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.

August 26, 2014

Eve Bridburg Finds the Gentrification-Spot!



G marks the spot!

On August 19, the Massachusetts Cultural Council approved the “Literary Cultural District” application submitted by GrubStreet writing center and a raft of other Boston literary organizations. The approval was punctuated by the usual round of media flatulence, including this offering by BostInno dudebro Nick DeLuca: “It marks the second state-designated area of this kind – the first, also in Boston, being the Fenway Cultural District – and the inaugural in the nation being of the literary variety.” This marks the fifth article on the LCD by DeLuca being of the illiterate variety.

But in the midst of all the triumphalism an uncharacteristic note of caution sounded from the van of the parade. Consider the following quote in the same article from none other than GrubStreet founder and director Eve Bridburg:

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.

I had to rub my eyes and even walk around the block when I read this: Eve Bridburg talking about . . . gentrification? Who said anything about gentrification? How did this notion even enter the conversation? When in the year-long public history of this project have its organizers, spokespersons, and media shills expressed the least syllable of concern about the g-word?

That Gioconda smile can only mean one thing!

While we’re pondering that question (or alternately savoring the cheeky humor behind the assertion that the city is “trying hard to maintain its cultural heart”), let’s spice it up with two additional ironies:

1) Bridburg and Co. have waited until the district is a done deal to say anything about gentrification. I’ve been watching this process unfold for a year now, thinking hard about it and doing the homework about cultural districts and gentrification that the LCD's supporters don’t seem to be interested in. And during that time, there’ve been some things that have struck me – as they would any honest observer – as deeply manipulative and dishonest, including the obvious conflicts of interest (Ayanna Pressley’s seat on GrubStreet’s “Literary Council” and Grub board member and donor Laura Debonis’s boasted residence “in the literary cultural district”), the deliberate deception about the openness of the project (no substantive attempt to rally people to the “public” hearings), and the egregious corruptions of language from people professing to be writers or book lovers (“literary renaissance,” “branding,” and the serial abuse of “community”, etc.). But so far nothing beats this for sheer cynicism.

Because Eve Bridburg herself has just admitted that concerns about gentrification are relevant to this process. In fact they are so relevant that the very first public words out of her mouth after the district’s final approval address this very topic. Yet concerns about gentrification could’ve been addressed at any time along the way. Waiting until this moment gives the impression that the organizers failed to bring it up because they knew that due diligence and genuine democratic participation and accountability might cause problems or slow the process. Instead, they kept their mouths shut and rushed the process as much as possible.

By waiting until now, Eve Bridburg couldn’t have admitted more loudly that gentrification is a legitimate concern when it comes to the literary cultural district – and she couldn’t have added any louder that she doesn’t give a shit.

2) Bridburg’s statement suggests that LCD status will somehow actually help with the problems posed by gentrification. This is of a piece with other vague assurances such as the repeated assertions that the LCD will “help writers” by “raising their profiles” or whatever other “branding” bullshit is on offer. But in real terms it’s a non sequitur (as well as a plain old lie), because cultural districts, as I’ve shown in previous posts, were developed for the very purpose of bringing up property values. The same sleazy rhetorical move is on display at the end of an unsigned Boston Globe editorial that appeared several days after Bridburg's statement:


Here, too, gentrification is acknowledged as a problem, but here as well the district is rhetorically positioned as some kind of vague potential solution rather than what it in hard fact is: an aggravating factor. The idea that GrubStreet itself might be gentrified out the area by the sale of the Steinway building is nothing but a bit of “poor me” misdirection – loyal Grubbies have nothing to worry about when it comes to the tentpole status of their favorite cultural arbiter. A glimpse at the overlapping personnel among GrubStreet’s board of directors and their donors make it clear that the writing center has been steadily pimping its Muse to bigger and bigger players in the Marketplace and will do just fine in the “creative economy” of Boston’s future.

At least the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency, feels constrained in its own announcement to be more forthright about the purpose of cultural districts:


Take note of a couple of points in particular. The MCC reports that, "the Cultural Districts Initiative grew out of an economic stimulus bill" – an ECONOMIC STIMULUS BILL, not some kind of fairy-tale, feel-good "cultural stimulus bill"! The language of the third paragraph drives the point home: to "encourage business," "expand tourism," and "enhance property values." Could it be any clearer?  

Now, someone might logically point out that there are one or two points about art and culture in the description, such as "attract[ing] artists and cultural enterprises" and "foster[ing] local cultural development" – shouldn't that count for something? And of course it does: it counts for the kind of art that can "encourage business"; it counts for the kind of culture that will "expand tourism"; it counts for the type of creativity that will "enhance property values." This is a recipe for gentrification.

