Localism and the G Word

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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?”

What is fascinating about such a question is the assumed understanding of who “we” are and what “it” is.  In places like northwest Brooklyn and close-in Portland there seems to be a shared sense of zeitgeist, that “lightning in a bottle” feeling that many residents of these neighborhoods share.  “It” is surely a cultural reference, a sense that certain values have come to be dominant in a given space.  These “shared” values, though, are what are at the center of gentrification debates.  Whose values are they?

Looking for the origins of the “it” that enlivens these locales invites us, paraphrasing Walter Benjamin, to consider not just the process of becoming but also the process of disappearing.  If we stick our head down the rabbit hole a bit, we see that a few decades ago places like the Pearl District in Portland were reportedly populated by “artists, hookers, drug dealers, transients, muggers et al.”  Artists sought places like these for their cheap rents, open spaces, and anything goes mentality.  But these places were also the spaces that communities of color were rooted in, communities frequently created through now-illegal practices such as blockbusting, redlining, and outright marginalization (see: Massey and Denton’s 1994 book for more on these practices).  What role did these communities play in the “zeitgeist” we see in places like Williamsburg?

The relationship between artists and urban revitalization has always been tenuous, as artists have been called the “shock troops of gentrification” while at the same time being some of the most strident activists in anti-gentrification circles (a most beautiful example of this can be found on the recently whitewashed Five Points building in Queens, NY, where last month local artists strung a giant caution tape across the building that reads “caution: gentrification in progress.”).

This all becomes relevant for our research when we begin to think about the fact that localism is generally a major value that informs Portland’s  and Brooklyn’s  “it.”  We can hardly avoid the question: How can we envision localism as a value in the face of such economic and cultural flux?  Any conclusions we can muster seem certain to be met with instability.

Furthermore, the question of who wins and who loses – whose values become dominant and whose values disappear – still looms.  Regardless of whether or not we see their so-called “shock trooper” status as pejorative, it seems clear that artists (and by extension makers, since many identify as artists) are often priced out of neighborhoods that they helped create “vibrancy” within.  And this concern with artists still says nothing of our concern with the immigrant communities and communities of color that are often left staring down the business end of neighborhood change.  We are left with another important question: whose localism are we talking about?

No movement can endure, or even be called a movement, without some reflection.  We can entertain semantic questions about what an artist is and what the differences are between artists, hipsters, makers, artisans, etc. and so on.  Indeed, we have argued here that defining these things will always invite problems.  We can also debate whether or not people are displaced by or benefit from this so-called “trickle down urbanism.” But whether we agree or disagree on these things, what seems clear is the fact that at least two geographical centers of the phenomena we are studying – artisan craft production and localism – are places where the G word is on many people’s lips.  Not confronting the connections between our subject matter and issues of race and class are perhaps as problematic as the definitions we have struggled with.  If we are to champion urban policy that supports making, localism, and the values embedded in those things, we have a responsibility to understanding the potential effects of such policy moves.

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