March 26, 2014

Destination Culture (Break the Value Chains!)

We haven’t been hearing much about the Literary Cultural District from its boosters lately, but a few Grub Street website updates and scattered tweets here and there suggest that work, or whatever you’d call it, is progressing where it matters most when it comes to issues of public life in urban spaces – behind the scenes. Grub Director Eve Bridburg has been busy massaging the local pols, while more quotidian tasks like being interviewed by BU communications majors have been offloaded onto Larry Lindner, a local journalist tapped by Bridburg to be the bearer of that awkward “Literary Cultural District Coordinator” job title.

Michelle Wu & Ayanna Pressley are both Boston City Councilors at Large; Catherine Peterson is an arts administrator.

Oh, there will no doubt be a public hearing at some point – some point far along the road when the local plutocrats, business owners, politicians, nonprofit bureaucrats, and arts and culture administrators (with a backing chorus of the complicit, the compliant, and the clueless – i.e. “writers”) are all on board and the whole affair is a locked-down, sewn-up, air-tight, across-the-board fait accompli. In the meantime, we need to do what we can with our own far more meager resources.

Here for your edification are two brief passages that illuminate different aspects of the “cultural district” phenomenon. The first is from Sharon Zukin’s Naked City: The Death & Life of Authentic Urban Places (Oxford UP: 2009). Zukin is best known for her early, pioneering work on gentrification, Loft Living (1982), but she has remained a critic of the way neoliberal capitalism reshapes urban spaces for the purposes of profit. In this passage Zukin specifically addresses “Destination Culture” – her name for the cultural district as a strategy for urban redevelopment – and, using the example of SoHo, she outlines 3 stages that end up producing a shopping-mall sameness in city after city.

For the past few decades Destination Culture has offered a general model of a city’s new beginnings in postindustrial production and leisure consumption. It suits real estate developers who seek to encourage the high value of urban land, especially in the center, by converting it to high-rent uses and appeals to a younger generation who trend toward an aesthetic rather than a political view of social life. Cities invest in different forms of Destination Culture, most often building spaces of consumption for shopping, museum hopping, or entertainment, but also building spaces of production such as artists’ studios, live-work lofts, and cultural hubs. With media buzz and rising rents, these spaces shift the city, one neighborhood at a time, from traditional manufacturing to arts and crafts production, and then to cultural display, design, and consumption, testing the market for higher rents and creating ‘new’ space for more intensive uses. Like The Gates [a Christo and Jeanne-Claude installation in Central Park, 2005], all forms of Destination Culture are judged according to their financial results. In the end upscale development triumphs over authenticity, whether that is the authenticity of origins or of new beginnings.
SoHo’s recent transformation illustrates this process. In the 1970s the legalization of loft living for artists in SoHo created a space of city-sponsored, though not publicly financed, cultural production. At that time nearly all street-level spaces, the neighborhood’s storefronts and first-floor lofts, were used by small manufacturers and suppliers that catered to them. By 1980, a few years after the artists’ district was formed, most of these spaces were still used by factories or factory suppliers, but almost as many housed art galleries. The district attracted an enormous amount of media attention in lifestyle magazines and art world journals and in ‘New York’ movies as well. Foot traffic swelled. By 1990 art galleries dominated the storefronts, joined by new, individually owned boutiques and professional services, while manufacturing visibly waned. SoHo was now known as an artists’ district, but it was also becoming an interesting place to shop for new art, trendy clothing, and fine imported cheese. By 2000 art galleries began to be outnumbered by boutiques, and chain stores of every sort planted themselves on Broadway, near the subway stations, as well as on the side streets. Only five years later, with rents dramatically rising, chain stores outnumbered boutiques two to one, a small number of art galleries remained, and factories had all but disappeared. An elderly landlord who bought a building on Broadway in 1966 and is now replacing one of his longtime tenants, a well-known modern dance company, with an expansion of Banana Republic, says of the rents that chain stores are wiling to pay, “The sky’s the limit, what they offer me.”
By 2005 SoHo was no longer an artists’ district; it was an urban shopping mall. There were low-priced quasi-discount clothing stores such as H&M, the high-end designer fashion stores such as Chanel, and almost everything in between. For that matter, SoHo offered few brands of clothing, jewelry, or shoes that could not be found Uptown on Fifth or Madison Avenue or in most other big cities around the world. [. . .]
In the 1970s no one expected artists’ lofts in old factory buildings to become the ‘wienie’ as Walt Disney called the attraction that lures customers to an amusement park, that would make SoHo a cultural destination. So compelling a vision of renewal did the artists’ district become, though, that the same sequence of events – the conversion of unused or underpriced industrial buildings into live-work spaces for artists, with local government support, followed by the emergence of a market for cafés, boutiques, and bars developed by new cultural entrepreneurs, leading in turn to higher rents, chain stores, and luxury housing – became a model of Destination Culture, a model that soon spread to cities around the world.

