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

October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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