Community Land Trusts and the Arts: A Path to Permanency

Hilltop, Tacoma, the site of a new urban CLT by Forterra. Photo by Jon Armstrong.

In 1969, New Communities was established in the state of Georgia as the largest single tract of Black-owned farmland in the United States. This was achieved through the community land trust (CLT), boldly put forth by Charles Sherrod, a black pecan farmer, and other civil-rights activists after a fact-finding trip to Israel in 1968 sponsored by the National Sharecropper’s Fund. Particularly drawn to moshavim shitufim, a system of land ownership in which large, cooperatively owned farm fields were surrounded by small, private homesteads, the committee brought their notes from the newly established Jewish state to their troubled home in the U.S. They had their model for change.

Worldwide, land is a fraught commodity. Land sees violence, greed, domination, and gross devastation. Land cannot fight back, and so it is the humans upon it who see their battles waged. New Communities managed to establish its six-thousand-acre cooperative not through the promise of a $1 million grant from then- President Lyndon Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity, which never materialized, but through loans and community-based fundraising. Truly owned by the people, the CLT delivered on its purpose whereby land is held in a community trust and the buildings upon it privately owned by CLT members, allowing families to build wealth and inherit equity over generations. By insulating the land from market speculation, the homes remain permanently affordable.

New Communities sustained its purpose for many years, giving Black farmers the independence to live and work on the land that had historically enslaved them. Then, a devastating drought persisted through the mid-1980’s. As soon as federal relief was again required in the state of Georgia, this time in the form of the United States Department of Agriculture, white farmers (who today hold 98% of farm income in the U.S.) and the agency itself rerouted the funds to white farms. New Communities went into foreclosure in 1985 and was razed to the ground by the white farmer who purchased the land.

The story of New Communities encapsulates the paradox of the American dream: wealth and opportunity can be won, but only by the settlers; subscribing to ideals that applaud the status quo and marginalize anyone audacious enough to challenge it. Few understand this better than working artists in the U.S., and particularly artists of color, who have seen their jobs, their spaces, and their value to society debated as topics of partisan policy through various federal, state, and local programs. Art is highbrow; art is middlebrow. Art is elitist; art is indecent. Art builds intelligence; art is superfluous. As the culture wars maneuver their way through the economic underpinning of the U.S., artists are left to invent social safety nets – formal and informal – to ensure their work continues in society.

In thinking about the New Communities CLT as a mechanism by which Black farmers were able to acquire agency and build equity in their work, how might a CLT achieve the same purpose for working BIPOC artists for the long haul? And when it comes to community, how might cities better support the original intent of the CLT with an artist-led model that binds the arts to upward mobility and community preservation?

What is owed

Like the history that defines “land” in the U.S., the idea of “community” is fraught in American consciousness. With individualism the driving model for success and prosperity, and a fierce competitive spirit that keeps wealth inaccessible at the highest rungs, community is often formed in isolated ideological pockets. There are few models of community that achieve a real sense of equity, diversity, and balance – instead we see confirmation bias creep in and sow distrust between cities’ invisible divides.

This has only been encouraged by federal policies, which through the guise of the newly formed Federal Housing Administration in the 1930’s took great pains to provide opportunities for home and land ownership to white citizens while actively shutting out Black citizens in the same neighborhoods based on racist criteria, passed along to the banks as official record used by mortgage lenders. White families were steered away from Black neighborhoods and Black people were denied mortgages in “red grade” areas, leading to severe racial segregation in cities and an impossible situation for Black families, incapable of building wealth through home ownership. The ramifications define redlining and affect future generations to this day.

In response to these intractable structures, CLTs have been somewhat in vogue since the formation of New Communities in the Civil Rights-era of the late 1960’s. There are over 200 CLTs in the U.S. today, each with the goal of providing low-income families with affordable housing by protecting land from market pressures and rising property values. This, at least, is the intent.

The commonsense outcomes of the CLT – affordable housing, protected land, long-term sustainability, community benefit – conflict with the reality on the ground. An in-depth piece in Jacobin from writer and advocate Olivia R. Williams speaks to the persistent phenomenon within the modern CLT. Power structures inevitably manifest between owner and member, giver and receiver. Precisely because CLTs are such a “holy grail” model, they have been co-opted by the boards that direct them for self-serving interests including efficiency in mass-producing affordable housing developments with little community-backed input. Williams reiterates the point that “the CLT model (as it is typically implemented) is not financially self-sustaining.” Again: this is the point. A CLT is not meant to profit for itself, but for the homeowners who comprise the organization’s membership. But this is antithetical to American capitalism, and so the CLT has been commoditized away from the community itself into “more capable” hands.

Precarious permanency

If this sounds familiar, it is because the arts find themselves in a similar situation as modern-day organizations of goodwill. The mission is never enough. It must be supported, hard-won, through vicious battles of grantwriting, policymaking, and financiering, often in competition against neighborly arts organizations with their own righteous, community-based goals. There is apparently not enough money to go around, or else the tax base is highly restricted beyond basic infrastructure, with wealthy patrons in cities acting in precarious self-interest: a co-opting of working-class support systems. Trust in the community has faltered.