As I was reading this passage I remembered one of my favorite quotes from the Boston Globe article that breathlessly broke the Literary Cultural District story back in October 2013:

“I see it as a Broadway for writers,” said Henriette Lazaridis Power, editor of the Drum. “The way Broadway is a loosely defined geographic area of New York and everyone knows that’s where you go to find theater, this is a place where people who want to take in writing in the forms of events will go, and writers will find resources there.”

Broadway! Times Square! That’s actually a perfect (and hilariously revealing) comparison – an urban neighborhood that has been completely and utterly Disneyfied, transformed into one of those shopping malls identified by Sharon Zukin, where nothing of any authentic culture or character remains, and where you can see Cats and Les Mis. Seriously, how many working dramatists do you think would go there for "resources," or even theater? 

The Zukin passage gives us an example of how cultural districts appear to someone who hasn’t drunk the developer Kool-Aid. But now let’s descend into the sausage factory and see how it looks to the producers instead of the consumers and critics. 

Did you know there was already a textbook out on the subject of cultural districts? Yes, Cultural Quarters: Principles and Practice, by Simon Roodhouse, a book for students who want to become . . . not artists or writers or what we tend to think of as producers of culture, but bureaucrats – urban planners, policy makers, middle managers in city government and arts and culture administrators in the nonprofit sector. I offer this extended quote because I think it’s important to get beyond all the hype and boosterism we’ve been fed so far ("literary renaissance!" "a Broadway for writers!") and take a look at how the real operators think about “culture.”

The contraposition between the two developmental views of culture may be traced back to their implicit functional role: culture as a (macro-)sector of the economy amongst others or culture as a basic developmental asset, its economic dimension being a part of the whole picture. The key issue becomes how deeply interconnected it is with most or all of the other economic sectors, and to what extent such interconnection contributes to enhancing the local economy’s overall vitality, competitiveness, and so on.
Typically, cultural activities tend to be organized into clusters, and interestingly the two alternative views just introduced act as the main clustering factors. In the traditional, value-added, macro-sector-centered view, the driving force behind cultural clusters is vertical integration, i.e. the spatial aggregation of players operating at various stages of the same value chain. In this case, cultural clusters cannot but be clusters of activities all directly pertaining to the cultural and creative fields, characterized by more or less rich and articulated input-output relationships and by various levels of economies of scale, scope, and agglomeration. Alternatively, the system-wide (developmental) view focuses upon horizontal integration, i.e. the strategic complimentarity amongst players operating in different value chains, so that the driving force between spatial aggregation becomes the common need to take advantage of the indirect social and economic effects of cultural activity on a variety of different levels such as access to innovative thinking, social animation, urban atmosphere, and so on.

So now let me ask all the writers out there who’ve been enthusiastically cheerleading this Literary Cultural District project: Are you more a “culture as macro-sector” type, or do you lean to the “cultural as basic development asset” side of things? What about it, lit lovers, book people, and Grub Street scribes, whaddaya say? How do you like your value chains, vertical or horizontal?

