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Gentrification of Work in the City

• January 09, 2014 • 7:55 PM

The Renaissance Center in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo: Patricia Drury/Flickr)

As an urban activity, work has been displaced.

The city is a center of consumption, not production. Meet artist Donald Judd, the patron saint of gentrification:

When Judd purchased his loft in the late 1960s, the outside environment was changing too, a fact that is central to the building’s significance. He was participating in SoHo’s conversion from “blighted” industrial area to luxury neighborhood. At the time, the city was actively engaged in the process of deindustrialization. As late as the early 1970s, Manhattan held more than half of the city’s industrial jobs. But in the face of a steady shrinkage of the garment and printing industries, the city withdrew from investment in manufacturing and instead committed to turning industrial areas into residential neighborhoods. For patricians like David Rockefeller, the chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank, industry could offer little to Lower Manhattan. The area was “largely occupied by commercial slums, right next to the greatest concentration of real estate value in the city”—the perfect opportunity for redevelopment. In 1961 the city rezoned Manhattan, evicting heavy industry to the outer boroughs.

The city relied on artists as vehicles for this transformation, as Sharon Zukin recounted in her 1982 study Loft Living. The empty lofts of Lower Manhattan had already proven useful to artists; as many as 5,000 were living and working illegally in industrial space. Cheap, big, and rarely checked by inspectors, lofts were a perfect alternative to cramped New York apartments and studios. They were unglamorous but adequate. In 1953 Robert Rauschenberg had moved to a loft on Fulton Street for $15 a month, where, according to Calvin Tompkins, “A hose and bucket in the back yard served as his basin, and he bathed at friends’ apartments, sometimes surreptitiously, asking to use the bathroom and taking a lightning shower at the same time.” Thousands of artists living and consuming could bring neighborhood change, and the city soon encouraged their stay. A 1964 article in the building code allowed visual artists to use lofts as residences and studios if they applied for “Artist-in-Residence” permits; a 1968 amendment expanded the category to performance and creative artists. By 1971 the city had created an “artists’ district” within the SoHo manufacturing zone, and the neighborhood had transformed to accommodate their needs.

Emphasis added. For SoHo to survive, residents would have to do something else. Manhattan had no need to house the working class. So its neighborhoods catered to Jane Jacobs and company, the creative class. Jacobs did not so much save SoHo as she was invited in to help along the process of gentrification. The blue collar were banished to the fringes of New York to make room for the Sidewalk Ballet.

Today, the Sidewalk Ballet is “off-Broadway” and on tour in Detroit:

In 1985, the novelist Elmore Leonard, in an introduction to a book of photographs by Balthazar Korab, offered this analysis of his home city of Detroit:

There are cities that get by on their good looks, offer climate and scenery, views of mountains or oceans, rockbound or with palm trees; and there are cities like Detroit that have to work for a living…. It’s never been the kind of city people visit and fall in love with because of its charm or think, gee, wouldn’t this be a nice place to live.

At that time, Detroit had lost seven hundred thousand residents from its population peak of about 1.8 million, in the nineteen-fifties. The city was not merely diminished—it was also in the process of diminishing further. In the nearly thirty years since, more than five hundred thousand more people have left. You know all the grim headlines: soaring crime, industrial decay, city services stretched dangerously thin, abandoned blocks, “urban prairies,” forced downsizing. This summer, the city filed for bankruptcy, and its remaining residents have been portrayed as hostages unable to make an escape. After years of bad news and bad press, Detroit seems more unlikely than ever to be a place about which anyone would say, “Gee, wouldn’t this be a nice place to live.”

But what if someone offered you a free house? In a contemporary, literary twist on old homesteading incentives, a new nonprofit organization called Write a House is refurbishing three two-bedroom houses in Detroit and accepting applications this spring for writers to move in, rent free. Poets, journalists, novelists, and anyone who falls somewhere in between are encouraged to apply. If the writers stay for the required two years and fulfill other obligations, such as engaging with the city’s literary community and contributing to the program’s blog, they’ll even get the deed to the place. As the group’s mission puts it, “It’s like a writer-in-residence program, only in this case we’re actually giving the writer the residence, forever.”

Emphasis added. Gee, wouldn’t this city be a nice place to work? Detroit needs fixed. Any jobs to be had are in the suburbs. Writers, an army of Jane Jacobs, to the rescue. Detroit is a sprawling SoHo with heavy industry rezoned to Mexico. Make the entire blank slate an arts district, with a few casinos for kitschy inspiration. The urban prairie poking through the sidewalks gives the ballet a gritty Rust Belt flavor.

Wherever there isn’t a nice place to live, rezone for Jane Jacobs. Or, dezone for Jane Jacobs. It’s a flexible ideology. Punk urban planning by Patti Smith.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

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