I just returned from a long weekend in Brooklyn. My visit inspired me to comment on the tensions between creativity and neighborhood change, and what those tensions mean for our investigation of localism. Gentrification is a word that has been on many New Yorkers’ minds (and Instagram feeds) lately, and after considering my three visits to the borough over the past decade and a half, I can see why: each time it’s looked radically different from the previous visit. My recent visit made me think of similar transformations in Portland, where 20 years ago the now luxurious and (arguably) hip Pearl District (then called the Northwest Industrial Triangle) was mostly comprised of abandoned and decaying industrial buildings with river views of the Portland Harbor Superfund site.
Williamsburg, a neighborhood in northwestern Brooklyn, is perhaps the epicenter of Brooklyn’s “creative crescent” transformation. A few decades ago, an apartment in Williamsburg rented for about 30 cents per square foot. Today, a studio in Williamsburg costs over $2800/month; assuming 700sq ft, that’s $4 per square foot. Rents in many Brooklyn neighborhoods – Williamsburg, Greenpoint, DUMBO, and even Bushwick – have now exceeded those of Manhattan, and people are reportedly moving back into Manhattan in search of lower rents. This trend led one writer to ask: “So, are we done here? Is it all over?”
Independent record labels are usually products of thriving local music scenes. Sometimes, if the stars align, they reach a level of success and benefit their surrounding urban landscapes. Factory Records in Manchester, Saddle Creek Records in Omaha, and Righteous Babe Records in Buffalo are some examples of indie record labels that reinvested profits into local redevelopment projects. Asthmatic Kitty Records set-up shop in Indianapolis without having any prior ties to the city and quickly found ways to integrate its efforts within the local arts community. This integration helped foster new connections and drive the city’s creative economy. For the full story, click here to read my latest work for The Atlantic’s CityLab.
We have addressed the problems of definitions in blog posts past; while we are currently accumulating data that will hopefully help us define aspects of the makers movement, we have been thinking about how makers and making fits into the social and economic landscapes of cities. Making, as Chris Anderson somewhat famously put it may indeed (albeit arguably) be “democratizing the means of production.” To be sure, there are some uplifting stories about increased access to manufacturing equipment and artisan tools, particularly through makerspaces and FabLabs such as ADX Portland and TechShop.
Photo: Andi Harman
I never tire of reading about the birth and development of both Silicon Valley and successful music scenes like Seattle’s grunge explosion, Austin’s progressive country movement, and the free jazz that filled lofts of New York City decades ago. It wasn’t until I woke up one morning in a van on a side street in Chicago that I realized how similar one is to the other. I had just started a doctoral program in urban planning and public policy while also playing in a band in Denton, Texas. My participation in Denton’s music scene – and the larger national network of scenes it is a part of – allowed me to examine directly how a music scene operates. An earlier result of this participatory experience was my master’s thesis, and later journal article, concerning Saddle Creek Records and “Slowdown,” a $10.2 million dollar urban redevelopment project in Omaha, Nebraska. For my dissertation, I wanted to continue my immersion as a scene participant in order to examine a subject that is largely overlooked – how music scenes catalyze economic and community development for cities.
On that particular July day in Chicago, it was already uncomfortably warm at 9AM and while walking across the street to the Walgreens to take a “shower,” I thought to myself, is this any different than my friend’s sister who used to sleep underneath her desk every night in Silicon Valley while she helped launched a start-up? Are music scenes like Silicon Valley’s economic cluster with bands as firms operating in a milieu of innovation that includes venue owners, audio engineers, graphic designers, filmmakers, promoters, and others cooperating and competing? I asked myself… What if Hewlett and Packard had started a band instead?
I dedicated the next few years to researching and writing my dissertation, What if Hewlett and Packard had Started a Band Instead?… Denton, Texas’ Music Scene as Economic Cluster and its Broader Implications for the City’s Economy. By framing Denton’s music scene in Michael Porter’s economic cluster theory, which is commonly used to explain why Silicon Valley has a regional advantage in productivity, innovation, and new business formation, I was able to better understand the dynamics of music scenes as economic agents. This work allowed me to further demonstrate what I first learned with my research in Omaha – that music scenes have many positive externalities for their host cities, and if fostered correctly with policy, can benefit both participant and city. In the coming months, I’ll post more about my findings. Until then, here’s a link to my research concerning Omaha and information about the garage where Hewlett and Packard launched a company.
In a recent post, we discussed the research challenges of defining our subjects of interest. In seeking the answer, we have experienced a variety of related definitional challenges. When thinking about the relation of makers to their local economies, we were presented with the challenges of thinking about what “local” means. How do we bound our notion of local?
As we have been preparing our new research objectives, we have been immediately confronted by a handful of research dilemmas. What is an artisan or a maker, exactly, and where do we find them? What limitations do we impose on our research by creating boundaries around the artisans we include? Who gets excluded, and at what cost?
Hello (again)! After some time off, the Artisan Economy Initiative has forged a new path in our research on Portland’s artisan economy. AEI has teamed up with the Portland Made Collective to begin to investigate the relationship between the artisan economy and the larger economic “ecosystem” here in Portland. We are interested in interrogating the (in)visibility of the artisan economy within the broader understanding of economy.