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.   


Becky said...

This is interesting, E. I think you make great points about the process of gentrification and how creating a cultural district or any sort of institutionalized "cultural space" has the effect of alienating the very people such institutions often purport to protect (or be in service of.) This is quite compelling.

I think your digging around into the history of the people affiliated with these organizations however has the potential to undermine your arguments. It reads as if you are trying to prove the behavior of these people is intentional (and intentionally bad.) As if the next step might be to say, "And he also beats his wife!"

These biographical details seem presented in order to prove to your reader that various people are entrenched within the system, aiming to protect certain values and hierarchies and so on. But I think your arguments would be more persuasive if you looked at the effects of these sorts of gentrification processes in various cities, over time, and focused less on trying to prove some kind of link between all the past behaviors of these individuals.

For instance, if I see a movie and decide that movie is perpetuating certain ideological principles, do I then need to root around in that director's bio to prove he has ties to this and that capitalistic, patriarchal enterprise? I don't think so. I think it runs the risk of being ad-hominem. Or, ad-homenim-ish.

I really do like the arguments you make about how the city changes as these cultural institutions arise. I'd rather learn of the history of these sorts of processes than the biographic details, the who's-who-in-venture capitalism, which I think does your arguments a disservice.

I also don't agree with your tarnishing of various writers--Tom Perotta, Henriette Power. Here I think you run the risk of promoting a certain type of writing, namely writing that jives with your own personal aesthetic and your own political/ ideological position. It's a position I happen to support and be sympathetic to, but I see no reason to claim other writers are not "actual writers in any meaningful sense," which smacks of elitism and has hints of aesthetic fascism.

Again, though, your points about the adverse effects of creating a cultural district here in Boston are truly interesting.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Hi Becky:

Thank you for your response, although I hardly know what to say in answer to it. Criticism is all well and good at the general level but bad when it gets specific because it’s . . . mean or fascist or something? When mediocrity is held up as excellence, mendacity as public service, and hype and hypocrisy as truth, those with less power should confine themselves only to general analysis of the abuses and never critique the actual, on-the-ground behavior of specific institutions or cite the influence of particular individuals within those institutions?

The posts you’ve chosen to comment on have been about two related things – a specific civic-cultural initiative here in Boston (the Literary Cultural District) and a specific claim made to promote that initiative (the so-called “literary renaissance”). I’m grateful for your willingness to engage in a dialogue, but you’ve got to admit that you’ve deftly managed to avoid taking a clear, specific stand on either of those two issues, which after all are two matters at hand. Instead, you express a very careful, general “sympathy” with some of my “truly interesting” views, in a way that floats over any concrete examples or instances. And then, the one place you take a real stand, plant your flag firmly and unequivocally is . . . I shouldn’t be specific either!

I’m at a loss for precedents in the annals of literature, criticism, art, or activism for such an approach! I can, however, think of countless counter-examples – writers who singled out specific individuals and institutions for excoriation and named them in their works – from Aristophanes to Pope’s Dunciad and Byron’s English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, from the manifestos of the Futurists, Dadaists, and Surrealists and the journalism of Karl Kraus to the Institutional Critique of contemporary artists like Hans Haacke and Andrea Fraser (not to mention the polemics of every generation of political radicals going back at least to the “pamphlet wars” of the seventeenth century English Revolution). Or what about, for example, the detailed exposures that Matt Taibbi does of the US financial elite, or Glen Greenwald of the post-9/11 national security state, or Jeremy Scahill of war profiteering by defense contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan? You’re really telling me that their arguments would be more effective . . . with the names redacted?

I think, for the most contemporary relevance, you should look at the work of the Institutional Critique artists. They often take a very close look at things like how museums and art fairs are funded, organized, and run, who sits on their boards of directors and what foundations or other granting agencies as well as private businesses are behind them, etc. They’re probably also my most direct inspiration for the type of work I’ve been doing.

Here’s a very fine anthology that collects both past documents and contemporary perspectives on IC:


ArtLeaks is an interesting ongoing project along similar lines:


Cheers etc.

