July 30, 2014

The "Literary Cultural District" and the Art of Rent -- Part 1

When the fix is in, the fix is in: On Wednesday, June 25, the Boston City Council voted unanimously in favor of the Literary Cultural District proposal submitted by a coalition of local organizations led by the Grub Street writing center and its director, Eve Bridburg. This came after a second hearing for the district that was almost as poorly publicized as the first. Now the application has been kicked up to the Massachusetts Cultural Council to determine if it meets the state’s guidelines. In the meantime Grub Street has been on a mini publicity blitz, with Bridburg’s hype man, Larry Lindner, crowing that the district could be a reality as early as September of this year.

Does that mean Grub Street will be returning half of the 2-year planning grant it received from the state in the Fall of 2013? (42,500 taxpayer bucks for a project repeatedly billed as “revenue neutral.”) Somehow I think not, but at this point such straightforward theft is one of the less sleazy aspects of this case. As a writer – and a just as a rational, ethical human being – I’m more offended by their serial abuse of an infinitely more precious currency: language. For example, in the latest wave of uncritical, rah-rah articles about the project, city councilor Ayanna Pressley is quoted applauding the district because it will “incentivize foot traffic” in the area. Any writer worth her salt will be deeply revolted by this kind of thing, as she would’ve by Eve Bridburg’s classic from an earlier interview, “We’re thinking about branding the work that everybody is doing.” Worst of all is that “Literary Cultural District Coordinator” Larry Lindner is back to claiming that Boston is in the midst of “a literary renaissance.” During the city council process a chastened, or at least more cautious, Grub Street had downgraded their momentous cultural rebirth to a still hugely overstated “resurgence.” It’s a sure sign they feel the wind in their sails that they’ve now returned to the brazen ad-speak – or what, in simpler times, was known as lying – of “renaissance.”

The single note of caution sounded in the recent spate of press reports was over the district’s walkability – a requirement of the MCC guidelines. And if we look at the crude map that Grub Street released, it is indeed a sizeable chunk of downtown real estate.

But that’s what it’s really been about all along, isn’t it – real estate? The urban policy of cultural districts was first created for the very purpose of “revitalizing” – code word for gentrifying – economically depressed neighborhoods in cities ravaged by de-industrialization and other vagaries of a market economy. Take a look at this 1998 “Americans for the Arts” report, Cultural Districts: The Arts as a Strategy for Revitalizing Our Cities, sponsored by a group of urban mayors, business associations, and arts administrators. By that time, the report states, there were already 90 cities in the US that had founded or planned such districts. Examine the language used to describe the function of cultural districts in these two excerpts:

Now for some basic math: what happens to a neighborhood when the tax base is “expanded,” property values “enhanced,” local businesses “complemented,” and more “well educated employees” and tourists roll in? It should be clear to all persons of good will and plain dealing that behind the bullshit euphemisms we’re talking about jacking up rents, racist redlining by other means, and cultural homogenization – in other words, gentrification.

The experience of Pittsburgh, summarized in the Americans for the Arts report, gives us a more or less typical example of the forces and motivations behind the founding of a cultural district:

The first paragraph blithely asserts that the district will “link the interests and activities of historic preservation groups, arts organizations and downtown developers” as if these interests somehow more or less harmonized in the first place, with the further assumption that arts organizations do indeed represent the needs of artists and urban communities (in fact, arts organizations often represent the interests of urban elites before those of artists and ordinary citizens). But in the next paragraph it clearly emerges that the primary motivation for the district came from the big urban developers themselves. Cultivation of the arts is spoken of in terms of revenue generation, number of events and tickets sold (the Pittsburgh example is primarily a theater district), with everything subordinated to the ultimate goal of economic success in market terms. As long as someone’s basking in the benjamins, it just stands to reason that “quality of life” is going up for the whole “community”!

What’s instructive in these examples is how little it has to do with art and culture. Cultural districts are not the spontaneous or organic outgrowths of city dwellers and culture producers’ collective efforts to remake their surroundings at the grassroots level; they are the deliberate creations of real estate developers and investors, urban politicians (who get their campaign bucks from the developers, not from poor artists!), and bureaucrats from various nonprofits. Arts and culture are an instrumentality, a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. This is what it means when you hear supporters of the Literary Cultural District using words like “leveraging,” “branding,” and “incentivizing” – it’s not just crappy word choice. In their minds, a thriving culture is one that generates dollars, even though they will invariably frame this as an “everyone wins” scenario.

If that’s your definition of culture, then these districts should be fine with you. In fact they’re now so prevalent that they’ve even begun establishing something like a trade association of their own, the Global Cultural Districts Network. Click through their website and then get back to me about what kind of "cultural" vibe they’re giving off.

Call me crazy, but to me it looks a little . . . corporate.

Of course someone might reasonably remark, gazing at the LCD map and tracing a finger from Beacon Hill over to Newbury Street, that the area happens to be a tad . . . gentrified already, yes? To which the most accurate rejoinder would be, Yes and No. It’s true that much of the area appears fully developed commercially and “vital” enough not to indicate an urgent remedy of “revitalization.” But there remain hundreds of units of affordable/subsidized housing both within the district itself and quite near its borders, as well as enclaves – particularly Chinatown – where working class families still hang on. The Literary Cultural District has a profit-oriented rationale for taking both types of urban terrain into its capacious borders, and I’ll be addressing each in greater depth in Parts 2 and 3 of this post.

In the meantime, since you’ll be hearing more and more about how great the district will be for writers, check out the findings of this quantitative study of cultural districts!


Professor Coldheart said...

Of all the neighborhoods that could conceivably lack for foot traffic, or could need "revitalization"!

Robert Detman said...

I can't help but notice--that picture at the top of your post was taken two blocks from my house here in Oakland! (At the corner of MLK and Macarthur Blvd.) It's since been firebombed and boarded up, and I believe the billboard now says "Housing for all". There were a lot of squatters there when we first moved to the neighborhood.

Best, Robert