So to sum up, here’s what Eve Bridburg and GrubStreet and the other “Executive Partners” in the LCD coalition (Deborah Porter of the Boston Book Festival, Henriette Lazaridis Power of The Drum litmag, plus Suffolk University, Emerson College, the Boston Athenaeum, and Boston Public Library) are telling you:

Gentrification is a real issue here, but the Literary Cultural District will somehow help with that in some unspecified way, even though cultural districts were designed to do just the opposite, and anyway it’s too late because we waited until the LCD was in the bag to mention any of this inconvenient crap.

OK, got it – thanks, GrubStreet!


July 30, 2014

The "Literary Cultural District" and the Art of Rent -- Part 1



When the fix is in, the fix is in: On Wednesday, June 25, the Boston City Council voted unanimously in favor of the Literary Cultural District proposal submitted by a coalition of local organizations led by the Grub Street writing center and its director, Eve Bridburg. This came after a second hearing for the district that was almost as poorly publicized as the first. Now the application has been kicked up to the Massachusetts Cultural Council to determine if it meets the state’s guidelines. In the meantime Grub Street has been on a mini publicity blitz, with Bridburg’s hype man, Larry Lindner, crowing that the district could be a reality as early as September of this year.

Does that mean Grub Street will be returning half of the 2-year planning grant it received from the state in the Fall of 2013? (42,500 taxpayer bucks for a project repeatedly billed as “revenue neutral.”) Somehow I think not, but at this point such straightforward theft is one of the less sleazy aspects of this case. As a writer – and a just as a rational, ethical human being – I’m more offended by their serial abuse of an infinitely more precious currency: language. For example, in the latest wave of uncritical, rah-rah articles about the project, city councilor Ayanna Pressley is quoted applauding the district because it will “incentivize foot traffic” in the area. Any writer worth her salt will be deeply revolted by this kind of thing, as she would’ve by Eve Bridburg’s classic from an earlier interview, “We’re thinking about branding the work that everybody is doing.” Worst of all is that “Literary Cultural District Coordinator” Larry Lindner is back to claiming that Boston is in the midst of “a literary renaissance.” During the city council process a chastened, or at least more cautious, Grub Street had downgraded their momentous cultural rebirth to a still hugely overstated “resurgence.” It’s a sure sign they feel the wind in their sails that they’ve now returned to the brazen ad-speak – or what, in simpler times, was known as lying – of “renaissance.”

The single note of caution sounded in the recent spate of press reports was over the district’s walkability – a requirement of the MCC guidelines. And if we look at the crude map that Grub Street released, it is indeed a sizeable chunk of downtown real estate.


But that’s what it’s really been about all along, isn’t it – real estate? The urban policy of cultural districts was first created for the very purpose of “revitalizing” – code word for gentrifying – economically depressed neighborhoods in cities ravaged by de-industrialization and other vagaries of a market economy. Take a look at this 1998 “Americans for the Arts” report, Cultural Districts: The Arts as a Strategy for Revitalizing Our Cities, sponsored by a group of urban mayors, business associations, and arts administrators. By that time, the report states, there were already 90 cities in the US that had founded or planned such districts. Examine the language used to describe the function of cultural districts in these two excerpts:
                                                          



Now for some basic math: what happens to a neighborhood when the tax base is “expanded,” property values “enhanced,” local businesses “complemented,” and more “well educated employees” and tourists roll in? It should be clear to all persons of good will and plain dealing that behind the bullshit euphemisms we’re talking about jacking up rents, racist redlining by other means, and cultural homogenization – in other words, gentrification.

The experience of Pittsburgh, summarized in the Americans for the Arts report, gives us a more or less typical example of the forces and motivations behind the founding of a cultural district:
                                                           

The first paragraph blithely asserts that the district will “link the interests and activities of historic preservation groups, arts organizations and downtown developers” as if these interests somehow more or less harmonized in the first place, with the further assumption that arts organizations do indeed represent the needs of artists and urban communities (in fact, arts organizations often represent the interests of urban elites before those of artists and ordinary citizens). But in the next paragraph it clearly emerges that the primary motivation for the district came from the big urban developers themselves. Cultivation of the arts is spoken of in terms of revenue generation, number of events and tickets sold (the Pittsburgh example is primarily a theater district), with everything subordinated to the ultimate goal of economic success in market terms. As long as someone’s basking in the benjamins, it just stands to reason that “quality of life” is going up for the whole “community”!

What’s instructive in these examples is how little it has to do with art and culture. Cultural districts are not the spontaneous or organic outgrowths of city dwellers and culture producers’ collective efforts to remake their surroundings at the grassroots level; they are the deliberate creations of real estate developers and investors, urban politicians (who get their campaign bucks from the developers, not from poor artists!), and bureaucrats from various nonprofits. Arts and culture are an instrumentality, a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. This is what it means when you hear supporters of the Literary Cultural District using words like “leveraging,” “branding,” and “incentivizing” – it’s not just crappy word choice. In their minds, a thriving culture is one that generates dollars, even though they will invariably frame this as an “everyone wins” scenario.

