June 14, 2015

Schadenfreude -- When Gentrifiers Get Gentrified

Last week Eve Bridburg, director of the Grub Street writing center, posted the following letter on the organization’s private listserv to warn instructors and other associates of a possible impending move from their downtown Boston location. The reason? Bridburg’s missive coyly skirts the key word, but “the cost of real estate has risen dramatically since 2012” makes it plain: Gentrification!

Eve Bridburg eve@grubstreet.org [groupofgrubsown]
7:06 PM (0 minutes ago)

Dearest Instructors:

Many of you have probably heard the news that our building is changing hands. We don’t know yet what the new owner's plans are for the building or whether we’ll be able to negotiate staying here at 162 Boylston beyond December 2016.

We would like to stay in downtown Boston if possible and are working with a realtor to explore new rental options in case a move becomes necessary. The cost of real estate has risen dramatically since 2012 so staying in our neighborhood might mean occupying less space and teaching again in some satellite locations in addition to teaching in Boston. We are also exploring city-based, collaborative projects in Boston and Cambridge and beyond. Our main goal is affordable, long-term, accessible space.

If you have any ideas or leads you want to share with me, please do. We are truly open to all options. Though it’s daunting to face the possibility of a move so quickly on the heels of our last move, it’s also exciting to imagine the possibilities.

I will keep you posted as things progress. Please feel free to be in touch with questions.

Warm wishes,

Eve Bridburg
Founder and Executive Director
GrubStreet, Inc

 For those of us who viewed Grub Street’s single-minded push to establish a “literary cultural district” in downtown Boston with a critical eye, it’s possible to take a somewhat dismal pleasure in this development. The founding of cultural districts is a gentrifying move par excellence, their primary purpose being commercial rather cultural. But what else could we have expected from an organization that annually flogs the virtues of subordinating “the muse” to “the marketplace”?

The single most pressing (and depressing) problem for writers in the Greater Boston area is being able to afford living in the Greater Boston area. Bridburg and Grub Street have had nothing constructive to say about this beyond the hand-waving implication that pandering to real estate developers, the hospitality industry, and cultural tourists (“who spend $62 more per day than their philistine counterparts”!) might somehow raise local writers’ “profiles,” because, um, uh, because “branding.”

The real beneficiary of this project, however, is a sector of the city’s cultural bureaucracy, connected on the one hand to local politicians and the mayor’s office and on the other to corporate and foundation dollars, all of which was nicely folded into Bridburg’s revealing statement to Publisher's Weekly in April 2014: “we’re thinking of branding the work that everybody is doing.” See, local writers, you’re working for “the brand,” which in turn benefits the brand holders – the “we” of Bridburg’s statement. They’re raising cultural capital off your (mostly unpaid) labor, and then parlaying that into enhanced status and access to power (the Walsh administration’s big “creative economy”/"cultural plan" initiatives), and access to more real dollars from non-profits, foundations, and corporations among the FIRE (finance, insurance, & real estate) sector of the economy that actually controls the city government.

In perfectly cynical obeisance to these powers, Grub Street didn’t peep a word about gentrification until after the literary district initiative had sailed through its faux-public approval process in August 2014. Then and only then was the issue of gentrification briefly raised by Bridburg in an online article celebrating the district, and moreover only in the mode of NIMBY self-pity. 

 "Areas like Fort Point channel have seen their artistic communities pushed out due to rising costs, and GrubStreet faces a similar challenge as our building is being sold and we too are being forced to consider options outside of the city. The approval of the creation of a literary cultural district in downtown Boston is an important milestone for a city that is trying hard to maintain its cultural heart. With an intentional, coherent approach to our collective work as literary organizations, publications and endeavors, we will put Boston on the map as a literary center and destination."