Frances Madeson said...

What a funny coinkydink that Grub Street's website is down at present. But I did have a moment to spare the other day to glance at their board and literary advisers. I sincerely hope it's not ad-hominem-ish to suggest that perhaps they, understandably, feel vulnerable to the same sort of critique. Some of those venture capitalist bios were whoppers!

My favorite of the lit lot is--hands down Elinor Lipman. The woman has wit. And Edmond, I'm sure you'll remember the passage in The Inn at Lake Devine, when the young and culinarily adventurous couple eats the toxic mushrooms in the homemade lasagna. It's a perfect metaphor for voluntary participation in the fungal world of corporate publishing, and its real estate correlates.

Becky said...

If I have avoided taking a position it's because I'm not yet sure my own feelings or attitudes about this matter...which is why I asked for your thoughts to begin with. I was sincerely curious about your view on the cultural district, and remain so.

I just don't think it's necessary to go into the bios of these specific individuals. I am being honest when I say it does nothing to help your argument (insofar as persuading me, at least.)

The views (of yours) that I'm sympathetic to are those questioning the broader effects of these cultural institutions, and frankly questioning the ways in which capitalist ideology is reproduced through much of today's literature, and how narrow the market is today for provocative or subversive work. I assume that underlying your criticism with the BBF, the real estate developments and so on is a fundamental anger at capitalism itself. I can understand that.

There are numerous places in your blog posts (and yes, I've only read the past few) where you allude to the intentions of various writers. This writer writes to get a movie deal, that writer writes to boost bureaucratic credentials. A) How do you know why people write? B) Is it really even necessary to put other writers down? If you have issues with their work, fine, critique their work. But not the writer. At least, in my opinion. It's just divisive and off-putting.

Anyway, that's beside the point in some way. Or rather, it speaks to your method more than the content of your arguments. (Hence my statement that your method does a disservice, as it distracts from some of your more valuable points.)

Thanks for the book recommendations. I am sincerely curious about a lot of the issues you raise, will look into this more.

Manny Dollars said...


I am very sympathetic to what you are trying to do in "The Muse and the Real Estate Marketplace." I wish there were more people writing about these issues. That said, there were three major respects in which I found your argument unpersuasive:

1. The non-profits themselves are like black boxes in your argument. Non-profits are a specific economic form. Perhaps you've addressed this elsewhere, but if you want to explain why they're doing what they're doing you need to address the specific constraints and incentives they’re confronted with when deciding whether or not to lobby for the LCD. What's in it for them? Are they looking for profits after all? Do they stand to earn monopoly rents? Or, more likely, are they competing for grants? And what, if anything, does their motivation have to do with making money for real estate owners? Simply pointing to the links between some of their leaders and the capitalist class does not explain the dynamics of this particular form of economic activity.

2. It's unclear how the actions of the LCD coalition are coordinated with those of the Boston bourgeoisie. At one point, you suggest that some of the bourgeois members of the coalition leadership are hobnobbing with the land-developers, etc. who have a direct interest in cultural tourism, and that that is how their actions are being coordinated. This seems like a very conjectural kind of explanation. I know this is a blog, not a scientific article, but the explanation comes across sounding a tad conspiratorial.

3. The LCD coalition's role in gentrification winds up sounding a bit passive, in that they seem to be innocently promoting their writing services (and you haven't demonstrated that it’s not innocent, in my opinion) while the benefits that accrue to capital from the LCD appear simply as side-products. I think this dulls the critical edge of your argument.

On this last point, I think the Harvey article you cite is illuminating. Perhaps this is your point: a concrete role for the LCD coalition in the search for monopoly rents can be found in the discursive battles that are waged in order to establish the monopolies in the first place. By lobbying for a cultural district, the LCD coalition is, more or less unwittingly, leading the discursive battle to establish Boston as a unique, irreplaceable destination for cultural tourism. On this view, you can be critical without having to speculate at backroom deals between Grub Street board members and land developers.