None of this is sustainable for the future of the arts and inequity will only increase if CLTs operate out of sync with community interests. In these extraordinary times, it is inevitable that a land grab will result from the failures of the housing market, with banks and investors pilfering what has been lost to local communities and overwhelmingly benefitting white homeowners more than Black communities – fueling the already enormous racial wealth gap and encouraging further gentrification. American cities find themselves in a crucial moment where change and innovation may rise from the ashes or the status quo may remain.

Is an arts-based CLT the answer? And if not, is there a hybrid model by which artists and arts organizations may benefit from the full potential and original intent of the community land trust? Combining the incentives and democratic structures of cooperatives, trade unions, and CLTs, a collaborative movement might take place to acquire land and cede it to BIPOC artist communities, planting a seed for future equity and agency in the post-COVID era. This must be treated as an investment and a moral obligation by city leaders, giving access to land and buildings that would otherwise be sold to the highest bidder.

The arts take place in communities. It is this sense of place that is both the biggest strength and threat to the arts and artists. Once a place is made attractive through its cultural value, the very land beneath it becomes a commodity and is seized by those in power. To ensure an equitable future for the arts, repeated history must be disrupted. This can be achieved through the original intent of CLTs, incumbent upon local communities to take up the mantle of justice and equality.

Arts in Place: Thoughts on Being

There is a stretch of I-90 in Eastern Washington that could make you forget the pandemic. From Cle Elum to Spokane the highway unfolds like a hallucination, two hundred miles of lonesome sky. You feel lopsided thinking of all the country eastward. You feel stranded as you move.

We are all hunkered down somewhere, and that somewhere has become a burden. Fleeing Seattle for the first time in August 2020, I felt crazed by the escape. Destination: Libby, Montana, and I wondered what destination meant anymore. If our sense of place is tied to the possibilities on the ground – to move freely, to be opportunistic, to stay awhile, to change our minds – then place has become exposed in the pandemic, possibilities stripped and vulnerabilities laid bare.

And no place is more vulnerable than our urban strongholds. From New York to San Francisco and everywhere in between, cultural citizens have woken to the realities of lockdown and thought, “what am I even doing here?” To justify cost of living, you need to have a life. Speaking for myself in Seattle, the shuttering of the arts and culture economy eats me alive. I need these places like water. I need the white noise of strangers, the flashing of the lights before curtain, the vaulted ceilings looming with benevolence.

This was my state of mind rolling into Western Montana: desperation. Thirst. In August 2020, rural America was on the cusp of pandemic devastation. It was still a removed threat, a far-away problem ravaging dense city centers. The plains, for now, were exempt. The dissonance between my liberal lockdown training – wear a mask, shelter in place, practice social distancing – and the roaming expanse of the Bitterroot Valley presented as a broken synapsis. Six feet an irrelevant distance on miles of earth. Inviting a sunburn as a memento. Standing alone in the street at dusk. These were heightened moments of cultural citizenship, reinvented engagements for a pandemic mind.

Stevensville, Montana, August 2020

I am bullish on the idea that the arts need place, and that place is not virtual. The speed at which arts organizations adapted to online performances, galleries, and galas is astonishing, admirable, and for me: questionable. I don’t question the organizations, but the system in which they operate. That there was no safety net in place, that only ten years had passed since the last crushing blow from the recession, that jumping onto the cloud was the only option for sustainability, feels like systemic failure in the arts economy. The arts have never been given the same grace we extract from them: to find center. That the arts had to pivot on a dime and follow the same “digital transformation” demanded by our despot workplaces conflicts with the power of the arts to impact you where you stand, serendipitous and of the world.

Imagine, almost a year into the pandemic and its impacts, that we had allowed the arts to go dark. That as cultural citizens we had demanded an indefinite hiatus backed by economic safety nets: universal basic income, an arts corps, legacy funds at the ready. Rather than bleeding reserves and ruthlessly competing for limited relief, organizations could have been told: take a break. Come back stronger. Invite a sunburn, stand alone in the street at dusk.

Instead we demanded an ill-fit adaptation; the whole of a symphony compressed into an aspect ratio. And while I hear the argument that virtual arts experiences are more accessible – to geographies, to abilities, to socioeconomic standing – I disagree that this is a long-term solution. Our burden of place in the pandemic is a burden of technology. It has become our only option, another monopolized platform. As soon as we find ourselves physically in cultural places again, a collective denouncement of the virtual experience will follow. Cost of living – really living – will inevitably outweigh the cost of a Zoom subscription.

Consider Wild Space Dance Company in Milwaukee, a small collective in a mid-size Midwestern city (and my hometown) with an arts scene that thrives under Chicago’s shadow. Wild Space unknowingly put on the last live dance performance in the city before pandemic lockdowns. In July, the company launched Parking Lot Dances, with artistic director Deb Loewen quoted to believe “Uploading to Zoom wasn’t an option.” Wild Space has held steadfast, performing ephemeral feats on Milwaukee’s asphalt with backdrops of the Hoan Bridge, the Milwaukee River, and the city skyline the only staging they require. Limited audiences re-enter the world from the safety of their cars, temporarily lifted beyond their screens to the ground in front of them.

There is a lesson here that we resist: place is not a given. It is defined by the temporal events that embody it, the movement of people and ideas through it. A stretch of I-90 comes to life only because I needed it to; needed to find place in nothing at all.