Artists' Lofts

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

As for threatening people with eviction, Reece says affordable-housing rules don't even give him that opportunity. "If I give you a notice to vacate, it can't be just because your lease is up. It has to be because you've committed these violations or because there's a rental payment issue, and you have to back those up, so I don't even have the opportunity to give somebody a notice, say if I didn't like you or I hated your shoes or whatever it is about you, I don't even have the option to do that." Only three people have been asked to leave since the building opened, he says — one for drugs, one for serious housekeeping issues and one for making unwelcome advances on other residents.

And finally, to the complaint there aren't enough artists in the building, he says, by his count, 24 out of 34 units are occupied by artists. Some of them might not have art degrees, he says, but that doesn't make them nonartists. And since the building receives affordable-housing funds, management isn't even legally allowed to cherry-pick applicants based on artistic merit, he says, and he's correct.

"There is nothing in the federal rules and regulations that would allow this particular property to exclude nonartists," says Gordon Anderson, spokesman for the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

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.

Which means Elder Street Artist Lofts could one day conceivably not even have a single artist living in it.

The Press contacted several of the foundations on ArtSpace's donor list, to see how the project was originally presented. We spoke with Barbara Snyder of the Wortham Foundation, which gave "a small amount" to the project. Snyder sat in on a meeting with the Minneapolis nonprofit, and she says she was given the impression the building was going to be artisty but not necessarily full of artists.

"I don't remember that they specifically said you had to be an artist to live there," she says. "The main reason the foundation gave the small amount they did was to preserve the old building."

Elder Street isn't the only ArtSpace refurb in Texas. There's also the National Hotel Artist Lofts in Galveston, where the focus also appears to be more on preservation than on providing space for artists. The 28-unit building on Market Street, originally opened in 1871 as an opera house (and eventually home to weatherman Isaac Cline's equipment during the 1900 hurricane), was reopened in 2001 at a cost of $3.6 million.

Photographer Rick Wells lived there from 2003 to 2006. There was an original group of artists, he says, but a lot of them moved out over time and the place eventually became "just a general rental space, not necessarily geared for artists."

"For the most part," he says, "you'll find more med students there than anything."

Finding affordable live-work space in this city has almost always required creativity and a willingness to get a little dirty. Nestor Topchy once lived in a plastic yurt on a loading dock, only to move to a metal shack. Rick Lowe squatted in an old barn. Jeff Elrod slept in a hut inside a leaky warehouse.

Two of the city's most active studio compounds, Commerce Street Artists Warehouse and Winter Street Studios, don't actually allow artists to live on site, so they don't. They just work there. And eat there. And sleep there. And keep their stuff there.

Most artists are used to living rough. It's almost expected of them. So when Cecelia Johnson found out she was going to get to live and make art in a big, beautiful building she'd adored, it was a dream come true.

"I was so excited to move in," she says. "And so was everyone. The potential was really great."

She soon began dating a local drummer by the name of David Garcia. They've since broken up, but Garcia still remembers how excited she was about Elder Street.

"She was going to have her independence," he says. "These ArtSpace people were going to support her."

Garcia was there when the neighbors' noises were coming down the shaft, when the bills were coming in the mail, when Reece was coming by and telling her things would be fixed. He was there to help her when her muscles locked up, when her limbs began to shake.

"Living with that illness and then having to deal with someone talking down to you," he says, "and feeling that point of vulnerability and of course having someone promise you something and not following through, that really took its toll on Cecelia."

He was there to help her move.

"I rented a truck and it was her and I who did it," he says. "It took a while, obviously, because it was just us two. It was heartbreaking."

It was back to Sugar Land, back to her parents', where she still lives. Johnson says ArtSpace offered to try to help her find a new place, but she declined, saying, "What you're doing is unfortunate. What you're doing is you're taking these beautiful buildings that have meant something to us for a long time. Hell, Jeff Davis Hospital has meant a lot to a lot of people. That hospital has been here for a long time and it's got a lot of history to it. And people want to be able to go to these places. But what you've done to it is, it's scarred. You've scarred it."

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