Now this more recent, private message to its instructors and associates suggests that the same forces may indeed be elbowing Grub Street out a window of the Steinway Building sometime soon. But as I wrote then, it also remains possible that Grub will miraculously find a way to hold onto a prestigious address in the bosom of its darling district. Eve Bridburg pays herself a hefty $104,000 annual salary (while the median per capita income in Boston is $33,000 a year) and is married to a wealthy physician and medical researcher. And recently Grub Street itself went through an eminently corporate-style restructuring at the behest of its board and leadership, sidelining several of its former administrators, reassigning duties, and establishing new positions with more corporate-sounding titles (Director of Finance & Administration, Content Management Consultant, and Marketing & Community Engagement Manager), with the goal of grabbing ever greater funding from corporate and foundation "philanthropy" as well as from desperate writers shelling out for a newly developed raft of online courses. No doubt the Grub Street “brand” will continue, and writers who play along will continue to get . . . branded.

November 11, 2014

The Reproductive & the Perverse Novel -- a manifesto

There are two types of novels, the reproductive and the perverse. 

Reproductive novels are analogous to missionary-position intercourse engaged in for the purpose of producing offspring. 

Perverse novels are like tied-up face-down ball-gag ass-slappin’ doggie-style Greco-Roman three-way pinkie-frottage for the purposelessness of continual shatterings.   

Reproductive novels change diapers, perverse novels wear them for fun.

In reproductive novels there are characters, and in the course of the novel they have an epiphany, which assures them that they have a soul.

In perverse novels there are figures. They have anti-epiphanies or no epiphanies at all, which assures them that they might be trompe l’oeil.   

Reproductive novels are moral, perverse novels revalue values. 

Reality is the scab that forms over arrested and brutalized vitality. The reproductive novel is the band-aid laid over the scab. The perverse novel tears off the band-aid with its teeth, scratches the scab away, worries the wound. 

Reproductive novels have closure, perverse novels are open-ended: legs crossed vs. ass in the air.  

Reproductive novels contribute, in the small way that novels can contribute to anything, to the reproduction of society at the level of the status quo.  

Perverse novels are on a strike that is impossible to tell from a jubilee.

The reproductive novel always speaks in the name of the highest ideals, even – or rather especially – when these are embedded in the homiest of domestic scenes.

The perverse novel is trivial where the reproductive novel is important, anorectic where it is bloated, and chastened where it is proud.

The reproductive novel is original in unimportant ways, the perverse novel derivative in significant ones.

Reproductive novels lay a wreath at the tomb of their ancestors, perverse novels wear the dress their grandmother was buried in to a banquet of their granddaddy’s balls.  

There is a reproductive novel on your nightstand. There is a perverse novel under the mattress on your lover’s side of the bed. 

Beware of faux-perverse novels, always looking over their shoulders to make sure the outraged reproductive novel is not far behind.  (This is often known as “the underground”).
There are reproductive novels which take on a little perversity as inoculation; yesterday’s perversions can become today’s rote reproductive foreplay.  (This is often known as “style”).

Don’t jump to conclusions: there are subtly perverse novels in reproductive-novel drag.

In the reproductive novel you can see yourself, in the perverse novel you feel like a stranger to yourself.

Reproductive novels say, “I am a novel.”  Perverse novels ask, “What is a novel?”

Glance at your watch after reading a reproductive novel, sniff your fingers after reading a perverse novel.

A whole department of the critical-academic-industrial complex is devoted to reading perverse novels reproductively.

Reproductive novels should be read perversely – or not at all.

November 8, 2014

Tidy Words & the End of the World: LeRoi Jones Reads a New Yorker Poem

Here’s a scene from Amiri Baraka’s Autobiography of LeRoi Jones. He’s dropped out of Howard University and joined the Air Force (the “Error Farce,” he calls it) and they’ve stationed him in Puerto Rico. For the US it’s the mid-1950s and for Jones it’s early days in his writing vocation; he’s just feeling his way and trying to assimilate everything that seems to fall under the rubric of literary culture, which so far appears to be white, Anglo-European culture.

