From creative placemaking to "stewardship" for future wellbeing: the anti-academic turn. #AAG2016

stencils produced during arts in bushwick open studios, may 2014, courtesy of Chiara Valli

stencils produced during arts in bushwick open studios, may 2014, courtesy of Chiara Valli

I admit to being rather surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response to my presentation "Place Guarding: Activist and Social Practice Art - Direct Action Against Gentrification" at the Association of American Geographers conference 2016 on 29th March.  The feedback from the paper and the recorded presentation was also very supportive.

There have been a couple of reviews of the session in which my paper was one amongst many.  I am a little disturbed by the blog post "Beyond creative placemaking: the wellbeing of future generations" by Julian Dobson from Urban Pollinators: a profit-making company that specialises in "regeneration and placemaking".  Whilst his blog post does not name any of the paper authors, it is clearly critical of the position taken up by a number of the session presenters, including my own.  I therefore feel a brief response is needed to clarify my position.

Julian Dobson's long running blog makes for interesting reading, covering a host of topics related to making places "better" and finding "better ways to live".  However, his response to the AAG 2016 conference session seems to mirror the views of discussant (and Creative Placemaking leading light) Ann Markusen.  (Although, it must be noted that Markusen feels it is necessary to move on from "placemaking" to "placekeeping" now.)  Dobson claims that critique can "descend into sterility": into "academic demand for political or theoretical purism" which are "even more exclusive than the activity criticised".  This seems like a rather simplistic and anti-academic perspective.  Behind "protests against eviction and 'gentrification'" follows "a phalanx of critical theorists who frequently conflate the creative workers displaced by property development with the landlords and developers", he continues.  Then, following Markusen, Dobson beseeches "the critics" to "look at displacement": to look at "who is being priced or forced out, by whom and why" instead of "nebulous talk of gentrification".  I feel I must respond to these three points to ensure that my paper (and research) is not misrepresented or misinterpreted.  I'll then quickly respond to Dobson's preference for "stewardship" over "placemaking" or "placekeeping".

First, I think that papers at an academic conference should be academic in style (although, I hope to skirt its edges wherever possible).  As a critical theorist, I believe critique is essential and incredibly positive: rarely sterile.  The suggestion that critical theorists form ranks to follow the displacement of people by gentrification is, frankly absurd.  Gentrification is of incredible concern to people all over the planet and critical theorists have every right to attempt to critique the different grips of its many tentacles.  Relating the effects of gentrification and the role artists can play in this is important to the overall understanding of this, undeniably capitalist, and therefore political and economic, process.  I argue that it is those with vested interests that attempt to discredit the work of many academics, activists, writers and others within this critical area of research and action.

Secondly, to suggest that critical theorists "conflate" artists and other "creative workers" with landlords and property developers is simply unfair and, largely, untrue.  It is well known that artists can, by living and working in rundown areas, help (usually indirectly but not always) developers gentrify areas only for most of them (although not nessarily the successful ones) to eventually be displaced as property prices rise or buildings are demolished, "repurposed", etc.  It is essential to realise that it is not just artists who are effectively colonised and displaced by gentrification but many other local people too.  So, thirdly, and relatedly, I see displacement as the most fundamental aspect of gentrification.  I refer, in as much detail a short paper allows, to the displacement, dispossession and colonisation of poor and working-class people, the disenfranchised, homeless people, non-white people, and, of course, artists, at the hands of the "gentrifiers" - again explicitly described as affluent, hipsters, entrepreneurs, property developers, investors, finance capitalists, and supported by governments and local councils.  I make it clear that displacement happens not (directly) because of art or creative placemaking but because gentrification (which I go to lengths to clearly define) is inherently capitalist.

My problem is that, unlike Dobson, I do not believe that capitalism with a friendly, softer face offers anything particularly "better" than hard-line neoliberal global venture capitalism.  It is still (perhaps to a lesser degree) exploitative.  I think that describing gentrification as "nebulous" is a red herring: an attempt to claim that a very clearly defined term is hazy, ill-defined, unclear, uncertain, muddled, ambiguous, unformed in order to offer another alternative that can be of financial benefit to those with vested interests; those who promote softer neoliberal approaches such as placemaking or placekeeping - policies not self-organisation.  I feel we should be wary of people who travel the country and the world selling their own versions of placemaking as a means of making things "better".  Stewardship is a revealing term.  It means to care for and safeguard others and their resources: the planning and management of resources; hierarchical.  It has a very different meaning, to me, than demanding the "right to the city" for everyone...

To me, the role that processes such as gentrification and, to a lesser extent, creative placemaking, play in manipulating artists and communities to become often unwitting foils for big money venture capitalism is political: a class struggle about rights and social justice.  Radical art that supports broader movements for activism - direct action - are the only means available to liberate our cities, towns, villages, countryside, seas and skies of the all-pervading menace that is capitalism.