The (Contested) Origins of Urban Cultural Space

Last week I was turned on to this article in Noise and Color PDX. A remark in the comments section about the cheap urban spaces in rustbelt cities made me reflect a bit on the development of “scenes” relative to transformations in the physical space of a city. We can all think of examples of these scenes – punk rock (NYC), rave culture (Detroit/Chicago), or as the article addresses, ‘indie’ music (Portland/Austin). It strikes me that the emergence of these scenes are usually treated as authentic moments of origin, as if nothing was there before, or as if the emergent scene had no effect on the previously existing culture of a place. Maybe this perception of authenticity explains why people lament the commercialization or mainstreaming of a particular scene. This seems especially true, as captured by the aforementioned article, in light of gentrification, rising rents, and the cultural shifts that accompany it all. Yet scenes do not emerge out of nothing: Walter Benjamin has already invited us to think about origins as more than what has emerged, but also what has disappeared.

So what has disappeared? Most people are at least intuitively aware that many American inner cities went through dramatic transformations during the 20th century. During the early part of the century, northern factory owners recruited southern African-Americans to discipline white labor unions as well as to replace GIs leaving to fight in WWI. African Americans flowed north in what has been called the “great migration,” creating a dramatic shift in racial dynamics in northern cities and leading to outbursts of racialized violence in the early 1910s and 20s: East St. Louis, Tulsa, New York, and Chicago were all sites of brutal violence against black migrants. To make matters worse, the development in the 1930s and 40s of wicked Federal policies and real estate practices – redlining, blockbusting, racist covenants on property deeds, and contract selling – isolated poor black migrants into dense corners of cities. By the 1950s, many inner cities were declared “blighted” and scheduled for urban renewal. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was black neighborhoods that were largely razed to clear the way for whites to flee the disinvested areas, for instance by the construction of publicly-funded getaway routes (freeways) that allowed (suburban white) access to downtown jobs while skipping over the (black) problems of the inner ring neighborhoods. Add to these histories the complex history of deindustrialization, and the resulting scars on inner cities comes into a clearer light.

Over the past few decades, the destroyed space left behind has come into vogue: the “grittiness” of these spaces is glamorous to a younger generation that has inherited a systematically decontextualized knowledge about the annihilation of inner city communities. The new creation myths of American inner cities often begin with the ‘artists as shock troops’ moniker, which has grown from the legends of 1970s SoHo and more recently the ‘creative crescent’ neighborhoods in Brooklyn. That said, it seems that a nostalgia for some truncated point of origin has already set in. Much like many Portlanders are asking about their city, residents of Brooklyn neighborhoods like Williamsburg have been asking whether the ride has come to a stop. Brooklyn is ending, apparently, as Disney World replaces bohemia. I wonder how this feels for the people that never wanted to get on the ride in the first place.

Alas, Brooklynites and Portlanders alike, there are always new frontiers. Since the Great Recession, cities like Detroit and Cleveland have been gaining attention as places for ‘first-wave’ artists to find the cheap rents and yawning space they seek. Anyone that reads the New York Times knows about the artiness of Detroit’s ruined spaces.  As Toby Barlow pointed out in 2009: “like the unemployed Chinese factory workers flowing en masse back to their villages, artists in today’s economy need somewhere to flee.” For Barlow, that somewhere could be Detroit, a place where the pervasive dereliction reimagines the American Dream to be a $100 house with a community garden in the backyard.

The mobility of artists – whether it is a matter of displacement or a matter of choice – has inspired revitalization-minded stakeholders to attempt to capture the colorful objects of artistic catharsis. The intersection of ruins and re-creation have been appearing everywhere: recently I came across Milwaukee’s program that commissions artists to paint murals on the boards of abandoned buildings. For other examples, just cruise ArtPlace’s funded projects. The du jour term seems to be placemaking, which in a city like Detroit seems to carry with it an implicit assumption that places of consumption can be made out of places of ruin; trying to find the racial tensions in such a notion isn’t elusive. Such notions of place make lines like “we are history’s detergent” resonate; progress cannot be made by painting murals over the ills of the past. The effect is that many
(not all!) “new” or “progressive” acts of revitalization or renewal turn out to be reruns of the same old shows, and they don’t get any easier to sit through the second or third time we see them. Tearing down ruined places is an act of obfuscation as much as an act of development.

But what am I really arguing for here, the preservation of ruined space, a la Detroit? Should historically-minded cities protect some of the grit, the burned out buildings and abandoned factories that would otherwise eat up so much potentially “vibrant” space? And for what, the development of new ‘scenes’ that will only foster a detached nostalgia about 20 minutes later? At the same time, does leaving the destroyed space behind not commodify it as well, turning it into something of a museum for poorists and photojournalists to build their ‘ruin porn’ sensibilities?

Detroit has seen a variety of important debates stemming from these questions. One example comes from a guerilla art-group called Object Orange, which in 2005 painted houses slated for demolition bright orange. The city was infuriated and knocked many of the houses down immediately. As a result, neighborhood children worried that their house might be painted orange (and then destroyed by the city). Object Orange’s intention was to raise awareness, since the houses they painted were visible from freeways packed with white, suburban commuters. Another example is a RoboCop statue that another art-group wanted to place outside the hulking abandoned train station in Corktown. Many residents took the installation as a slight, especially considering the fact that the premise of RoboCop was that Detroit had become so violent that the whole city needed to be moved. Did these artist groups miss the mark? Or start important conversations?

It’s not reasonable to demonize artists or hipsters; simple answers never turn out to be so simple.  Even though their cultural inputs cannibalized another cultural space, their space is cannibalized by wealthier classes that are attracted to the cultural residue of artists. A new scene emerges as an old one dies, but by that time a new set of “shock troops” have surely already been at work creating whatever is next. I guess the core argument here is to always question what we mean when we lay claim to authenticity or originality, particularly with the realities of gentrification in mind. If we are defining a scene as an emergent cultural space, then scenes are always in transition: one cultural space emerges as another disappears.  The point is that the perception of disappearance to one cultural group is what is perceived as authentic emergence to another.  It is both the disappearing and the emerging that provide the stage for the performance of a scene. Space and culture are co-productive, perhaps even indistinguishable from each other, both wrapped up in the notion of place.

Maybe, as the Onion supposed, this generation of artists has already extracted all of the beauty from Detroit’s ruins. If so, we should be on the lookout for what the new, beautyless Detroit might yield. In the same sense, maybe we can recognize the monuments of Portland and Brooklyn as ruins even before they have crumbled*.

* This is a play on the last sentence of Benjamin’s Paris Expose of 1935

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