No Sleep Till (We’re) Brooklyn
People have recently taken to calling the city in which I live “the Brooklyn of Canada” a compliment well suited to an era in which everything seems to point to something else. In this case, the city of Hamilton, Ontario, points not to the city of Brooklyn, per se, but to a state of transition, since Brooklyn is praised by the selfsame people not for any of its specific attributes, but for the “ability” to “remake itself”. “Brooklyn” is shorthand for a Heraclitian state of continual flux and change, positive traits in a commercial capitalist society. A “Brooklyn” is not limited by tradition or permanence. The past imposes no burden on the present.
My city is being coaxed into a similar transitional state by people who hope it will soon evoke Brooklyn’s continual fluidity. Here, the burden of the past was largely removed by the “dynamism” of mature industrial capitalism: US Steel flowed away. What will save us, so it is claimed, is the “vitality” of newcomers, who are not limited by any local tradition or permanence. The city has thus spent hundreds of millions of dollars on transportation, sporting festivals, and arts festivals to promote itself as a site of becoming rather than being, a city on the move. Some have used the term “Brooklynization” as a pejorative, but it could be worse: people used to call this city the “armpit of Canada”.
[Here’s an irony for you: the people who oppose this flight away from tradition and permanence are called, by critics, “left wing liberals”. Presumably then the people who are uncomfortable with tradition and permanence would be called “right wing conservatives”.]
The city council now dedicates much of its time and resources to acting as a sort of advertising firm, “promoting” the city. The slogan that has proven most popular is “Art is the New Steel”. This points to the fact that Hamilton once produced the majority of steel used in Canada; the smelting process was responsible for the “armpit” smell in the east end. We have since begun to deindustrialize, or more specifically, US Steel, which bought the struggling Canadian company Stelco, has ceased operations here and recently sued the federal government for the right to leave without honoring any of their commitments to the now-retired steelworkers. The slogan “Art is the New Steel” therefore suggests that artists will be the new steelworkers, driving the local economy. It certainly does not suggest that steelworkers will be the new artists and there are no plans whatsoever to retrain former welders in conceptual art. It is, as of yet, unclear, just what is supposed to be the new pension.
As it happens, artists act more as the first missionaries of gentrification: they are the ones who come first and win over the local population before the colonialists arrive. While their aspirations sometimes overlap with those colonists, they often only do so marginally, and artists tend to have a deep ambivalence about the process. In the case of our city, what is most striking is how often this process, whether we call it “revitalization”, “growth”, or “gentrification” aims at about attracting wealthy outsiders and their money to settle here from elsewhere (usually Toronto) and fix up the place. As with most colonies, the assumption is that the locals weren’t going to do anything significant with the place anyway, lacking cultural capital and, usually unmentioned, being shut out of the same lines of credit. But, the salient feature of gentrification is that it is only tangentially, if at all, a process of boosting the value of an area’s culture and directly about increasing the value of its real estate. Home prices have increased dramatically; local art still sells very cheaply.
A Historical Note
What is happening here has happened across North America and particularly in cities to the South. First, a bit of background. It has been said that America was born in the country and moved to the cities. The transformation of a predominantly agrarian society with the cultural traditions of the rural heartland to an urban, industrial, and commercial society, which took place in roughly the period from the 1880s to the outbreak of World War I, was the greatest demographic shift in American history. The city gathered them. It gathered together those who worked, those who sold, those who invested, those who managed, those who attended to all of these, and those who observed and communicated what was happening. The majority was those who labored and the city was organized around them. Where once they were men who also sold the products of their labor, now there were men who sold those products and those who worked sold the labor to those men who sold. Their experience of the world was thus altered: what the city imposed was not a quality, but a quantity and a volume. It was an intensity- the city added experiences, multiplied them; populism in politics was rooted in the misconception that urbanization subtracted traditions, but in fact the cultural traditions were still there in the din. In the cities, new populations were simply laid atop older ones: the usual work of generations now measured in years, and sometimes months. For the people who experienced industrialization, the World Wars seemed a crescendo of all that was happening.
The cities began emptying out after the World Wars as the factories started leaving those cities and highways rushed to greet them. A new city was laid over the old one. Many people still remained but the things they sold were multiplied and altered. Those who fled escaped the overwhelming quantity for repose in specificity- of values, ideas, people, etc. They fled aesthetics. This was the second greatest demographic shift in American history. Meanwhile, the cities gathered their children who traded specificity for quantity of experiences. Aesthetics and the people who sought new aesthetics ruled the new city. Those who committed crimes also flourished and crime became an aesthetic. The balance between the aestheticizing observers and the criminals held sway and kept away many who only dimly realized that these were often the same people. The culture of the cities radiated outwards to suburbia, filling an aesthetic void. Oswald Spengler once contended that world history was the history of cities. New Yorker Susan Sontag, similarly, said that her America was the America of the cities; the rest was flyover. In popular culture, the cities came to represent innocence, the cities experience.
