Left Behinds

The anti-andrewsullivan.com. Or, the Robin Hood (Maid Marian?) of bright pink Blogger blogs.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Anniversary Post: Why I am a Liberal, or the Individual-Choice Fallacy

The post directly below this one represents a consumer, nonliberal model of responding to a liberal concern. I don’t say that to denigrate the Fair Trade Fair: given a nation bent on unfair trade policies, individual consumer choice is a way for each of us individually to lessen his or her moral culpability, if only a little. As Gandhi admonished, “You must be the change you seek in the world.” That is necessary. But of course it is not sufficient.

Last spring Solomon and I attended a lecture given by a friend of mine, Damon Rich (co-founder of the Center for Urban Pedagogy). I’ve been pestering him to send me a copy ever since, and finally he did. The talk touched on a few topics; one of them was the transformation of Soho from light industrial space to artists’ lofts and then finally to high-end apartments and retail. It’s a transformation that has been repeated, as this article by Mike Muller describes (h/t Phoebe), in the East Village, Williamsburg, and now the Fulton Mall and Bushwick.

From Soho to the Lower East Side to Williamsburg, the story has been more or less the same – artists move in, eventually helping to cause the neighborhood to go through sweeping changes, which results in hardship for local families and businesses -- as well as for the artists themselves.

In his speech (that post of his PDF will work only for 7 days, so if anyone knows a better way to host a file please let me know), Rich summarizes the narrative as it pertains to Soho this way:

In her book Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change, Sharon Zukin has written a careful and detailed story about the transformation of Soho in New York City from manufacturing district to chic residential neighborhood, the origin story of contemporary gentrification. In her narrative of urban change, she emphatically claims to depart from “the usual account of the rise of loft living.” She summarizes this usual and incorrect account as follows:

…loft living is the spontaneous result of “market forces.” The presence or supply of underused loft buildings supposedly inspired an inventive adaptation. Demand for lofts emerged among worthy, though unworldly, artists and performers. They settled bravely in the urban tundras and carved neighborhoods out of the wilderness. Just when they had succeeded in taming their castiron environment, a band of new arrivals – who were interested in domesticating an industrial aesthetic – moved in on their territory. Recognizing neither claims nor conventions, this wave of loft tenants bid up property values, started boutiques, and crowded the original settlers with their purely residential ethos. (Zukin, 174)

This story, according to Zukin, “is mythology, not urban history.”

There’s a hidden assumption in this familiar story: that these changes are brought about primarily by collections of renters’ individual choices. From Rich’s speech again:

I'm the reason that your block is vacant/
Malicious will hit ya just to make a statement.
–“What Happened to That Boy”

Spelled out over a lopsided videogame beat, Malice of hip-hop duo the Clipse offers one explanation for the boarded-up, grown over, and graffiti-covered block on the cover of his album. While a policy analyst might attribute abandonment in US cities to deindustrialization, white flight, or government funding of superhighways, our boastful narrator takes personal credit for a devastated streetscape. What could be construed as a diffuse, natural, or inevitable process of change becomes a product of individual will.

For many, the word “gentrification” has come to serve the same function, putting an agent – the “gentrifier” – in the driver’s seat of urban change. It draws a clear image of a complex process. More urbanites know and talk about gentrification than about zoning, tax credits, or other more direct causes of urban change. While activists have shifted away from it, “gentrification” has become generalized shorthand in Friendster culture. Gentrification receives so much attention from this group in particular – young, upwardly mobile students and culture workers – because, as with the epigraph, the claim to agency is self-referential; it could be written “I’m the reason your block has a Starbuck’s!”

Taken to its extreme, this attitude leads to the nonsensical solution offered by a guest at a summer party of mine. She said she had a pair of friends who had decided, as a matter of principle, to pay as much in rent as they could possibly afford. And she looked genuinely confused when I laughed and said that was absolutely ridiculous. Attachment to the consumer model of self-empowerment runs deep.

In fact, as Rich details, Soho’s transformation occurred as the result of a deliberate alliance between advocates for artists and farseeing property owners interested in ousting their light-manufacturing tenants and turning their space to more lucrative purposes. To property owners, artists were always a temporary means to an end.

The point is that the self-interest of the artists – living in lofts – strategically aligned with long-term elite plans for creating higher economic uses – getting small manufacturers out of the lofts as part of the deindustrialization of lower Manhattan. At the time, the artists’ movement was happy to receive elite support voiced in terms of the importance of the arts, even though the larger goal was the reorganization of the economy.

Returning to that Gotham Gazette story, we can see the exact same thing happening again.

Greenpoint and Williamsburg are famous internationally as artistic communities, but they weren’t always so popular, and their zoning reflected that. To address the new attraction of the area, it was rezoned last year to allow for larger developments and more residential buildings. The rezoning was heralded by officials as a model of gentrification that would benefit everyone. Thirty-three percent of the housing units to be created were estimated to be affordably priced, there was money set aside to assist tenants in relocating and for legal aid, and anti harassment laws were strengthened.
Artists are not necessarily in direct competition with industrial businesses: Artist work/live space is allowed within many manufacturing zones, and expanding the number of these in Greenpoint was proposed as part of that community's rezoning plan, though ultimately rejected in the city's 2005 rezoning plan. Adam Friedman, executive director of the New York Industrial Retention Network , an advocacy group, likes to note that many of the industrial jobs still in the city are artisans.

But many landlords illegally convert their warehouses for much more lucrative residential use under the guise of creating work space for artists.

A New York Industrial Retention Network report, published in 2004, found that 27 buildings in East Williamsburg alone have carried out illegal conversions, which is estimated to equal 500,000 square feet. Another building in the area, 255 McKibbin St., was issued $6,150 in fines for such violations, of which only $1,150 was paid, yet was still approved in 2003 to begin legally offering work/live space for artists in the building, the report shows.

(Incidentally, I think I know that building on McKibbin.)


Those upset by the implication of the arts in urban upscaling are understandably less organized, but some of the most upset start groups. A few years ago some people in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, Brooklyn founded Gentrifiers against Gentrification (GAG). The April 9, 2001 issue of Inner City Press (www.innercitypress.org), the newsletter of an economic justice organization based in the Bronx, reported on a forum held at New York University about gentrification.

During the question-and-answer period, some NYU students who have moved to Bushwick [Brooklyn] (as the first wave of gentrification) stated that they were trying to be "socially responsible" -- they've even formed a group, called "Gentrifiers Against Gentrification." The problem is, their willingness to pay more money than the neighborhood's current residents, for lofts and other space, speaks for itself, and has its own implications. Why not Jamaica, Queens, they were asked? Or Ozone Park?

Despite their best intentions, the aspiring practitioners of social responsibility are reduced to economic actors making life difficult for others with less money.

Ultimately, problems created by markets cannot be countered solely through collections of more enlightened individual choices, nor even through the creation of well-meaning nonprofit organizations. Only collective action can equal the power of major property-owners in this city—and that means government action. It is true that our governments are too often captured by private power, and it is also true that they will always be captured by private power to some extent. Unless you want to get revolutionary, there is nothing to be done about that. Government is the only tool ordinary people have to match those more powerful than them—and make no mistake, ownership is power.

That idea—that government should be used to defend the interests of average people against the powerful few—is a distinctive feature of liberalism, and I rarely see it described explicitly as such.

Left Behinds is exactly one year old today.


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