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?

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