I spent a good amount of the first hour of last week’s Creative Time Summit wondering what the guy in the dashiki was doing on stage (since he wasn’t playing the enormous gourd-bodied lute he was holding, or otherwise taking part in the opening formalities). As it turns out, Creative Time had hired buskers from the MTA’s Music Under New York program to give speakers their time warnings. The musicians, brandishing an odd assortment of instruments—the African kora, but also a musical saw and a didgeridoo—added a playful undertone to the event titled “Art, Place, and Dislocation in the 21st Century City.”
I arrived expecting to hear speakers talk about the enormous challenges the next 87 years will bring. The summit’s title brought to mind the fact that 3.3 billion new city dwellers will be added to the planet over the next 40 years, and do so during a period of environmental change, continued political turmoil and technological transformation. But the summit could have been called “Gentrification, Gentrification, and Gentrification in the 21st Century City.” I suspect that is because the summit was concerned almost entirely with “creative placemaking”: a term I had never heard of until Friday morning’s presentations.
“Creative placemaking” turns out to be a trend currently garnering large amounts of financial support from public and private institutions, as well as the attention of the growing academic discipline of “social practice.” But just like a man whose only tool is a hammer, and therefore sees every problem as a nail, gentrification is the problem that the Creative Time summit was best prepared to confront, and therefore returned to again and again.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed hearing Ann Messner’s talk about the 1980 Real Estate Show, an illegal exhibition in a city-owned building that gave birth to the collective and venue ABC No Rio, and Lize Mogel’s modest proposal to move the Olympics to Antarctica. It was a high point of the summit. But because the summit had the term “21st Century” in the title, I had expected a greater variety of perspectives. When Lucy Lippard gave her (excellent) keynote on Saturday, she described artists as “the flying wedge of gentrification” and the relationship between the city and rural areas purely in terms of exploitation. And like almost all the presentations and every panel (save for Alfredo Brillembourg’s presentation on “Torra David”, the 45 story favela squat in Caracas Venezuela), Lippard’s keynote talk came from one perspective: gentrification resistance. (In her case it involved a humble-brag about her neighbor Tom Ford’s 25,000 acre ranch.)
It’s not that resisting changes to Hamburg’s waterfront, cartography as critical practice, or fostering a community art organization in Detroit isn’t important. It’s simply that a sole focus on stemming the tide of white residents to low-income neighborhoods seems to re-enforce the idea that wealthy white residents are always bad for neighborhoods. As an artist I believe that I have been a part of positive changes to the city over the past twenty years. I am not comfortable with the idea that now my role as an artist is to resist the next wave of new-comers. At worst this feels like “pulling up the ladder”; at best it feel self-destructive.
It’s easy, for example, to forget that fretting about gentrification is a luxury. One speaker served that reminder: John Fetterman, an enormous bald guy with a long goatee who began his talk by (believably) joking about scaring pedestrians around his hotel, turned out to be the mayor of Braddock PA. Fetterman explained that Braddock had lost 90 percent of its population as the US steel industry collapsed. When he took office in 2005, Braddock was suffering from all the problems associated with extreme poverty—a problem that’s far more prevalent than gentrification. “Whether it’s Detroit, or whether it’s Buffalo, or whether it’s Akron or Dayton, Ohio,” he said, “there’s a lot more of us than there are of the beautiful cities.” While New Yorkers worry that our city is becoming too trendy and attractive, Braddock suffers from the opposite problem. “’It’s ‘abandonment’,” Fetterman explained. “90 percent of my community is in a landfill.” (By which he means that Braddock’s buildings are literally collapsing and having to be hauled off to the dump.)
The Mayor was the only speaker who directly identified what I believe is the primary threat to city life: abandonment. The great challenge of our political generation isn’t “resisting gentrification”; our challenge is to undo the effects of past waves of abandonment while preventing new waves of abandonment, and simultaneously preparing for the next great wave of urbanization. When keynote speaker Rebecca Solnit spoke about Google and other Silicon Valley companies clogging San Francisco’s streets with enormous private buses that use public bus stops to take young wealthy tech professionals their jobs, like almost everyone else at the summit, she was complaining about gentrification. I don’t think San Francisco has too many white people, or even too many middle class or rich people. But I agree with Solnit, the buses are a troubling trend. The corporate buses are a symptom of a new kind of abandonment: wealthy secessionists who have the luxury to opt out of public utilities, rather than be a part of making the city a better place for everyone; who think their wealth owes nothing to our shared investments. When the wealthy abandon public infrastructure, it dies.
This is what happened to urban public schools and urban public transportation across the country in the late sixties and seventies. Those wealthy enough to abandon city infrastructure, by commuting in private cars and putting their children in suburban schools, did just that. Cities lost the middle-class tax base they depended on to maintain, not just schools and subways, but safe streets and clean parks. There were, however, many people who could have afforded to leave, but who chose not to. My parents chose not to. They were gentrifiers.
When my parents were married and started their family, they did so in Chicago, a dying city on a sickly lake (Lake Michigan was on the ropes, Lake Erie had been pronounced dead). Chicago was, according to The Chicago Reader, “the most racially segregated population center in the United States—and not only segregated, but ‘hypersegregated.’” That study was published in 1991, over 25 years after my parents were married, a LOT of progress had been made to integrate Chicago. The idea of too many white people or too many middle-class people in Chicago was an absurd notion in 1970s. Like other mid-western and rust belt cities, white middle-class people were fleeing Chicago in the tens of thousands. All except for a few idealists like my parents and their friends.
