Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Creative Destruction

"The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises..."

"New York, you're perfect
Don't please don't change a thing

Your mild billionaire mayor's
Now convinced he's a king

So the boring collect
I mean all disrespect

In the neighborhood bars
I'd once dreamt I would drink."

- LCD Soundsystem, "New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down"

We live in a nation that no longer makes things, and maybe that's why we're so foggy-headed when it comes to discussions of wealth, class, or even of basic entrepreneurial instinct. How can we hope to understand wealth when "luxury" is pitched to us as a shoddily-built McMansion, and twenty years' worth of retirement savings can disappear in a stock market crash? What does it mean to speak of labor when work is a mind-numbing interval in a cubicle?

Maybe this economic existentialism is also why it's so popular to talk about the "creative economy" these days. Creative industries hold the last vestiges of America's tangible economic output - our last chance to make anything for ourselves.

Like many other cities, my hometown of Portland, Maine is gung-ho about its "creative economy," even though they haven't even finished building the "Biotechnology Park" left over from the last economic development fad.

On the surface, this seems like a positive thing - who wouldn't want more creativity? After chasing smokestacks for decades, City Hall is bringing a long-overdue focus on the small businesses and vibrant neighborhoods that really make our cities welcoming and attractive.

And yet (if the fad comment hasn't already tipped you off) it's beginning to feel like a lot of bullshit to me.

The germ of my ambivalence came from a real estate development proposal in my neighborhood. A billionaire hedge fund manager (and the husband of our congresswoman) owns a pied-à-terre apartment a few blocks away from us, and wants to transform several of the area's working-class tenement buildings that are in his portfolio into a newly renovated cluster of live-work spaces for quote-necessitated-because-I-don't-really-trust-a-billionaire-hedge-fund-manager's-use-of-the-word-unquote "artists".

So. I have some issues with said hedge fund manager's imposition of his aesthetic values on the landscape of our neighborhood, and on the creative output of local artists vis-a-vis the terms of their rental agreements. That's one thing and it might be entirely unjustified.

But I feel more nervous - and more certainly justified in this unease - about how the hedge funded artist colony is going to affect the larger creative environment of the city at large.

His proposed development is located on one of the last working-class neighborhoods of the city. It was part of Portland's Little Italy, and it's one of the few immigrant neighborhoods that wasn't demolished during the urban renewal purges of the 1960s and 1970s.

At one end of the street is the city's friendliest dive bar; at the other end is a day labor agency. It happens to be a pretty great place for artists to live and work right now, as it is. But it's also a great place where teachers, hotel workers, office cleaners, and dozens of other working-class families can still afford to live, within walking distance of downtown's jobs and services. Why would we want to kick those people out?

Simultaneously (and potentially relatedly), a number of the city's economic development professionals and business leaders have recruited ArtSpace, a nonprofit developer of affordable buildings for artists, to investigate the possibility of their developing a project in Portland (possibly on Hampshire Street, and possibly elsewhere).

It may seem counter-intuitive, but even if we did create a walled garden for artists here - and it matters little whether it's built by a hedge fund manager or a nonprofit institution - the experiences of numerous other cities and neighborhoods before us forebodes that the wealth it brings in pursuit of "creative" entertainments will jeopardize the neighborhood's affordability and diversity, and thus undermine the fertile conditions that generate the very creativity we value.

Look at New York City: wealth drove out artists first from SoHo into the Lower East Side, then into Williamsburg, and now deep into Bed-Stuy. If the southeastward exile continues, in thirty more years all the artists will be drowned in the waters of Jamaica Bay.

Forty years ago, Donald Judd tried to escape it by moving from Manhattan to live among ranchers in a miniscule town in west Texas. Today, even that miniscule town is itself losing its identity with the influx of more and more wealth.

The Marfa Prada, a half-joking commentary on "Judd-effect gentrification", on the plains outside of Marfa, Texas. Photo via

And I saw it happen firsthand in Portland, Oregon, at the turn of this century:
In 1999, I set off to go to college in Portland, Oregon — then known only as a rainy mid-sized city with scenic parks. In the five years I spent out there, I saw the city morph into a self-satisfied model of progressive hedonism. But, as I found after graduation in 2003, and as thousands of other young people have found since then, it’s awfully hard to land a decent job there, and it’s getting harder all the time to find an affordable place to live. (source)
A creative economy requires creative people, and creative people seek out the frisson of affordable, diverse city neighborhoods, where it's easy to discover and interact with new ideas and with people who possess a diversity of cultural and economic backgrounds.

