A Look at The Creative Time Summit: Gentrification, Gentrification, and Gentrification

by John Powers on November 5, 2013 · 8 comments Events

Kelly Anderson at The Creative Time Summit

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.

Lize Mogel, The Creative Time Summit

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.

John Fetterman, Creative Time Summit

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.

The author's mother drinking coffee on the "commons" with some kids from the neighborhood.

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.

Neil Brenner, The Creative Time Summit

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.)

Rebecca Solnit, The Creative Time Summit

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.

Morrissey, Creative Time Summit

  • John Young

    Finally. Thank you for sharing this viewpoint. I live across the river from Cincinnati. All the neighborhoods here are trying to find their way back from abandonment to renewal. What is the alternative to gentrification for cities that want to reclaim themselves? I don’t study urban planning, and maybe those alternatives are being suppressed. However, the only views I see regularly represented are “We MUST gentrify this neighborhood” vs. “Oh, gentrification is so bad. Let’s go dine at that new sushi bar on Vine street and talk about it.” (While they fail to realize or remember how many artists were mugged and murdered within two blocks of there a decade ago.)
    Thank you for your nuanced opinion and article when writing this.

  • Allison Lirish Dean

    Hi, my name is Allison Lirish Dean and I am the producer of “My Brooklyn,” with Kelly Anderson. At her creative time talk, and in our film, she didn’t, and we don’t, refer at all to PlanNYC 2030 (with which I am very familiar), but to the Downtown Brooklyn Plan, just FYI. So you have your plans a little confused. The Downtown Brooklyn Plan, which involved the rezoning of Downtown Brooklyn, was passed in 2004 and had (and is still having) and transformative effect on Downtown Brooklyn and in particular Fulton Mall. That plan was the focus of our film, and provided a starting point for discussion of Mayor Bloomberg’s wider approach to urban planning, which largely involved rezoning vast swaths of New York City. The point of our film was to show that the rapid gentrification of Downtown Brooklyn was not a natural, inevitable process led solely by market forces, but a premeditated plan by a small group of the city’s financial and political elites. The city’s big mistake in this particular rezoning, and many others, was its failure to leverage a hot real estate market to create real public benefits (i.e. inclusionary zoning). The Downtown Brooklyn Plan was instead designed to fuel speculative development at the expense of those who have lived in these communities for decades. And this is what happened all over the city — Downtown Brooklyn is just a lens into that greater story, which is really the Bloomberg legacy in terms of land use policy. All of these public land use actions created substantial economic value that was essentially handed over to developers. And these are the kinds of things that have made people so angry that they will elect Bill DeBlasio after 12 years of Bloomberg by a landslide.

    Also, as a separate point, I take issue with your statement that “state-funded subsidized housing was more of a cultural disaster than the public boon it was intended to be.” I think the story is a bit more complicated than that. And I am not sure what you mean by “cultural disaster.” The real issue with public housing — which was actually one of the great achievements in many ways of the Robert Moses era and of that era in American social policy in general — is that after it was built cities drained money away from them so that what had been decent affordable housing for people who needed it was slowly destroyed. This was a political process that had many different aspects to it. I suggest the film “Priott-Igoe Myth” for one of the best (filmic) representations of the reality of public housing in the United States out there.

    Thanks for your coverage,

    Allison Lirish Dean

    • John Powers

      Allison Lirish Dean,

      You are correct. Kelly Anderson never mentioned PlanNYC by name, she did however project the map of the five boroughs (the image at the top left of the post), and discussed the greater rezoning plan (but not by name).

      Because no one at the summit discussed Pruitt-Igoe or The Pruitt-Igoe Myth- I chose not to reference the film – but I did considered it. I think it is a nuanced and laudable film about the well intended attempt to publicly fund low-income housing in the US. I chose to say “culturally disastrous” not because I am unaware of the historical factors you allude to, but because that was the sole aspect of “urban renewal” that the summit chose to focus on. (Ann Messner’s discussion of artists heroically resisting urban renewal on the LES and Rebecca Solnit’s dismissing it as “negro removal” were the only mentions of the Great Society’s building programs at the summit, as far as I am aware.)

      While Anderson’s presentation did make clear that gentrification is “not a natural, inevitable process” – nothing I wrote contradicts that. And while her presentation did focus on showing some of the business people hurt by the rezoning, she also went out of her way to demonize the “luxury” high-rises – on basis of their height (as is made clear by the right side of the image at the top of this post). I hope you understand that while I share your and Anderson’s concern for those displaced or otherwise hurt by the rezoning, I could not disagree more with focusing on the height of buildings.

      It’s worth including here that Kelly Anderson was the only presenter at the summit who made a comment I found to be regrettable. Anderson showed a video of a preternaturally square looking white guy (carrying what appeared to be a toy wiffle ball bat in his backpack, at a farmers market) this representative “gentrifier” made snarky and even somewhat nasty comments about Fulton Mall. But I was shocked when Anderson mocked “that guy” as a racist. The stranger Anderson denounced hadn’t said anything racist – he was rude, even churlish, but nothing he said on camera was racist. At absolute worst the guy came off as a bit of a dick, but Anderson didn’t call him a dick she called him a racist.

      I take the charge of racism seriously. It has the power to derail lives and end careers – which is great. It points to the historically low tolerance we have for true racism. But it also means that fling around the charge of racism at a public forum isn’t something that should be done lightly. At best its cavalier, at worst it’s . mean spirited and irresponsible.

      The effect on me was to undermined Anderson’s credibility, and by association, the credibility of your film, which is too bad. I am exactly the sort of person who should be excited about your film. I was excited months in advance for The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. I told every one I knew about the doc as soon as I saw the trailer. I couldn’t wait for it to come out.

