Gentrification - part 5 of the first chapter of my unpublished book "New Bohemias: Artists, Hipsters & Gentrification"

This is the fifth section of the first chapter of my as yet unpublished book. The conclusion to this sample chapter will be published later today.

See previous posts for earlier sections...

 Tompkins  Square  Park Riot (1988).

Tompkins Square Park Riot (1988).

CHANGING PLACES – FROM OLD BOHEMIAS TO NEW BOHEMIAS

GENTRIFICATION

Unlike hipsters, artists are the advance troops of gentrification.  They create outposts for future gentrification that lie beyond the gentrification frontiers.  First come the artists, the writers, then the “creatives”, then come the hipsters.  Their target: areas where property is cheap, preferably near cultural venues and places with a ‘history’ – places, in other words, where lower-income people live.  They rent places and tidy them up or buy places and renovate them.  They open new artists’ studios, art galleries, bijou shops.  They get involved in local governance and politics.  Rents and property prices rise.  Long-time, local shops, cafés and pubs close, rapidly replaced by newer, nicer ones.  Old business-owners replaced by new, old staff likewise, the area changes quickly – almost before the eyes of disbelieving residents.  Trendy visitors come to the area in search of the new.  Some of them covet a place there too.  They rent or buy, joining the throng.  The artists, writers, creatives, hipsters and trendy middle-class followers begin displacing lower-income people, poorer communities.

Then come the businesspeople, bankers, teachers – the established, “respectable” middle-classes.  Property prices rise again, rise further.  More and more of the lower-income people and small businesses are forced to leave their homes.  They can’t afford the rent.  They’re tempted by making a profit on the property they own by selling it at the new prices but will have to move elsewhere to buy their next home.  They’ve lost their jobs.  They’ve lost customers and trade.  Friends, family and whole communities have left: moved on; dispersed.  They no longer fit in.  They are no longer wanted.  They must go.  Now!  They leave.  Replaced by new people, New shops, restaurants, bars.  The area has changed.  The libraries and other public buildings have been closed or “saved” by a heady mix of middle-class voluntarism and crafty asset transfers.  The area is middle-class, trendy.  The area has been gentrified.

But who makes the places for the “placemakers” – the New Bohemias for the New Bohemians?  Not the artists nor the writers nor the creatives nor the hipsters.  Not the studio and gallery owners.  Not even the teachers, businesspeople nor the bankers.  The New Bohemias begin life as “zones” – re-zoned zones.  State and local authorities listen to financial investors and property developers then together they map out regeneration zones or “opportunity areas”.  This process takes place many years ahead of gentrification.  First, the area – its people, places, businesses, homes – suffer planned disinvestment.  They are quickly labelled no-go-zones, ghettos, slums, sink estates – failing.  They are made to fail.  And failing places are beacons for the pioneering artists, writers and creatives who themselves act as beacons for the hipsters and their coteries.

Then come announcements, often in quick succession.  Regeneration.  Renewal.  New investments.  Not for the existing population.  Not for many existing places and buildings.  Not for what’s there already.  New investments for new things.  New zones with new transport links.  First come art galleries, cultural centres, museums and artist studios.  Then developers announce the refurbishment of listed and regeneration-worthy buildings, “breathing new life” into the deliberately delipidated shells.  New shops and retail spaces literally “pop-up” – the precursors of permanent developments.  More temporary studios and micro-businesses erupt.  Mass demolitions and “repurposing” of social housing.  New build, mixed-use developments.  New public spaces that are, in fact, sanitised private spaces.  Property prices and rental values rise and rise.  Newspapers and magazines write about these newly “up-and-coming” places, accelerating gentrification: cheaper than already gentrified neighbourhoods; “edgy”, “happening”, “cool”, “hip”.