I was born into a mixed race, mixed income housing development called South Commons. It was designed with the help of University of Chicago sociologists. It was a high-minded, well-meaning beautiful place. The basic concept was modernist rowhouses and apartment towers built around a shared green space where children could play within view of their housewife mothers. (No one expected Second-Wave Feminism.)
Shortly after my parents split, and we had moved away, I remember going back to South Commons for a visit. The entrance of the rowhouse commons had always been open to the people living in the less expensive apartment towers, as well as the surrounding neighborhood, but because of a series of crimes, a locked gate had been added. Eventually the mixed income aspect of the development was totally abandoned. Elaine Soloway, a close friend of my mother’s who did her graduate thesis on the rise – and eventual fall – of the South Commons experiment, put the failure all down to one factor: the young wealthy parents of South Commons rowhouses abandoned the local public school. She argued that they and their children had no social contact with the poorer parents in the development’s apartment blocks. It was just a matter of time before bikes started disappearing, and not too much longer before petty crime gave way to muggings.
South Commons was an intentional community. It wasn’t a co-op or a commune, it was meant to attract straight-lace middle class residents, black and white, and it did. The people who designed and built, as well of those who moved to South Commons with their families, intended the community to achieve a goal. It was meant to be a seedbed of wider change, to revitalize Chicago, by making it a better place to live for everyone, rich and poor, black and white.
Unfortunately it became what the director of the Harvard Urban Theory Lab, and Friday morning’s keynote speaker, Neil Brenner, called an “enclave.” In his talk, Brenner used a very different example: an artist squat in Berlin that became an isolated island of radicalism, but a sterile one which failed to effect change to its surroundings. It was finally bought by developers after the neighborhood around the squat gentrified. South Commons was exactly the opposite in intention (it was meant to bring white middle class people into the city, not resist their presence), but the bougie Chicago enclave and the radical Berlin enclave shared the same fate, they were both turned into conventional market-rate condos.
I imagine that South Commons is less mixed-race than one might hope today, but more mixed-race than its original designers dared to hope it might ever become. It is not, however, mixed income. That experiment failed when my parents and their friends moved me and my friends to private schools that our poorer neighbors couldn’t afford.
“White flight” was never mentioned once by anyone at the Creative Time summit. Like gentrification, white flight was an event engineered by the collusion of politicians and real estate speculators. Austin, the West Side Chicago neighborhood my mother grew up in, went from a middle-class ethnic community (largely Jewish, Irish, Italian, and Greek) served by one of the city’s most beautiful parks, to a dangerous slum occupied entirely by poor African Americans. Like gentrification, white flight was marked by a rapid pace, a dramatic shift in a neighborhood’s character, and the perceived (or real) dislocation of existing residents and businesses. This is why people moved to the suburbs; they were scared, and fear is a great motivator.
The neighborhood’s zoning laws changed. Single-family houses were allowed to be divided into as many units as an owner pleased. It would be impossible to pin down who made these changes and why, but it’s easy to identify who profited from them; real estate agents and developers made fortunes. I remember my father, who marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, explaining the process: “They came through calling, ‘The niggers are coming! The niggers are coming!’” My mother remembers the fear that the realtors inspired “moved west through the city like a virus.”
Fear is on the wane and desirable housing is in short supply in New York City, as it is in other desirable cities. In her presentation, filmmaker Kelly Anderson, complained that downtown Brooklyn had been “up-zoned,” raising the height limits from 6 stories to as high as 40 stories, and that the new zoning allows for mixed-use residential construction. That developers are building luxury high-rise buildings, changes are forcing out small businesses that have given the area a distinctive character. But as Ann Mesner’s presentation should have reminded us, state-funded subsidized housing was more of a cultural disaster than the public boon it was intended to be. As the historian Rebecca Solnit told the audience in her talk, the Great Society’s efforts at “urban renewal” were mocked as “negro removal.” (But Morrissey complains about the loss of place-associated urban renewal as well, and he is the least negro person I can think of.)
The answer, in our Neoliberal age, has either been to neglect the problem (as Mayor Giuliani largely did), or to encourage private development, as Mayor Bloomberg has done. Kelly Anderson cites (but doesn’t name) studies that show that the impact of Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC “was to increase segregation and inequality.” I would argue that neglect was the more destructive policy. It is an aspect of abandonment.
I haven’t seen the studies that Anderson quotes but I know that PlanNYC is meant to prepare the city for an additional one million residents by 2030. It aims to do so by developing sites, along subway lines, all across the five boroughs of the city. One million new New Yorkers isn’t a goal set by plutocrat politicians or racist corporate developers, that’s just our share of the 3.3 billion new city dwellers being added to the planet. Like a lot of other New Yorkers, I voted for Bill de Blasio because he ran on the promise of addressing income inequality, but I also voted for de Blasio because while he might rejigger PlanNYC, I don’t expect him to undo it. Bill de Blasio supports real estate development—as he should. If anything I hope he will allow developers to build their luxury towers with fewer setbacks and a lot higher.
I don’t want de Blasio to give anything away. He should squeeze developers for concessions, to integrate low-income units into their buildings, and possibly even rent-stabilized space for community arts organizations and artist studios—but the real trick is to build the towers as high as possible. While Kelly Anderson might be right, that these towers might act as bourgeoisie enclaves, that increase segregation and inequality in the short-term, as Neil Brenner rightly pointed out, enclaves don’t last in a city. That goes for radical anarchist squats, and for bourgeoisie developments.