March 9, 2014

"Literary Fiction" is Genre Fiction

This is from 2011, but well worth highlighting again as the ignorance it addresses remains in full force. It's two posts by M. John Harrison from his blog.

john mullan, clapham & the no-fuck vampire novel

Literary fiction as described here is the fiction of a generation which discovered “good” novels via B-format in 1980. It is a fiction so very clearly generic that when I read John Mullan’s description of it (complete with successful business model, strict boundary conditions and committed fanbase which won’t read anything else) as not genre fiction, I weep with laughter at the sheer depth of his self-deception. Still, by the usual Freudian processes he has said what he really means, & that’s a step forward. The sooner literary fiction recognises & accepts its generic identity, the sooner it can get help. One of the more obvious results of generification is that–as with gentrification–blandness sets in, whether you’re knocking out no-fuck vampire romances or contributing to the high-performing post-Austen industry. Mullan’s genre is a generation old & already deep into predictability. There are ways out of this. The more established genres can show literary fiction how to set up the processes of perpetual lightweight detournment that have enabled them to keep churning away generation on generation, despite a restrictive audience & no economic wiggle-room. One of the benefits is that you need not lose your core content. Indeed, by definition, you mustn’t. So the good news is that, along with its liberal humanist programme, the Clapham arm of literary fiction can continue its project of watering down the linguistic fluency and technical agility of its genuinely interesting precursors from the oh-so-distant past of literature (that great age of Picador, King Penguin, and the Virago Modern Classic, which saw not just the invention of women writers but of magic realism & the euronovel too); while the hipster arm gets a bamboo chip & lemon grass latte & tries out its new neighbourhood app.

on both yr houses

Judging by their responses I think some readers might have missed the sarcasm in my post on John Mullan’s Guardian piece.
For me one of the sharper delights of the piece is its implication that along with “literary fiction”, literature itself began in the 1980s. As some below-the-liners at the Guardian comment, it seems shortsighted–especially on the part of someone whose academic specialism is the early history of the novel–to associate “literary fiction” not with actual literature but with a rebranding exercise from the Thatcher era.
Mullan’s snobbery is canonically based. He loves 18th & 19th Century fiction. Yet here he contributes marketing effort to a product that is shallow & trendy, as well as, at times, wafer-thin in terms of its own models and ambitions. His Guardianpiece is written into media time–gossip time–in which deep literary history is what your mum read when she was your age.
I’m not claiming that, just because literary fiction as described by John Mullan can be shown to have the features of a genre, some other genre therefore deserves to be the princess of everything; only that literary fiction as described by John Mullan (“What is literary fiction? It is not genre fiction.”) can be shown to have the exact features of a genre. It can be shown to have a successful business model, strict boundary conditions & a committed fanbase which doesn’t read anything else (except very occasionally and for something it calls “guilty pleasure”).
It is interesting to visit the Cheltenham Festival, literary fiction’s equivalent of the annual British Science Fiction Convention, & observe these parameters & constraints in operation. How is it that when conventional behaviour supports crime fiction, fantasy, romantic fiction or science fiction, it is a laughable, even disturbing thing; yet when it supports a certain kind of reader, in pretty, comfortable conditions, with nice food & wine, in a pretty English setting, it is a fine, celebratory thing ?
Don’t feel you need to answer that. The point is not intended to be divisive anyway, but inclusive:
If science fiction and “literary fiction” so clearly share the social, structural & economic qualities of a genre or marketing category–a clear & obvious commodification–is it any wonder that both so often represent the very worst of what writing has to offer ? The effect of “literary fiction” on literature has been as destructive as the effect of the sf & fantasy genres on the fiction of the imagination. It has reduced surface to a kind of Farrow & Ball blandness, experiment to some clever jokes & humanity to charm. It’s the fictional equivalent of John Lewis.
A few books to read if you are offended by the deep ordinariness of both literary fiction & science fiction: The Journal of Albion Moonlight by Kenneth Patchen,Ice by Anna Kavan, Manhattan Transfer by John dos Passos, Concrete Island by JG Ballard, The Erasers by Alain Robbe Grillet, The Naked Lunch by William Burroughs. & if you really can’t get the contemporary litfic monkey off your back, at least read The Bridge of the Golden Horn by Emine Sevgi Ozdamar or get yourself some Aleksandar Hemon.