But it is the planned disinvestment and regeneration cycle that drives gentrification.  The authorities sell-off their buildings and land to property developers, offering them subsidies, streamlined planning applications, tax breaks, infrastructure investment, “improved” neighbourhood policing, draconian penalties for homelessness, more.  They redraw the city maps, colouring in wave after wave of kept-secret (unless you’re in-the-know) new “opportunity areas”.  Artists and hipsters pave the way with the increasingly short-lived, “meanwhile” utopias.  New Bohemias have an incredibly short lifespan nowadays.  But that’s exactly their function.  That’s the point.  Much more transient than previous Bohemias, New Bohemias literally mirror the nomadic lifestyle from which the name Bohemian derives.  Here today, gone tomorrow.  Not gone – just moved on, the New Bohemias are the frontline of gentrification.  The New Bohemians know their role.  Their protests at being moved on or priced-out of their latest meanwhile spaces are always shallow, always false.  They knew these, just like the ones before and the ones that will follow, were temporary arrangements – short-term “opportunities”.  Like a pack of Littlest Hobos, they just keep moving on.

Art and gentrification go hand-in-glove.  As Sharon Zukin points out, gentrification merges the economic value of space with the cultural value of heritage and the arts, mediating these values through the lens of aesthetics and the histories of art and architecture (1991).  Cultural production and consumption therefore become drivers for economic growth.  This enables the cultural values of individual places to be extracted and packaged as part of the ever-expanding (and, paradoxically, thereby narrowing) homogeneous culture of the global market place.  For Neil Smith, gentrification has become the Global Urban Strategy, driven by two factors: the neoliberal state absolving itself of its responsibilities as the regulator of capitalism to act as the ultimate agent of the free market; and a massively upscaled, thoroughly generalised gentrification process (2002).  For Smith, this strategy usurped social reproduction, replacing it with capitalist production on a global scale.  Crucially, as the now dominant global urban strategy, gentrification is intimately connected to global capital and cultural production, distribution and consumption.  Smith called this third-wave gentrification.  This third incarnation does not simply gentrify housing, it (re)creates entire landscapes en-masse, with new and refurbished housing, new shops, new eateries, new arts and cultural venues, new, often private, “public” spaces – in short, an entirely new way of living.  Property development and regeneration become economic ends in themselves.

And, of course, third-wave gentrification isn’t for everyone: it’s for the (predominantly white) middle-classes – for new people; monied people.  The process wipes clean entire areas, communities, classes, ethnicities, announcing their erasure with a heady mix of glass-fronted luxury apartments, repurposed ex-public service buildings, community festivals, flamboyant art spectaculars and huge new citadels for the celebration of white, middle-class culture: art galleries, opera houses, theatres.  Many of these hugely expensive artistic behemoths wryly wink at their neighbourhoods’ working-class heritage.  There is, however, little sentiment in places like Manchester’s The Factory and Home.  Massive investment in multi-million arts venues in areas which suffered prolonged disinvestment in housing, education, employment – in basic human care and rights.  A once industrial, working-class area is destroyed, replaced by an art centre costing more than one hundred million pounds called, ironically, The Factory.  Once working-class housing is flattened to make way for another extremely costly art venue called Home.  Who said the era of postmodern pastiche and parody was over?  Saccharin-sweet, regeneration masks the bitter taste of gentrification; a façade for social cleansing which itself hides (to a certain extent) intentional class- and (often) ethnic-cleansing.  The incessant hum of arts and culture is no longer the sound of autonomous creative expression, but rather the monotonous cacophony of the drones of gentrification: artists and hipsters.

Gentrification is class warfare as the middle-classes take back the cities.  Innovation is their weapon of choice.  Artists and hipsters become “micro-entrepreneurs”, performing what economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction” – perpetually reproducing new things whilst simultaneously also reproducing obsolescence (1942).  In doing so, they enact their own form of urban renewal.  They also become “creative entrepreneurs”.  Hacking and disrupting existing systems are just other words for creative destruction.  Douglas McWilliams and Richard Florida, it is this enterprising micro-reproduction, this “hipsterisation” of creative destruction, that drives today’s Creative Class to the heady heights of being hailed as the new hope for post-industrial, post-credit crunch Western economies.  Artists and hipsters are cast as the future bringers of prosperity for some and the harbingers of poverty and displacement for many others.  Shoreditch’s crass breakfast café, Cereal Killer, turgidly pastiches the creative destruction of hipster capitalism.  Meanwhile Shoreditch is still cited as a model for “creative regeneration” even though it has long been recognised as a “failure” that segregated communities, did nothing to help the area’s poorer people and displaced lower-income families (Seymore, 2004).  Of course, Shoreditch was not a failure at all.  It is an exemplary model – of Creative Class gentrification.