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:
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.
· *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.