One afternoon I had gone to San Juan by myself. I had found some places in Old San Juan I could walk around. They had a tourist section, fairly arty . . . I was in civilian clothes and I remember I was reading The New Yorker. I’d stopped at a bench and sat down near a square. It was quiet and I could see a long way off toward the newer, more Americanized part of the city, the Condado Beach section, where I could only go if in uniform, so they would know I was an Americano and not a native. I had been reading one of the carefully put together exercises The New Yorker publishes constantly as high poetic art, and gradually I could feel my eyes fill up with tears, and my cheeks were wet and I was crying, quietly, softly but like it was the end of the world. I had been moved by the writer’s words, but in another, very personal way. A way that should have taught me even more than it did. Perhaps it would have saved me many more painful scenes and conflicts. But I was crying because I realized that I could never write like that writer. Not that I had any real desire to, but I knew even if I had had the desire I could not do it. I realized that there was something in me so out, so unconnected with what this writer was and what that magazine was that what was in me that wanted to come out as poetry would never come out like that and be my poetry.

The verse spoke of lawns and trees and dew and birds and some subtlety of feeling amidst the jingling rhymes that spoke of a world almost completely alien to me. Except in magazines or walking across some campus or in some house and neighborhood I hadn’t been in. What was so terrifying to me was that when I looked through the magazine, I liked the clothes, the objects, the general ambience of the place – of the life being lived by the supposed readers and creators of the New Yorker world. But that verse threw me off, it had no feeling I could really use. I might carry the magazine as a tool of my own desired upward social mobility, such as I understood it. I might like some of the jokes, and absolutely dig the soft-curving button-down collars and well-tailored suits I saw. The restaurants and theater advertisements. The rich elegance and savoir faire of all I could see and touch. But the poem, the inside, of that life chilled me, repelled me, was impenetrable. And I hated myself because of it, yet at the same time knew somehow that it was correct that I be myself, whatever that meant. And myself could not deal with the real meanings of the life spelled out by those tidy words.

Baraka nails the essential quality of the New Yorker poem in a compact formulation: a carefully put-together exercise published as high poetic art. And when it comes to literary standards nothing has changed in the half century plus since the poet shed tears over that alienating poem – New Yorker still puts a premium on carefully put-together exercises that it publishes as high poetic art. This is just as true of the magazine’s fiction, which represents the “quality” apogee of the MFA cookie-cutter “epiphany story.” Wrapped up in tidy packages of psychological realism, these stories reflect the spurious “humanism” of the liberal professional-managerial class that is really a form of fatuous, self-congratulatory narcissism and an apologetics for a racist, imperialist, and exploitative status quo. Such work is “well-crafted,” meticulous, careful, “clean,” and absolutely risk free – the literary equivalent of a gentrified neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood (Baraka even calls it, perceptively, a “place”) where people like the aspiring Black writer are not welcome, where they are the excluded Other.

In the yearning for social mobility that painfully inflects his response, the young poet of the autobiography implicitly realizes how this “high poetic art” functions as a marker of status, what Pierre Bourdieu calls “distinction.” New Yorker verse and fiction are indeed high-end consumer commodities, of a piece with the tailored clothes, pricey jewelry, and haute cuisine dining spots that share its pages. It’s a cultural “address”, but – as commentators such as Sharon Zukin and David Harvey have shown – one that is eminently available to be cross-mapped onto real space, in urban neighborhoods across the US and around the globe.

One way that this type of “cultural address” manifests itself in the contemporary urban arena is the phenomenon of “cultural districts,” specially designated clusters of arts and humanities venues which then become the focus of public-private investment partnerships. There are many such districts in Massachusetts already, including two here in Boston, the Fenway Cultural District and the new Boston Literary District. According to the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the state body that awards such designations, the ultimate goal of cultural districts is “enhancing property values and making communities more attractive” – i.e., gentrification.