February 15, 2014

Gentrification of the Imagination

Looking really closely, the most significant factor differentiating the disappeared avant-garde, destroyed by AIDS and gentrification, and the replacement artists, more closely aligned with the social structures necessary to be able to pay contemporary real estate prices, is professionalization. MFA programs. Especially MFA programs as markers of caste and brand. I came of age in the East Village in the 1980s. The freaky, faggy, outrageous, community-based, dangerous, “criminal class” was of course not the only influence, but they were a huge influence. Yes there were trust fund babies slumming, et cetera, but many artists I knew and learned from had an outlaw quality. They had illegal sex, took illegal drugs, hustled literally and figuratively for money, lived in poverty, and said fuck you to dominant cultural values, all of which made it possible for them to discover new art ideas later enjoyed by the world. Many of them died or became marginalized. And they, in part, were replaced by people who were trained in and graduated from expensive institutions. The “Downtown” that I was raised in as a young artist included real innovators, real drag queens, real street dykes, real refugees, real Nuyoricans, really inappropriate risk-taking, sexually free nihilistic utopians. Today, “Downtown” means having an MFA from Brown.

Some of them are good writers, and I’m thankful for that. But the larger cultural point is that the homogeneity of preparation, combined with the lack of opportunity for those not institutionally produced, results in an American theater profoundly complicit with and a tool of the dominant apparatus – which is the opposite of what should be if it is to provide an alternative to corporate thinking.

This is a passage from Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination. A mix of memoir and polemic, it’s one of the most fearless and necessary books I’ve read in a long while. It has certainly helped my thinking about local cultural phenomena like the Boston Book Festival, Grub Street’s Muse & the Marketplace, and the so-called “literary cultural district” initiative. These examples, with their bedrock commitment to the blandest of middlebrow aesthetic values and (not coincidentally) their many ties to the region’s financial elite, amply fit Schulman’s description of a culture that has become “profoundly complicit with and a tool of the dominant apparatus.”

February 10, 2014

More Market Than Ever

I can't really add anything to this.

January 31, 2014

"I for one welcome our new insect overlords . . ."

The Grub Street writing center has gone live with its new website – slicker, more up-to-date, more corporate-looking. There’s a new face, too, among their Board of Directors; make sure you read her bio all the way to the end:

Catch that last line? “She and her husband, Scott Nathan, and their two children live in Boston (in the literary cultural district)”. Now, according to the report that was published in the Boston Globe, the literary cultural district’s proponents “don’t know exactly where its borders will lie.” That’s because it’s going to take a couple of years and thousands of taxpayer bucks just to . . . come up with the map. But wherever the district might eventually land, someone on the Board of the coalition’s flagship organization already knows that it includes their home address! Perhaps their nest is built on a well-established literary landmark that’s a shoo-in for the walking tour, or maybe it’s that attitude of imperial privilege spilling over from Ms DeBonis’s work at Google, where the goal is a private monopoly over digital access to every book ever.

Maybe I’m being unfair – she and her husband, hedge fund manager Scott Nathan of the billion-dollar Baupost Group, do sit on an awful lot of local boards and donate tons and tons and tons of dollars to all sorts of worthy causes – including even Grub Street itself, where they (along with six other wealthy members of the Grub Street board of directors) belong to the “Patrons” circle of $5OOO-$9999 givers. So when it comes to the virgin territory of the Literary Cultural District, maybe it’s just a little droit du seigneur to go with all that noblesse oblige . . . 

More on the Literary Cultural District initiative & Boston's so-called "literary renaissance": 

January 16, 2014

The Muse & the Real Estate Marketplace

Culture so rich, you can smell it.

A friend with a longstanding connection to the local writing scene asked an important question in a comment after my last post on the proposed "Literary Cultural District" in Boston. My response became a post of its own, which I include here along with her original comment:

Becky said…

Hi E,

Maybe I'm being dense but I'm unclear what's so bad about the Cultural District project. Yeah, yeah, the bit about the literary renaissance might just be hype. That's possibly for marketing and what-not.

But a cultural/literary district? Is that such a bad thing?

Those who are organizing it will have their own interests met (obviously, no one is claiming pure altruism here!) But couldn't this also benefit Boston neighborhoods at large? Won't greater political leverage allow these organizations to do good stuff throughout the city? Could not this ultimately lead to broader access to writing classes, books, and the kind of literary life that presently seems mainly tied up with Boston's elite?

