Bits and pieces of ideal cities have been incorporated into real ones; traffic projects and housing schemes are habitually introduced by their sponsors as at least preliminary steps to paradise. The ideal city gives us the authority to castigate the real one; while the sore itch of real cities goads us into creating ideal ones. Jonathan Raban, from Soft City
There’s a spot in Cleveland that is becoming what many had hoped for: a bit vibrant, a bit hip, with breweries, local retail, and farm-to-table restaurants turning that hard rawness of a disinvested Rust Belt city strip into a thing less raw.
Actually, the current mix of grit and slight refinement works well on Cleveland’s W. 25th St in Ohio City. Characters abound. The racial and class mixing feels both natural and unforced. Place authenticity is there, aided no doubt by the presence of the 100-year old West Side Market anchoring what is an emerging neighborhood identity of an area where one can get a bite or sip of Cleveland amidst its architectural integrity. And the distinctive Cleveland-ness of it all is becoming ever more attractive, especially to those looking for something beyond that sea of cities sanitizing their urban terroir.
I just wonder if the inevitable will happen.
The inevitable, of course, is called “success”. Often, in the creative class-ification of the urban environment, “success” commonly proceeds this way: an area seeps in its own disability to achieve “highest and best use”—yet it’s cheap, intriguing even, particularly due to “the creative allure of urban grit”. Artists and bohemians make a home and create. A scene unfolds, thus laying the sluice gates toward beautification. Food and coffee places soon come to fill need. Retail locates near the foot traffic. Investment begets investment until all the dead buildings are freshly coated. The professional creative class eventually brings in the rear, effectively dictating a claim of “highest and best use”. Market studies by developers get corporate chains interested. Homogeneity ensues via the unforgiving force that is the economy of space, with income, race, and viewpoint converging into a slice of the urban electorate. This convergence is often presumed to result in the explosion of ideas via agglomeration of knowledge. But suppose it simply results in the deadening of insight via an agglomeration of group think.
Take the case of Portland. It is a creative class darling, with the young and educated demographic inmigrating rapidly over the past decade. Proponents of the creative class suggest it is Portland’s place-based amenities—its density, its array of bike paths and coffee shops, its craft brews and locavore scene—that is attractive to the psychology of the mobile and modish. Let’s suppose this is true. No suppositions are necessary, however, when inferring what the decade-long demographic shift has done to the diversity of the city’s inner core.
From an article entitled “In Portland’s heart, 2010 Census shows diversity dwindling”, the author writes:
“Portland, already the whitest major city in the country, has become whiter at its core even as surrounding areas have grown more diverse…The city core didn’t become whiter simply because lots of white residents moved in…Nearly 10,000 people of color, mostly African Americans, also moved out…As a result, the part of Portland famous for its livability — for charming shops and easy transit, walkable streets and abundant bike paths — increasingly belongs to affluent whites.”
Of course the irony here is that diversity and tolerance is said to attract a subgroup of forward-looking folks who then congregate using the grease of spatial economics to force said tolerance and diversity out. Given that diversity and tolerance have been argued to be key engines to idea production and subsequent economic growth, perhaps it’s no surprise Portland has not grown economically, regardless of the strained narrative stating otherwise.
Diversity of people are not the only victims to creative class-ification, so is diversity of place. From a recent Atlantic Cities article, the former owner of the popular Mama’s Bar in the East Village talked about his taxes skyrocketing 380% as the reason he had to close. Later, the owner wonders about the cost of NYC’s decision to world-class the hell out of its urban intricacy and ambiguity:
I think the thing that makes this city unique is it does have different neighborhoods that are specific and unique unto themselves. They have their own personality. What has happened — and I don’t want to blame the mayor, because it’s the evolution of the city — but things have become so expensive here…the only way businesses can survive in these neighborhoods is if they’re banks or corporate chains. These neighborhoods are being whittled down into carbon copies of each other.
Echoing this sentiment, the New York Times just ran an op-ed from the blogger at Vanishing New York about how the place-making standard bearer the High Line has created for a stretch of people lined like cattle amidst a neighborhood increasingly delineated into a pasture of consumption, not a hive of innovation. The author writes:
[T]he idea was enticing: a public park above the hubbub, a contemplative space where nature softens the city’s abrasiveness…
…My skepticism took root during my first visit. The designers had scrubbed the graffiti and tamed the wildflowers. Guards admonished me when my foot moved too close to a weed…
…The neighborhood has since been completely remade. Old buildings fell and mountain ranges of glassy towers with names like High Line 519 and HL23 started to swell…
Since the op-eds running, the blogger, Jeremiah Moss, has been derided as regressive, an obstructionist, with one commentator on his blog accusing Moss of being “a lazy critic” who is “not interested in either exploring the nature of our changing urban environment or discussing the merits of the [High Line’s] design”. But these critics miss Moss’s point, or that place-making is not simply about beauty, but so too the motive behind beautification. Often, that means economic gain, and often: that means at any cost. From a post in Art Info:
The High Line — being such an alluring work of design — became, quite literally, a lure to attract groups powerful enough to steamroll socioeconomic diversity and reconstruct the neighborhood into a more glamorous version of New York.
This was not how it was supposed to go. In a piece in Parks and Recreation, the author describes creative class theorist Richard Florida’s exemplifying of the High Line as an example of “communities transforming old industrial-age infrastructure into unusual and magnetic parks”. Florida explains many cities are figuring out that place has worth, and are prioritizing accordingly:
The good news is that some cities have come to understand that great parks can rally citizens and hold communities together…and the most far-seeing mayors realize that.
What is less discussed is how publicly-subsidized parks and other place-based jewels can be used as a hammer to polish out the vicinity around them; that is, how parks can be co-opted to break communities apart.
Don’t get me wrong. I think place-making has its place. But its Frankenstein effects can’t be ignored. As—again—there is a contradiction at play in creative class theory; namely, that the preconditions of success: diversity, density, and tolerance, can create for a “success” that eats diversity and tolerance, particularly in those “special sauce” dense spots like East Village and downtown Portland that are harmonized to be vessels for new knowledge and thus new economies. In fact it can be argued that such outcomes deaden the long-term growth of cities in that traditional geographic and cultural hearts are being sold for the “gimme now” gains of taxation on objects from coffee to condos. And really: there is nothing much cool or creative about that. Rather, it’s selling your city to the highest bidder. It is mountains turned to coal.
Looking back, maybe this was all to be expected. Layering a cellophane of universal cool over the topography of distinct places to attract a slice of the urban electorate—many of which have no clue about the genius loci of each place—well, what would one expect?
Still, there are lessons to be had here. Lessons for cities. Here’s hoping that those so-called failed and dead cities like Cleveland can resist getting their spots of raw locality from being entirely scrubbed out. In fact, in a world of inauthenticity it will be cities of realness that provide for environments fostering a stimulation of thought. It will be these cities collecting the hemorrhaging of thinkers and doers that can no longer stand the plasticity derived from the mold of “highest and best use”. It will be these cities providing for the creative destruction of creative class urbanity.