Creative people also require capital: they need affordable places where they can live and create things. But creativity, after all, is fun to be around: it attracts wealth, which ends up competing for the same resources that the creative people need. Thus, to paraphrase Marx, the accumulation of creative capital sows the seeds of its own destruction.

Sure, you can create protected islands of creativity amidst the sterile ruins of luxury condos and fusion restaurants. That's what the hedge fund manager and Artspace want to do, and I suppose that in some circumstances that might be the best option. But how creative can such a place really be, in its isolation? And aren't we declaring defeat prematurely by pursuing that option so soon, while our neighborhoods are still fairly egalitarian and diverse and functional just the way they are?

More importantly, is the exile of creative people from the neighborhoods they make great inevitable? Is the "creative economy" just the post-industrial manifestation of Marx's inevitable creative destruction?

Admittedly, the track record from places like New York isn't great. But I think there are two reasons to be optimistic.

I often think of Houston, where I lived for a year, as one of the most creative places I've lived (it certainly had Portland, Oregon beat). Sure, miles and miles of the city were dead zones of strip malls and cul de sacs. But for every time someone bulldozed a historic edifice to build a Wal Mart, someone else was doing something amazing in a vacant rice factory or shotgun house they bought for dirt cheap. That city thrived on constant change. From the outside, the city might look monstrous, constantly consuming itself and spreading out larger and larger. But on the ground, there was always something new.

If we lose Hampshire Street to a bunch of navel-gazing painters who are condemned to mediocrity because they never meet anyone or anything that challenges their assumptions, then I'll be sad, not least because that's my very own neighborhood that will become a more boring place.

But we live in a city, and cities are meant to change. Creative destruction, after all, is still creative. If one neighborhood becomes boring, another will become interesting. House shows will spring up in unexpected places; empty warehouses or abandoned big-box stores will become artists' squats. If we, as a city, embrace change (and Portland, to own the truth, has some issues with this, a few hang-ups with its nostalgia for the status-quo), then creativity has a way of surviving.

Still, I'd still rather let it thrive. And that brings me to a second reason to have some hope, because here we have a billionaire who wants to do right by downtrodden artists, and it seems churlish to complain about his methods when the impulse carries so much possibility.

If I ever had the chance to meet my billionaire neighbor, this is what I would tell him.

Portland's neighborhoods aren't ruined yet - they're still by and large egalitarian, and affordable, and authentically creative. Even better, a lot of the wealth that might threaten those neighborhoods' creativity is possessed by people who actively want to support a creative environment.

You and the other creative economy boosters want to do the right thing by carving out a refuge for artists - but you haven't yet considered the consequences of how that kind of project could exile dozens of other people who may not make art per se but are nevertheless vital to maintaining the conditions of a creative city.

May I suggest instead diverting your considerable resources toward finding ideas and investments that make the city more equitable and affordable to all people, not just for "artists"? If we can accomplish that, then the entire city stands a better chance of fostering the ideal conditions that generate more and more creative places.

Instead of relying on an institution to build us one Artspace, we could build hundred of Artspaces for ourselves, on our own terms, to our own standards. Sounds good - am I right?

Postscript: I've started writing a biweekly column in a small local paper, the Portland Daily Sun, and I wrote on this subject last week. But 800 words wasn't enough to fit in all the nuances of my mixed feelings about the "creative economy" business, hence this elaboration.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


I've been slacking on blog updates in order to work on various other projects and today I'm happy to report that one of them is ready to publicize.

After six years of blogging for free, I've graduated into the realm of paid analog publishing, with the printing and preliminary distribution of the first-ever Portland Maine Bike Map (!).

My first venture into for-profit cartography covers bike routes, lanes, and paths from Falmouth to Scarborough, Casco Bay to Westbrook - almost everything you can comfortably reach in an easy hour's ride from downtown Portland.