      I care deeply about cities, especially this one, but I think Anderson and your film (and the Creative Time Summit) are the victims of bad framing. You have chosen to understand the changes transforming NYC as “gentrification”, which means you have good guys – the resident small business owners – and bad guys – the interloper at farmers market. Again, I could not disagree more.

      • KellyBklyn

        Kelly here — I would like to clarify what my intention was in
        mentioning racism after the comment by the guy at the farmer’s market.
        My intention was actually to say to the audience, many of whom had just
        exploded in laughter at his comment, “before you pat yourselves on the
        back for being ‘less racist’ than that guy, you should know that that
        kind of comment was extremely common among white people we talked to
        about the Fulton Mall.” In other words, I was trying to say that we are
        ALL implicated in this, and that we should all examine our attitudes
        about space, especially “black” spaces like Fulton Mall. In that sense, I
        was trying to let farmer’s market guy off the hook, and not allow the
        Summit audience to judge him overly harshly. Clearly you missed that and
        maybe other folks did as well. As I’m sure you can imagine, It’s
        incredibly hard to try and pack the nuance of a feature documentary into
        8 minutes. My understanding of what we were supposed to deliver was
        that it be thought-provoking and high impact, which is why i probably
        was more strident that you would have preferred. Having no idea what
        other people were going to address in their presentations also meant
        that I didn’t know other people would talk about displacement – I could
        easily have focused on redlining and the historical roots of the current
        situation in Brooklyn, including White flight. Anyway, let me know if
        you want to see the film. You might actually find it interesting.

        • John Powers

          Thanks for the clarification Kelly. I was in the audience and remember the reaction to the farmer’s market guy more as unease than laughter – but you are right: it was a large audience and a short presentation, a difficult situation in which to communicate nuance. And thanks for the generous invitation, I will contact you via the website about seeing the film.

          • KellyBklyn

            ok. this has actually been a good exchange. and in case anybody is following it, i’d like to say one more thing — we are in no way saying that disliking the old Fulton Mall is racist. In the film My Brooklyn it’s clear that some of the white people who speak harshly about FM also think that it should “go away.” It’s the idea that one’s feelings about a space are universal that is the problem, and that just because you don’t like a space it should be eliminated or changed.

            I should also add that presenting at the Summit is relatively terrifying, and that it’s impossible from the stage to actually read the audience reaction to anything!

  • Allison Lirish Dean

    Thanks for your comments, Mr. Powers. Just a few quick things. First, Kelly (and our film) focus on the height of buildings that the rezoning allowed not because tall buildings are bad, but because that height is representative of the VALUE the rezoning created. By being given the ability to build much higher buildings, developers were also handed a great deal of value, some of which should have gone back to the community in Downtown Brooklyn. It seems that perhaps an eight-minute presentation is not enough time to unpack some of the details. I guess Kelly assumed that people would understand that increased height is equal to value, clearly not something we can assume. Which is why we go out of our way to explain carefully, in My Brooklyn, how this all works. Have you actually seen our film? Alyssa Katz, one of the people we interviewed, actually says, in so many words, that height is not the point — any of the luxury condos could have arrived in Downtown Brooklyn and it would have been fine, had the city not seen the existing community as an obstacle. That is the point, again, not how high the buildings are.

    As for the rezoning plan, Kelly actually did mention the Downtown Brooklyn Plan in her presentation, although who can reasonably expect anyone to retain details like that in an eight minute window. My point was just that her focus was on this particular rezoning (“The Downtown Brooklyn Plan”), and that PlaNYC2030 is not a land use action, but a broad set of goals for the city relating to all kinds of concerns, including climate change and other issues. It is a vision for what needs to get done, and yes, some of that relates to housing. But it is not a “greater rezoning plan.” Maybe I am just not understanding what you are talking about. In any case, the clarification is an important one.

    As for public housing: I think you are conflating two things that need to be separated out. Building public housing is not the same thing as “negro removal.” You can build public housing, and affordable housing, without displacing people and without the kind of injustice perpetrated on communities that we have seen historically in the U.S. Of course the way we did it historically was wrong and in many cases we moved people out of neighborhoods and out of housing that they did not want (or even need) to leave. And a lot of the time people never got the housing they were promised as a result of having had to move. But you can’t then say that just because we did it the wrong way means that public housing, or subsidized housing, is or was a “cultural disaster.” It sounds like you are arguing against public housing and against subsidized housing. It also sounds like you are blaming the failures of public housing on poor people and people of color. Maybe you are not, but that is how your article comes across. I mentioned Pruitt-Igoe myth not because I thought you should have mentioned it in your article, but because it provides a much more nuanced look at public housing.

    Finally, I take your point about calling the “scarface beach towel guy” a “racist.” I don’t know whether that is what Kelly said, but I do agree with you that that word should not be kicked around lightly. Others have taken issue with such footage in “My Brooklyn” (white folks harshing on Fulton Mall), and I can see why people might find this footage problematic. Kelly and I struggled with this in the filmmaking process. In the end we decided to include it because people really did speak to us over and over this way over the course of our research and interviewing, so we felt it was representative of our experience. In any case, Kelly’s first person narrative in the film implies that this is her experience, and her perspective, and those conversations like the one with the white guy you saw were part of her journey in the film to try to understand what was going on. Obviously such a thing as I’ve just explained isn’t going to come across in an eight-minute presentation, so perhaps it would have been better to avoid such content in such a context. I think that is a reasonable critique.

    Regards,

    Allison Lirish Dean

  • Allison Lirish Dean

    By the way John, if you’d like to see “My Brooklyn” we would be happy to share with you a link to view it. Please email us through http://www.mybrooklynmovie.com and we can set that up.

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