In their critique of the “creative cities” model of urban development, researchers Sacha Kagan and Julia Hahn speak of the results of such cultural zoning – an exclusionary “club effect”:

In the creative city model, culture is used to increase value, be it symbolically through images or materialized. In this context, Zukin (1990) refers to “real cultural capital,” meaning spatially linked cultural capital, which becomes a reason for real investments (p. 38). As Bernt & Holm (2005) state, the cultural capital (of artists) becomes objectified and transfers onto certain places; this, in turn, makes access to it easier, as it can be consumed by anyone who enters this space. Ley (2003) examines gentrification processes and how the high level of cultural capital of artists increases the symbolic value of an area and leads to “followers” (other professionals with high levels of cultural, but also economic, capital) coming into a neighbourhood. He uses Bourdieu‟s notions of cultural and economic capital and finds that both of these concepts help to explain gentrification. [ . . . ]

Bourdieu (1999) also describes the “club effect” as a process that excludes according to economic, cultural, and also social capital. Select spaces acquire social and symbolic capital based upon “people and things which are different from the vast majority and have in common … the fact that they exclude everyone who does not present all the desired attributes …” (p. 129). This “club effect” shows that consequences like segregation and symbolic violence can result from a policy that “favors the construction of homogeneous groups on a spatial basis” (p. 129) This can be connected to the creative city concept, in which arts and culture function as enablers for a creative urban milieu, in turn enhancing the city economically and often resulting in gentrification. Artists or “creatives” play an important role here and can be seen as pioneers of gentrification, as they give their cultural capital to a certain district or space. As Bernt & Holm (2005) describe, gentrified spaces become more and more general, losing the specific characteristics that enabled their cultural distinctiveness.

The organizers of the Boston Literary District – led by Eve Bridburg and the Grub Street writing center – like to pretend, at least in public statements, that their cultural zone is innocent and inclusive. In fact in their application to the Massachusetts Cultural Council they went so far as to produce the following howler:

"Also, unique to this district, situated in a gentrified area, is that it will allow literary groups and writers in more economically marginalized areas of Boston to strut their literary stuff, if you will, by participating in district programming."

Accomplished here is the feat of making a single sentence out of a stew of euphemism, wishful thinking, and flat-out lie. The truth is that the borders of this very large chunk of Boston real estate encompass or abut areas such as Chinatown and Downtown Crossing that are alive with ongoing struggles against gentrification. Public and affordable housing units as well as soup kitchens and homeless and domestic abuse shelters are all in the crosshairs now. In the “mixed-use” (both commercial and residential) areas south and east of Boston Common, household incomes are among the most savagely polarized in the region, with luxury condos grudgingly rubbing shoulders with tenements and SRO hotels. In their statements and actions the Boston Literary District’s sponsors have disappeared those places, and those people.

But it’s also true that parts of the district, such as Beacon Hill and the Back Bay, are already quite gentrified. Will the minority youth of Boston – because that’s who we’re talking about here – really be welcome to “strut their stuff” on that stage?

To answer this question let’s put a couple of things together. The first is a quote from the Globe article that heralded the Literary District’s advent back in the fall of 2013.

It’s been 18 months since the Massachusetts Cultural Council began designating cultural districts around the state. So far, 17 areas have been named, giving them the right to create signage, and also a boost in attracting artists, creative enterprises — and cultural tourists, who spend $62 more per day than their philistine counterparts.

Cultural tourists spend $62 more per day than their philistine counterparts. We’ll let slide for the moment the irony that nothing marks the true philistine more than putting a dollar value on culture and instead focus on something else: What kind of demographic are we really talking about here? Well, what else could it be but well-heeled and mostly white upper-middle class professionals out on the hunt for further marks of cultural “distinction”? In other words – New Yorker readers.  

Now let’s add to that another little fact of Boston life that’s come to light recently. Or rather, come to light for those who don’t experience it daily: the racist “stop and frisk” policing of Black and Latino youth that is endemic to this city, as reported by the ACLU after an exhaustive study. 