It's retailing for $6, currently at all of our locally-owned bike shops in Portland (I'm still negotiating the purchasing departments of the chain stores), plus Longfellow Books in Monument Square, Art Mart on Congress Street, Pinecone and Chickadee on Free Street, any of the three Portland Coffee By Design shops, Green Hand Books, and Bathra's Market in Willard Square.

Thanks to Sean Wilkinson of Might & Main for making it look so sharp (he designed the cover and advised on typography and colors).

If you own or work at a greater Portland business that might be interested in selling a few of these, please get in touch with me. If you'd like to bulk-purchase more than 10 at our wholesale rate for your workplace's commuting and parking management programs, your should also get in touch with me.

Did I mention that 10% of our proceeds, after covering our costs, will benefit the Bicycle Coalition of Maine and Portland Trails? Well yes, I just mentioned that.

But first I have to cover my costs and I am deeply in the hole for the time being. Not that I'm a charity case but almost I am. Please buy my map.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Supposedly Fun Thing Invades Portland

From midsummer until the end of fall foliage season in late October, cruise ships like the one pictured below dock at the Maine State Pier in downtown Portland, Maine. When they're in port, they loom over the small city's skyline and disgorge thousands of well-fed passengers onto our downtown city streets.

The cruise ships that arrive here are taller than most of the city's modest high-rises, and with 2500-3500 passengers, their arrival increases the city's population by about 5%. They have a certain looming effect on the city's landscape, and not just from their striking physical resemblance to the alien mother ships that blot out the sun above human cities in movies like Independence Day and District 9 (see below at right). They flood the city's streets with a certain breed of well-fed, middle-aged idler, toting cameras and stylized cartoon maps of the downtown district.

The effect isn't limited to the infusion of strangers - it also changes the behavior of the city's native residents.

When a ship's in town, improvised kiosks selling lighthouse paintings, secondhand junk, and items marketed as "redneck wallets" proliferate near the ferry terminal. "The Screamer" and other familiar victims of the state's social service cuts become mysteriously absent, while there's a marked increase in downtown police cruisers. Slow, rubber tired omnibuses roam the downtown area behind incongruous teams of draft horses, a bizarre, segregated, and for-profit public transportation system for tourists.

In short, the cruise ships, while they may look innocuous, also seem to beam advanced psychoactive waves into the city's brains to stimulate desperate entrepreneurial pandering. There's money to be made if we behave like a quaint second-world outpost replete with cheap handmade crafts and sweating, shitting modes of transport.

An acquaintance today remarked that the city's transformation reminded him of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, the concept of quantum physics that tells us how the observation of certain properties of a particle limits our knowledge of other physical properties.* Or, to put it another way, that the simple act of observing something, and your choice of what to observe and how to observe it, can change various properties of that thing's essential nature.

This elegantly applies to tourism, especially the mass-market variety of tour buses and cruise ships. An entertaining thought experiment: how would Portland (both the physical landscape of the city and its citizenry) change if the hundreds of thousands of tourists who came here every summer instead arrived as undocumented migrant laborers? How would the city look if those thousands became occupiers of an imperialist army?

And which of those two landscapes - the city of cheap labor, or the occupied city - is more foreign from the city we know today?**

The idea that we occupy a different, parallel universe from the one that our tourists reside in - and that I, as a tourist anywhere, am unlikely to know the true essence of the places I visit - feels as lonely to me as an insomniac night on a cruise ship at sea, "when all the ship's structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased."

But then again, shouldn't the possibility of changing the city you know with a shift in perception also offer us new frontiers to explore without leaving at all? And doesn't the uncertainty principle also apply in all sorts of other ways - not just in how we perceive places, but also people and things? We hear rumors of a scandal and a trusted person becomes repulsive to us; make eye contact two or three times across a crowded room, and a stranger becomes an object of fixation.

So even when you live in a small city that's frequently colonized by tourist hordes, there's no need for us to get discouraged when we perceive ourselves in a rut, in an absence of strangeness and possibility.

There's an infinity of alternative cities available to us, all similar to this one and different in significant ways, every time we seek a new way of seeing things.

*Credit for this insight goes to Dan, who's highly versed in the idea of how shifts in our perceptions can affect our lifestyle.

**Personally, I think that our wealthy tourists and our customer-service-oriented culture make us a lot closer to the empire/colony dynamic than we are to being a land of opportunity - then again, that's just the product of my own observations.