend were driving around, actually looking for a place to live at the time, and we decided to go look at the building, not as a place to live, but just to go see it. We were just really surprised to see someone had gone in and renovated it, and it said ‘Elder Street Artist Lofts' and I was, like, ‘This is too good to be true.'"

She walked in, had a look around and by the end of the day had already handed over a check, she says. It was a giant leap toward establishing her independence.

Johnson has multiple sclerosis. For her the disease is more than an excuse to ride a bike to Austin. She lives with it every day. It affects her entire nervous system, often making difficult the most quotidian of tasks. But it doesn't stop her from taking highly stylized, often eroticized photos and creating dark, character-driven paintings. And it didn't stop her from being overjoyed at the thought of moving into an artist community.

The joy didn't last long.

One night there was a party up on the second floor, she says. "There was beer, and it smelt horrible, and someone had pissed everywhere. It was absolutely horrible, the smell." She and a few other residents started cleaning up the hallway late that night, she says, not wanting to rile the management. And when Johnson thought she'd found out who had thrown the party, she knocked on the door and asked for help. The door was shut in her face and the next morning she got a call, she says, from Aaron Reece, regional manager for Alpha Barnes, the company contracted by ArtSpace to run the place, who also lived in the building.

The manager wanted her to stop harassing the other tenants, she says. "It was absolutely horrible and horrifying and I was in tears."

But that was just the beginning.

A committee was formed to decide what art would be hung on the walls, but Reece soon shut it down. "They never would let us show our art," she says. "Because Aaron, even though he made me chair of the committee, he told me everything had to be approved by him."

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