You don’t have to be a math whiz to see that these two items add up to Black and brown youth not being particularly welcome to “strut their stuff” anywhere, let alone in the Boston Literary District. In fact, as a comprehensive report by Dan Shewan in DigBoston revealed last September, the real purpose of the district is further gentrification of the region. This is where the “club effect” cited above by Kagan and Hahn comes into play: it “favors the construction of homogeneous groups on a spatial basis,” (in this case the affluent “cultural tourists” flocking to the Literary District), and it results in “segregation and symbolic violence” for those left out of the club.

Social exclusion and symbolic violence inflict real damage and pain, the pain of marginality, invisibility, and muteness – cultural apartheid. It is precisely the type of pain that Amiri Baraka’s younger self experienced while reading that New Yorker poem. The passage from Baraka’s autobiography struck me because I encountered it at the very time I was writing about the Boston Book Festival’s failure, for the fifth year in a row, to select a local African American or Latina/o author for their flagship “One City One Story” program. One of the “Executive Partners” in organizing the Boston Literary District, the BBF states that this citywide “Big Read” event is supposed to promote literacy and “create a community around a shared reading experience.” Yet what kind of community are they creating? Boston is at least 42% Black and Latina/o, but in the 5 years of One City One Story’s existence they’ve chosen 4 white authors and 1 Asian-American author. The stories themselves, moreover, are very much of the same “carefully constructed exercises” (white and uptight) that continue to be published “as high poetic art” in the New Yorker.

I wonder how many minority youth in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan were assigned the book festival’s 2014 offering, Jennifer Haigh’s “Sublimation,” in their high school English classes. No doubt they were exhorted that they were participating in civic life, and that the story’s values and outlook were somehow “universal” and relevant to their own experience. And no doubt that many of them felt the same confusion and shame and anger that LeRoi Jones felt reading that New Yorker poem in San Juan over a half century ago.

I hope none of them shed tears over it, though – the story wasn’t worth it.

Rest in power, comrade Amiri Baraka!

October 22, 2014

THE FACE OF GENTRIFICATION: "One City One Story" at 5 Years

Below is the text of a leaflet for Boston Book Festival 2014:

For the fifth year in a row the Boston Book Festival has failed to select a story by an African American or Latina/o author for their flagship One City One Story (1C1S) program. One of those citywide “Big Reads” currently in fashion around the nation, the program prints 30,000 booklet copies of a short story by a local author and distributes them for free in libraries, bookstores, and coffee shops around the region. The story serves as the platform for a number of reading and discussion activities, all leading up to a big Q&A with the author at the festival itself. The program, according to its organizers, is intended to promote literacy and “create a community around a shared reading experience.”

With the selection of Jennifer’s Haigh’s “Sublimation” 1C1S enters its fifth year, and we can now get a clear picture of just what sort of “community” the program has in mind:

The book festival’s idea of “community” is blatantly unrepresentative of the real Boston, which by the 2010 Census had at last become a “majority minority” city, in which people of color make up around 53%:

Black or African American            24%
Latino/a or Hispanic                      18%
Asian                                                   9%
Other                                                  2%
So-called “White”                           47%

Now here’s the breakdown for 1C1S:  2 white men (Tom Perrotta in 2010 and Richard Russo in 2011), 2 white women (Anna Solomon in 2012 and this year’s Jennifer Haigh), and 1 South Asian woman (Rishi Reddi in 2013). That’s 80% white and 20% Asian = 100%!

Boston is at least 42% Black or Latino, but 100% locked out of One City One Story. It’s the “literary” equivalent of a gated community.