I don't actually know. It's true that a literary district wouldn't address fundamental issues of inequality and class tensions in the city. It doesn't help organize marginalized folks. It doesn't go to the root of economic imbalance, labor exploitation, injustice.

But the district does, again, give these arts organizations more political leverage to potentially make some sort of difference. Don't you think?

Open to your thoughts...


Thanks for writing and engaging thoughtfully with the issues I’ve been raising about the initiative on the part of Grub Street, the Boston Book Festival, and others to establish a “Literary Cultural District” (LCD) here in the city.

I wrote in the closing paragraphs of an earlier post on this topic that I’d address the question of cui bono (or "who benefits," i.e., the real reason behind the project) in a subsequent post. So here it is, and I hope it will begin to answer your question about why I think the LCD is a bad idea.

In that earlier post I'd added the teaser that the short answer was real estate. By real estate I’m talking of course about gentrification. Bluntly, property values will go up in the district, to the benefit of the owners.

One might argue that any increase brought about by a "cultural district" designation would be marginal at best. That's true, but also misunderstands the real estate market, where every micro-fraction of value is fought for. For owners of multiple properties and especially for major investors and the financial institutions that speculate in real estate, the merest shaving off a point becomes a big deal. With bundled investments, tiny percentages translate into millions of dollars. Someone is going to benefit commercially from this supposedly “cultural” venture, and it’s going to be someone, or rather some small group of people, who sure as shit don’t NEED any more goodies shoveled their way.

Now, are some of those individuals directly behind the LCD initiative, to one or another degree? Maybe, maybe not – the effect will be the same either way. But the question merits asking because cultural institutions – from museums and opera houses to art fairs and book festivals – have a funny way of connecting up to the spheres of the all-important “FIRE” sector of the economy (an acronym for Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate).* Go do a little digging on the boards of directors of the Boston Book Festival, 826 Boston, and even Grub Street (all in the LCD coalition), and you’ll find a number of individuals with either past or ongoing involvement in finance capitalism. Here’s just a few to start you off: The president of 826 Boston’s Executive Board is an individual named Kevin Whalen, who also has a seat on the 826 National board. What’s Kevin Whalen do when he’s not fretting about how inner-city kids’ writing skills will affect their life outcomes? He’s an executive vice president at Morgan Stanley! And so it goes: check out the bio for Hillary Hedges Rayport, the Chair of Grub Street's Board of Directors:

Hillary has over 10 years of experience investing in and guiding small firms through periods of growth, including seven years of venture capital investing experience in the U.S. and in London, focused on the technology sector. Most recently, Hillary was a Senior Consultant at Cambridge Associates, a global investment consulting firm, where she advised client endowments worth over $2 billion in investment strategy, asset allocation, and investment manager selection. Prior to joining Cambridge Associates, Hillary was Vice President of Cytel Software Corporation, where she was responsible for strategic planning, business development, and general management.  

What an imposing literary reputation to go with that posh name! (She also happens to be married to Jeffrey Rayport). But that's nothing compared to the Boston Book Festival’s board, which is a miniature Who’s Who of the regional plutocracy, including a hedge fund banker, a marketing research CEO, and a senior investment officer; people with decades of experience in places like Salomon Brothers and Goldman Sachs. I'm not asserting that these individuals will necessarily be the direct beneficiaries of the inevitable LCD real estate "bump," but they certainly belong to that same cohort, attend the same parties and openings, share the same general outlook, values, and goals, etc. What influence have they had on the decision to launch this project?

On the other side are the losers – folks whose rents will go up, plain and simple. Once again, the LCD might only marginally contribute to such an increase, but it will be a factor in the ongoing pricing out of working people, students, lower-paid professionals, and small shop-owners (not to mention writers). Be prepared for the day when you see the ad in the classifieds: “Located in the heart of Boston’s prestigious literary cultural district, this three-bedroom condominium . . .” Sure, many if not most of the properties in the proposed area are already overpriced and house only rich yuppies or swanky boutiques, but there are still pockets where ordinary people are trying to hang on (Chinatown, for example), plus there is always a spillover effect into adjacent neighborhoods. (Remember how rents went up in Somerville right after rent control was axed in Cambridge in 1995).

