Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Burgh Diaspora

detroit-renaissance-center

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

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.

More From Jim Russell

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.