If that’s your definition of culture, then these districts should be fine with you. In fact they’re now so prevalent that they’ve even begun establishing something like a trade association of their own, the Global Cultural Districts Network. Click through their website and then get back to me about what kind of "cultural" vibe they’re giving off.


Call me crazy, but to me it looks a little . . . corporate.

Of course someone might reasonably remark, gazing at the LCD map and tracing a finger from Beacon Hill over to Newbury Street, that the area happens to be a tad . . . gentrified already, yes? To which the most accurate rejoinder would be, Yes and No. It’s true that much of the area appears fully developed commercially and “vital” enough not to indicate an urgent remedy of “revitalization.” But there remain hundreds of units of affordable/subsidized housing both within the district itself and quite near its borders, as well as enclaves – particularly Chinatown – where working class families still hang on. The Literary Cultural District has a profit-oriented rationale for taking both types of urban terrain into its capacious borders, and I’ll be addressing each in greater depth in Parts 2 and 3 of this post.

In the meantime, since you’ll be hearing more and more about how great the district will be for writers, check out the findings of this quantitative study of cultural districts!



May 13, 2014

Three Strikes Against the Literary Cultural District Public Hearing



A "community driven" effort.


The Grub Street stage production of The Literary Cultural District Public Hearing has come and gone after a single performance at Boston Public Library’s Rabb Lecture Hall. The one-act farce, co-produced by the Arts & Culture Committee of the Boston City Council, was written by Eve Bridburg and directed by Michelle Wu. Playing the Stage Manager, newcomer Larry Lindner turned in a harried, defensive performance – clearly someone with professional credentials was needed in this part – while Christopher Castellani and Henriette Lazaridis Power appeared listless and dispirited in their supporting roles as The Writer and The Audio-Book. This left it up to Ayanna Pressley, in her key role as The Politician, to pick up the slack, which she did admirably. Pressley’s ambitious interpretation gave us one of those public officials who really know the ABCs of their profession – Always Be Campaigning. But even her nimble and rolling delivery couldn’t rescue a production that seemed sabotaged from the start by its haplessly scattershot script, as if Ms Bridburg had all along envisioned nothing more than a one-night engagement in an almost empty hall . . .

A bit of theater: It’s no exaggeration to say that the May 6 public hearing for the Literary Cultural District was never meant to be more than that. This is why the project’s chief organizer, Grub Street, did nothing to publicize it. Or more precisely, the publicity was as much a mere formality as the hearing itself was supposed to be. Five hours before it was scheduled to start, Grub Street condescended to mention it with a terse Facebook post and a tweet.

Grub Street director Eve Bridburg defended her decision on Facebook, claiming, “Back in April, we notified more than 50 media outlets and 74 other literary and civic organizations. We hope to get a great turnout.” If this is true, then she was grievously let down by these 124 organizations because not a single one of them made so much as a peep about the hearing either. Nor did any of the other organizations of the LCD coalition, such as The Drum or the Boston Book Festival. The only public notifications were the ones that were mandatory – the official City Council posting and the BPL listing.

Grub Street didn’t even avail itself of its own extensive email list. They could easily have included an item about the hearing in the weekly newsletter, the Grub Street Rag, or they could have emailed a separate notification, as they also do from time to time. Evidently their professed desire for a “great turnout” was not especially ardent.

The Rabb Lecture Hall at the Boston Public Library can accommodate 350 people, but for the LCD hearing it was “filled” to only a tenth of its capacity, around 30-35 people. And that’s being charitable, as this number includes those who had to be there, such as the city workers operating the video and sound equipment, plus a couple of party crashers – myself and my co-conspirator, Catherine – who only knew about the hearing because they had gone looking for it (my testimony here). Most of the rest of those present were invitees, lined up beforehand by Grub Street to chime in according to the pre-approved script.

The irregularities continued once the meeting got under way. Arts & Culture Committee chair Michelle Wu might have wielded the gavel, but it was her colleague, Ayanna Pressley, who was both the meeting’s official sponsor and its presiding spirit. Councilor Pressley opened the proceedings by commending the “robust coalition” that was “leading the charge” for the LCD, while also pointing out to the echoing chamber and 320 empty seats that the effort was “community driven.”

The irregularity here is that Councilor Pressley also happens to occupy a seat on Grub Street’s “Literary Council.” Moreover, she’s a very recent addition to that group, appearing for the first time in the Spring of 2013 – in other words when the discussions for the LCD had to have been already under way in order to secure the $42,5000 “planning grant” that they received from the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) in Fall 2013.1 Out of the 38 individuals on the Literary Board, Councilor Pressley is the only one with no professional connection to the literary world; the others are mostly writers, with some agents and editors. I applaud Grub’s decision to have different voices, perspectives, and backgrounds represented on the Literary Board, including even “extra-literary” perspectives – but why then only this single one, and with this particular timing?

