A found public art piece on the Rize site, with the caption DEC 25. A fire, still suspect by many Mount Pleasant residents, burned down retail and artist’s studio space here on Christmas Day, 2009.
For far too long artists and other cultural producers have served as passive scapegoats for critics of gentrification, who spurn the rise of the so-called “creative class” and their role in urban redevelopment. In a recent article for eflux Martha Rosler takes a cue from Sharon Zukin, writing that in times of massive urban redevelopment, “artists and the entire visual art sector—especially commercial galleries, artist-run spaces, and museums—are a main engine for the repurposing of the post-industrial city and the renegotiation of real estate for the benefit of elites.”
Zukin’s blueprint, initiated with Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change (1982), is often misunderstood as an organic and natural process. Here, artists are framed not simply as an artistic vanguard that sets the tone and beat for cultural production, but also an economic force instigating the first wave of gentrification. As the oft-misrepresented story goes, cultural producers fill-in inexpensive lofts and retail space in poor neighborhoods, making them more attractive for young urban professionals fueling the real-estate industry. Troubled by the initial identity and politics of the neighborhood—working class, poor, or no identity at all—developers latch on to these markers of indistinction and carve out a coherent, docile identity founded on the empty signifiers of consumption. While the working poor move to the suburbs and inexpensive areas of the city, the very same cultural producers who set the trajectory of the neighborhood are in time kicked to the curb as the rising cost of living moves in lockstep with the consumption habits of urban professionals.
Certainly, Rosler is correct to claim that artists are “passive” agents in the process of gentrification, yet to lay blame on cultural producers alone would miss the target altogether. As the English Urbanist Max Nathan states, “creativity and cool are the icing, not the cake.”
Any rigorous analysis of gentrification at any level requires that we chart the explicit relations of capital (represented here by developers and speculators) and the apparatuses of the state (municipal governance, city planners, police, etc.). While the state actively produces cycles of disinvestment and uneven development, it is capital that takes the advantage of buying low, sending investment into uncharted terrain. There is a mutual relationship of two forces that purposefully props up gentrification as a viable planning option for entire city neighborhoods. What is less clear within this dynamic, however, is the direct link between the rise of the passive and post-ideological cultural producer and their complicit connections to real estate speculation.