Of course, the writers won't see a penny of the monopoly rents that are reaped from their labor, which is the sole substance of the alleged "renaissance." Here you also have a concrete, perhaps even measurable example of exploitation. I find this at least as promising as your appeal to an exploitative bureaucratic network, frankly, though not being a writer I'm not exactly qualified to judge.

Anyway, thanks for a very stimulating blog!

In solidarity,

Manny Dollars

Edmond Caldwell said...


Thank you for your comments and the important questions they raise. I don’t consider my argument finished so I hope you’ll stay with the series as it continues. You’re right that there’s a lot more to say about the role of cultural nonprofits and the nonprofit-industrial complex, for example, as well as a more specific drawing out of how the Literary Cultural District example fits the monopoly rents paradigm set out by Harvey. The phenomenon of the literary-cultural bureaucracy shaping up in the region is also very much a developing story, linked to other civic-cultural initiatives going on right now around the election of a new mayor and the prospect of a seat for a “Chief of Arts and Culture” in his new cabinet. I hope you’ll find some of your questions answered as well as the occasion for further questions.

I will say, though, that I don’t think I’ve advanced any analysis so far that is based on ‘conspiracy theory’ thinking. Rather, I’m talking about business as usual. The LCD project was already up and running before any reports came out; a coalition already assembled that included Grub Street, the Boston Book Festival, 826 Boston, the Boston Public Library, the Boston Athenaeum, the City of Boston, and other organizations. There had to have been a number of conversations, yes? I don’t know if they took place in back rooms or front rooms, basements or rooftops, but there had to have been a number of conversations in which the interests of the various parties were addressed because those parties are responsible for advancing their interests, whether they fall under the heading of “profit” or “non-profit”. These organizations include their boards of directors, who provide counsel and oversight to the respective management teams beneath them. Of course we can only speculate on the details of those conversations for the simple reason that the process is opaque and undemocratic, so the conversations that undeniably took place are not accessible to us. But it is fair and rational to look, then, at least at the interests involved, and think about what we already know about the type of behavior such interests typically engage in.

(continued below)

Edmond Caldwell said...

(continued from above)

People generally have a very mystified relationship to art and culture. It seems to drop from the skies onto the shelves of bookstores or walls of museums. It’s important to look behind the curtain and ask what all these FIRE-economy types (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate – currently the dominant sector of the economy) are doing on the boards of cultural institutions in major cities including Boston, and ask if that has anything to do, say, with the other sorts of things that the FIRE-types get up to in their urban playgrounds. To start asking is also to start investigating – I’m asking others to come research with me, to dig further, to ask more and harder questions. To dismiss this line of inquiry as “conspiracy theory” is in fact to alibi the undemocratic opacity of power, and to erect a prohibition-to-thought to discourage others from probing there too.

Shortly after I put up my last post, the Grub Street writing center went live with their new, revamped website. The page for their Board of Directors features a new board member, Laura DeBonis.

Her bio concludes by openly stating that she and her husband Scott Nathan live in Boston’s literary cultural district. Scott Nathan is one of the top managers at a billion-dollar hedge fund outfit, the Baupost Group, headquartered here in Boston. Baupost is also known as a “vulture fund” because it specializes in picking up distressed securities in crisis situations. It made money, for example, off the wreckage of Enron, and now it’s investing in banks and real estate in the economically-floundering Greece and Spain. This is only the tip of the shitberg – there’s plenty more if you start looking. Furthermore, Laura DeBonis and her husband are some of the largest “bundlers” for the Democratic Party in the state. So when I see people like that on the boards of writing centers and art museums and book festivals and opera houses I ask what the fuck is going on here, because it is painfully obvious to me that someone should. The 1% has a couple of representatives on the board of Grub Street writing center. Not to ask questions about that would be naïve, complacent, even complicit. The 1% is devoted, by economic necessity, to relentlessly “rewriting” reality in their own interests and debasing language (and everything else) in the process. Their interests are not mine, and not the rest of humanity’s either.

Check back in soon!