A politician fallen among bad company.

I don’t have access to the answers, of course, and therefore will only observe that it at least gives the appearance of possible corruption and conflict of interest, of a quid pro quo in which the city councilor is gifted an honorific and a line on her CV in return for helping to lubricate the legislative process for certain projects.2 Councilor Pressley is routinely spoken of as a future star in our political firmament, destined for higher office. A ceremonial seat on a literary board of merely advisory capacity may not seem like much, but it is indeed something – culture nowadays is a form of capital, and cultural capital confers prestige for a certain sector of voters, and, much more crucially, of donors.

Now for strike three, which wasn’t really brought home to me until the testimony of Dan Currie. His perspective is significant because he served on the working team putting together the application that will shortly be submitted by the LCD coalition to the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Currie’s remarks were highly critical of the coalition’s leadership – its “Executive Partners” as they have dubbed themselves – and called for a process that was more transparent, open, and inclusive than what he had seen so far.

Dan Currie speaks with some authority here, because he was instrumental in shepherding an earlier Boston literary site through the official process to become a city landmark. It’s thanks to his efforts that we now have an Edgar Allan Poe walking tour, a Poe Square at Boylston and Charles Streets, and soon a public statue of Poe Returning to Boston that actually looks dynamic, interesting, and flat-out cool instead of like the usual bronzed dogshit. Yet a monument of presumably more conventional cut had been the first choice of the project’s other leaders; it was only because Currie had insisted on a more democratic process, soliciting greater public participation and feedback than the officially required minimum, that a genuinely popular result was achieved.

By contrast, the LCD coalition’s “Executive Partners” are doing the opposite, barely fulfilling even the letter of the law, let alone its spirit. This is especially the case when it comes to their third strike: the scandalous decision to not release a list of the district’s “assets” for public scrutiny and discussion before the application is submitted to the Massachusetts Cultural Council. “Assets” is the MCC’s unlovely and revealingly commercial term for the sites and properties that are supposed to anchor a proposed cultural district – cultural attractions, of course, but also business venues that might be associated, however tangentially, with the cultural theme. In the Literary Cultural District’s case, such “assets” would include specifically literary landmarks such as the Thoreau, Alcott, and Hawthorne residences on Pinckney Street, but also businesses such as hotels, bars, and restaurants with any vaguely literary connection (Malcolm Lowry barfed here!), and of course organizations like Grub Street itself.

Instead, all that was revealed at the public hearing was an empty map. The borders delineated a quite large swath of Boston real estate, from downtown in the east to Copley Square and beyond in the west, and from Beacon Hill in the north to Washington Street in the south – with an elbow poking into the rapidly gentrifying Chinatown. There were no markers for any literary sites on the map, no key, and no list. The whole rationale for creating this district in the first place was missing, excluded from consideration.

"The district" -- literary & cultural TBA

Of all the irregularities, this was definitely the weirdest. The excuse for it, related by the visibly nervous Larry Lindner, was that there wasn’t time to get  “bogged down” in “details” or tied up in endless debates about which sites should or shouldn’t be included in the district (yes, Larry, democracy can be messy and inconvenient). Moreover, Lindner further stammered, the list could change any time, sites could be added at any point, and even the boundaries of the map itself could change, so it didn’t really matter right now, did it?

In her closing remarks Councilor Pressley came to Lindner’s aid by affirming that this was going to be a “nimble and rolling process” and then repeating it several times to make sure we all got it: “a nimble and rolling process, a nimble and rolling process . . .” Although intended to reassure, it raises the question of just who is getting rolled here.

Councilor Pressley also thanked Councilor Wu for “expediting” the scheduling of the hearing itself. Along with Lindner’s anxiety about getting “bogged down,” this contributed to the impression that the process is being rushed for some undisclosed reason. Originally (in 2013) the Grub-led coalition had been awarded a two-year planning grant, with talk that the district itself might be unveiled “sometime in 2015.” Now we’re being told that the christening might take place before the end of this year.

Why the rush? What is being kept from the public? And what is being committed in the name of writers, who have a responsibility to be good stewards of the language, and speak the truth?  


Three strikes against the LCD public hearing:

Strike 1:  Not publicized

Strike 2:  Not impartial

Strike 3:  Not informed

You’re out!

_____________________________________________

1 The Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) is the state agency that, among other things, administers cultural districts within the Commonwealth.

2 This is additionally ironic when we remember Ayanna Pressley’s vote to expel Chuck Turner from the city council in 2010. Turner, member of the Green-Rainbow Party and a longtime Boston activist, was about as close as we might have come to a genuine ‘people’s’ representative in city government in our time – that is, until he was framed by the FBI for allegedly accepting gifts in return for political favors.