Step with Me Now into the Vibrant Future!
Recently, I took part in a group psychological study for a local think tank researching what gives certain urban areas “vibrancy”. The results gathered will presumably give some idea of what details of their physical environment and surrounding population signify “cultural vibrancy” in the minds of participants and that information will be given to the city government of Hamilton, Ontario. If this all sounds a bit vague, that could have been intentional. It seemed to be a study of cultural vibrancy that sought to figure out what we mean by that term.
Clearly, though, cultural vibrancy is important, at least as a buzzword, for government planners. One suspects that this interest extends to cities elsewhere and reveals something fairly important about the current economy: that wealth is now generated primarily through the cultural capital that drives up real estate prices. In other words, as cities in North America move away from actually making things, they will likely be focusing public resources towards being cool.
“Art is the New Steel”
This is something I’ve been meaning to write about on this site; for the last few years, groups within Hamilton, where I live, have been actively trying to transform the city from a low income, blue collar, manufacturing city to a sort of artistic and cultural Mecca, which has coincided with the steady collapse of the steel industry and been somewhat driven by it.* A popular local tee-shirt reads “Art is the New Steel”. Hamilton was traditionally the city that manufactured basically everything, but particularly steel. At one point, the city produced a majority of the steel used in Canada. But as manufacturing dries up across North America, the question is what communities should do to generate jobs and money and cultural revival is appealing. Thus, this is not just a local story.
Truthfully, the cultural Mecca was already there; it’s a cheap city in which to live, so we’ve long had many artists, musicians, and writers. What has changed is that certain neighborhoods have attracted attention outside of the city as “cool” places to visit or live. To a certain extent, this has to do with the abundance of DIY art galleries on one particular street (James North) and a large outdoor music and arts festival intended to capitalize off the monthly “art crawls” organized by the galleries. Along with this came the predictable trendy restaurants and clothing stores, hipsters, people bitching about “hipsters”, and eventually celebrities. Oprah has touched ground on James! And, as housing prices go sky high in Toronto, urban migrants have been willing to reconsider what they once saw, incorrectly, as a “cultural wasteland”. It’s hard to tell if the cultural Mecca thus far has any businesses that are especially profitable. But the city is very willing to pump money into cultural events and offices in order to encourage the image makeover and “attract” young people with money.**
So, the study was intended to give some idea what sort of cultural currency local neighborhoods actually have and what things add to that currency. In one section, we were shown photographs of natural items like hanging flower baskets in the city landscape and asked to pick adjectives to describe them. In another, we were asked to look at groups of people of different ethnicities and picked words to describe our responses. In another, we heard sounds of cars and groups of people talking in a public place and were asked to similarly describe our responses. Next, we looked at pictures of local architecture and answered if the buildings “expressed our identity”; it was not really clear to me if this meant our individual identity or our identity as citizens. In a section, we were asked to look at various landmarks and answer if they were cultural. Then, we were asked to rank various cultural amenities by importance. In what was perhaps the most interesting section, we watched videos of local neighborhoods, taken with flying drone mounted cameras, and moved a sliding icon on our Tablets to indicate whether the neighborhoods seemed vibrant or not as we passed by different buildings, an interesting solution to the impossibility of taking hundreds of people on a walking tour of different neighborhoods.
I apologize if if these descriptions don’t do justice to the survey due to my foggy memory of the exact wording of certain questions. However, some of the vagueness was there already. “Vibrancy” was not defined, of course, but neither was “culture”, “our identity,” “cultural capital”, or what exactly all of this meant. Clearly, the study was focused on sound, architecture, greenery, ethnic diversity, businesses, and languages as contributing to this “vibrancy” but it wasn’t clear why these things were focused on or what the outcome of vibrancy would be. A fairly big concern with Hamilton is the high level of unemployment and poverty, which did not come up, in spite of the fairly close connection between artistic bohemianism and poverty. So, a big question for me in terms of the cultural life of a neighborhood is what difference do hanging plants make if you don’t have a job? At times, it felt more like we were giving our response as customers to the layout of a mall. On one hand, this probably would be helpful in getting tourists to spend money in the city. On the other hand, what will be done with the information? Will the city spend more money on plants and aiding cultural businesses? Probably. Will they spend money on police officers to reduce vagrancy in the cultural districts? Probably that too. But we were not shown pictures of prostitutes and winos and asked to pick adjectives.
For reasons that I can’t quite put my finger on, these cultural ideas seem somewhat detached from anything concrete. In fact, the cultural renaissance that is being promoted in the city seems to belong to the Internet age- it’s more about attention and “clicks” than actual revenue. Those businesses that add to the cultural vibrancy of certain neighborhoods aren’t the ones that are making a great deal of money. So far, we don’t have any superstar artists either. What ends up happening more often is the cool spaces are kept afloat by trust funds, government grants, and other means in addition to the occasional sale. People do creative things out of love and excitement over what is happening and I’m not exempt from that. And don’t misunderstand- the study I took part in was interesting and I can see its usefulness in encouraging the city to make better decisions than they have in the past when it comes to urban planning.
But the question that keeps coming back for me is, if art is going to be the new steel, what will be the new pension?
* Here, for example, is an interesting blog post talking about these hopes and the appeal of Hamilton’s blue collar culture.
** “Attract“: That’s the rub isn’t it? The hope that is invested in places like Hamilton is that people from the outside will move in and revitalize the communities because the people who already live there lack the resources to do so themselves.
*** Finally, I just noticed the study has a website: Here.