June 14, 2015

Schadenfreude -- When Gentrifiers Get Gentrified

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

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

Dearest Instructors:

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

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

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

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

Warm wishes,

Eve Bridburg
Founder and Executive Director
GrubStreet, Inc

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

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

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

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

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

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