Note also that one of the purposes of the LCD is to promote “cultural tourism," the Globe article even boasting that cultural tourists “spend $62 more per day than their philistine counterparts.” It’s an obnoxious but revealing statement, as close as it comes to a flat-out admission of gentrification. Cultural districts (or cultural quarters, as they’re called in the UK) have been around since the early 1990s, originally devised for the purpose of “revitalizing” (i.e., gentrifying) neighborhoods that have been hollowed out by the boom and bust vagaries of capitalism in former manufacturing towns (locally, places like Lynn and Pittsfield). The trendy rhetoric of a new, post-industrial economy driven by “creatives” is always deployed in one way or another; the novelty in this case is that it’s writers. But what it will translate into is a walking tour past some “Robert Lowell shat here” plaques on streets lined with cafés with literary names and foodie stops with black-and-white framed pictures of writers on the walls. Cultural tourism raises rents and homogenizes neighborhoods in the service of producing a spectacle of consumption, a Disney version of a city’s cultural heritage where tourists can “shop” for the signifiers of social distinction associated with the arts. How will that help the majority of actual writers working in the region? Will the cultural tourists come to observe us in some simulation of our natural environment, and toss peanuts through the bars of our cages?

Inarguably, it will help a small number of individual writers: those who are working on the project directly. But these are really cultural bureaucrats who happen to write and publish a few things on the side for the sake of their bureaucrat credentials – people like Henriette Lazaridis Power – rather than actual writers in any meaningful sense. You are therefore correct in your comment that “those who are organizing it will have their own interests met,” but not when you add, “obviously, no one is claiming pure altruism here!” The repeated claim is that the LCD is being developed on behalf of “the literary community” without the necessary addendum that by this they mean primarily themselves. Please let me know if I’ve overlooked the places where the self-interest of the individuals or institutions in the coalition has been acknowledged in their requests for public status, public attention, and public funds.

The net social effect of these institutions is not benign. Culture, unless it is consciously oppositional, functions to reproduce existing social relations, and that is exactly what Grub Street, 826 Boston, and the Boston Book Festival do (see my remarks about them in an earlier post). I certainly don’t take them as representatives of the area’s “literary community” just because they advertise themselves as such. What they offer are pseudo-communities in the service of the commodity, and their existence is in fact a reflection of the weakness and fragmentation of authentic cultural communities. While Grub Street, 826 Boston, and the Boston Book Festival are already braided into regional networks of private wealth and public power (the City of Boston is one of the coalition partners), the LCD project will help them to cohere further into a local cultural apparat with ever-stronger ties to the state, property owners, and wealthy investors. This is what the “political leverage” you discuss will really amount to: local writers will benefit to the extent that they are willing to participate deferentially within the bureaucratic network, sharing its values and reproducing them in their works and public activities. Of course this is already true to a great extent, but it will get even worse . . . or better, I suppose, if one is on board with being a lackey.

Finally: Of course the literary renaissance stuff is hype, as you come close to uneasily acknowledging. But in that case, how can you shrug it off as “just marketing and what-not” and still claim to be a writer? Aren’t we supposed to be the language’s caretakers? Or have we all become cynical marketers ourselves, including marketers of ourselves? Do you want to tell the truth, or do you want to churn out ad copy that happens to take the form of stories and reviews? The literary renaissance rhetoric is not “just marketing and what-not” – it’s a lie. So-called writers spend way too much time today doing this kind of lying. It is the effect, by the way, of the whole “Muse & the Marketplace” mentality. It’s squalid; it is debasing; it spreads an ethical and artistic rot. Are we going to be mere courtiers to power, or are we going to start telling the truth?

In the name of art and human dignity, FUCK THE MARKETPLACE.

Yours truly,


·           *David Harvey’s essay, “The Art of Rent,” available online here, should be everyone’s first stop in educating themselves about the way neoliberal capitalism deploys culture to remake the modern city in its own image and for its own profit.