It’s not like there’s a shortage of Black or Latina/o writers who have significant ties to the region. If it’s marquee names you’re looking for, there’s Junot Diaz, Jamaica Kincaid, Julia Alvarez, and John Edgar Wideman. Both Michael Thomas and Danzy Senna were born and raised in Boston even if they now live elsewhere. Closer to home we have Laura K Warrell, Jennifer De Leon, Marcus Burke, Iris Gomez, and others. Chapters from Burke’s novel, Team Seven, or Gomez’s Try to Remember would’ve made first-rate One City One Story choices.

Of course it’s not up to us to do the BBF’s homework for them. If you claim to speak for “the community,” you should know what you’re talking about. But of the 45 people listed on their website’s Who We Are page, only 2 are African American and none Hispanic – again a laughable (and lamentably tokenistic) proportion considering Boston’s real demographics. Instead, their Board of Directors is a miniature Who’s Who of the region’s white plutocracy, with a hedge fund banker, a marketing research CEO, a senior investment officer; people with decades of experience in places like Salomon Brothers and Goldman Sachs who push causes like corporate “education reform.”

But even if the BBF organizers are ignorant about the community, that’s not the biggest scandal here – it’s that they don’t give a fuck. They are in fact quite consciously and deliberately constructing the community they want, as part of a process unfortunately familiar to us all: gentrification.

Local literary institutions such as Grub Street, the Boston Book Festival, and others are currently congratulating themselves on the founding of the so-called Boston Literary District, stretching from downtown to the Back Bay. A recent report in DigBoston by Dan Shewan exposed the top-down and closed-door manner in which the project was undertaken, suggesting that it has more to do with commerce than culture and will help property developers and the hospitality industry a lot more than writers, readers, and the community at large. Indeed, even the state body governing the creation of such districts admits that their purpose is to “enhance property values”, i.e., gentrification.

As Boston’s working class people of all races struggle with spiraling rents, Black and Latino/Hispanic youth face additional pressures such as the racist stop-and-frisk policies of the Boston Police Department, revealed earlier this month by the ACLU. The Boston Book Festival and their One City One Story program enact a cultural violence on the same continuum, policing urban space on behalf of the white ruling class and its professional-managerial servants and supporters (the festival’s target audience). But a genuinely thriving culture will never arise from ethnic cleansing and apartheid. Another Boston is possible, and a very different – and more diverse – book festival along with it. 

August 29, 2014

Grub Street Saved from Gentrification!

As we reported in our previous post, a cash-strapped Grub Street writing center has told the world that it is barely holding on in the midst of a furious storm of gentrifying downtown development. But before it would be forced to relocate to some strip mall outside Route 128, come hell or high water it was going to establish the Literary Cultural District, which will safeguard both Boston's literary heritage as the "Athens of America" (because one good slaveholding democracy deserves another) and the city's current and much-remarked "literary renaissance." 

Well, now we don't have to worry any more – a source of funds has been found which will allow Grub Street to remain downtown in the Steinway Building, or at least somewhere else within our new Literary Cultural District: Eve Bridburg's salary.

(I've blurred out information on individuals who don't concern us here)

Yes, publicly-available tax documents obtained by this blog reveal that Grub Street's Founder and Executive Director earned a remarkable $104,020 in 2012. That's 3 times the median per capita income of the city, $33,000 a year.

Also impressive is the steep rise her salary has undergone in the last few years, from 60 grand in 2010 to 95 grand in 2011 – a raise of 35 thousand dollars in a single year, followed next year by another bump of 10 grand! And at that rate, who knows what her raise for 2013 might've been? 

All Ms. Bridburg has to do is return to her 2010 salary – still almost twice as much as the median Boston per capita income – and Grub will be flush enough to remain the stout tentpole of the Literary Cultural District.

And don't worry too much about our Executive Director: Her spouse is an extremely well-remunerated doctor with his own lab in the Longwood Medical District, so this great gift she is giving won’t pinch her family too much. This is an era in which we're all being forced to tighten our belts, and pull ourselves up by our own bootraps or be hoisted upon our petards or whatever, so it only stands to reason that the Great Mother of our Literary Renaissance will do her part, too.