The Present Moment
The cities further deindustrialized with the trade agreements of the last three decades, bolstered by the dominant ideology of our time: neoliberalism. The cities became a problem to be fixed, a potentiality instead of an intensity. Gentrification is driven by a sense of dissatisfaction, of problems waiting to be solved, the push-pull of attraction and repulsion that the French call ressentiment. The problem with the cities is held to be cultural. The problem was held to be criminal, which is itself held to be cultural. The problem was not seen as psychological, which would have implied something constant about human nature, even as crime and psychopathology arose in the suburbs and cities alike. What was unique to the cities was crime as an aesthetic and a calling. The aesthetic, anyway, was easily disseminated. The calling/occupational nature of crime suggested, moreover, that the problem was economic all along. The word is used to mean many things, so let’s define “economic” as describing the ways that people make money, as occupational. Whereas once the formal economy consisted predominantly of those who labored, now it was predominantly those who serviced, invested, and observed. Crime was driven out. The energy of the city became passive and self-referential. It only exported aesthetics. The suburbs are now imposed upon the cities. The cities are suburbanizing. One expects crime to flourish in the suburbs as the cities are overpoliced.
Gentrification is driven by a sense of lack. Last year, I attended a survey conducted at the local university to explore what things evoke “vibrancy” in the minds of the average person. Funded by the city, local researchers filmed city streets from drone helicopters, and we looked at those films and various pictures to see what amenities most evoked a vibrant neighborhood. The word was never clearly defined, yet the study seemed aimed at defining it for city planners. Things like art galleries, flower planters, parks, bicycle lanes, and cafes were called to our attention in terms of their visual and sound aesthetics and, presumably, the city would be encouraged to invest in those that scored highest. What was most evident was the simultaneous importance and vagueness of the question. The university was taking part in the process of marketing the city in the sense of making it more attractive to visitors as well as what is, in marketing, now called the “managed experience” of living here.
Another aspect of managing this experience has, not surprisingly, been increased police presence in the “hip” neighborhoods of our downtown. A platoon of bicycle officers, known rather grandiosely as the “action squad” now regularly patrols areas that were once subject to benign neglect and the city has instituted a program to ticket panhandlers for being a nuisance, although none of the tickets are actually paid. A handful of homeless shelters that are located downtown have been scheduled to be moved elsewhere. This suggests one difference between gentrification and previous demographic shifts in cities. Previously, one population after another was laid atop the previous one and they struggled to adjust to one another. It’s interesting to note that one thing the various ethnic groups living in Greenwich Village in the 1920s had in common was a dislike for the Bohemians moving there! In the case of gentrification, however, it is understood by both the critics and advocates that the process involves displacement, or replacing one population with another- a sort of economic cleansing. City governments and investors seek a population with greater wealth to invest, newcomers seek the cultural aura and intensified experiences of city life, and longtime residents hope to get a piece of the action before their rent increases.
Artists remain ambivalent at best about this process. While posters have appeared across our city calling on resisters of gentrification to “Steal All the New Art”, they were clearly created by artists and printmakers; in other words, the very “creatives” that the city hopes to attract in order to spur investment. Recently, a group of real estate agents invited “outside developers” to a “VIP invitation only” event to discuss what they could do to remake a particularly run down part of our city, where houses can be bought cheap and replaced with condos. They were greeted by local Bohemians, who pelted them with coffee and trash.
In Berlin, 3,500 anti-gentrification “leftists” recently clashed with police over the development of a low-income housing block. Like so many other processes that affect us now- globalization, privatization, downsizing, etc- gentrification is held to be inevitable and beneficial by those who promote it- almost a force of nature. Likewise, it has amounted primarily to a redistribution of wealth upwards.
Using the older term, Bohemians tend to be a population on the move, cultural gypsies. Bohemias are best understood as temporary outposts that have sprung into being in various cities since their spontaneous inception in Paris at the 1833 staging of Victor Hugo’s play Hermani, which turned into a near riot. Like the missionaries of old, Bohemians recognize that they are only nominally the intended beneficiaries of gentrification. Western imperialism was, in name, carried out in the name of God, but worked to relocate surplus populations and underexploited sources of wealth, first metals and then agricultural products.
The metaphor breaks down, however, when we look to the long term. The newcomers, one imagines, exploit existing cultural and aesthetic resources in the city, but also replace them with their own aesthetics- speakeasies become cafes, cheap art galleries become trendy bars, and local hangouts become tourist destinations. Quantity of experience becomes specificity of experience, reflecting the upper middle class, college educated, white, bourgeois experience of the world. The Bohemians, seeking an expanded horizon of ideas and experiences, look elsewhere. Eventually, the cultural resources that were mined, dry up, and the cities become suburbs of somewhere else that is neither fixed nor temporary.
In other words, the state of flux that we call “Brooklyn”, the river that is never the same place twice, is replaced by the unchanging specificity that we call cultural decadence. The protean quality that is sought in certain places and times should point to the vague longing behind gentrification: we want this place to become something else, what specifically is unclear. What one might expect to develop are cities with the unspecific nowhere quality of the airport: layovers on route to a forever delayed somewhere else.