Response to The Villager

For some reason, the moderator of the comments section of saw fit to exclude my response to Clayton Patterson’s most recent article, Let’s get back to our roots: We need new leaders. It wasn’t long, or offensive, so I don’t know why they censored it, unless they just can’t brook any disagreement with Mr. Patterson.

This is what I wrote (as best as I can recall):

Mr. Patterson puts the cart before the horse. Leaders come out of the people. It used to be that the people of this neighborhood were communists, socialists, even anarchists. Today they are mostly liberals. Liberals don’t care about the poor.* They care more about which stores open in the neighborhood than they do about the condition of the people who work in those stores.

And if artists need to live in slums to be creative, there’s no shortage of those in the world. “The breeding places of disease, the infamous holes and cellars in which the capitalist mode of production confines our workers night after night, are not abolished; they are merely shifted elsewhere! The same economic necessity which produced them in the first place, produces them in the next place also.” (F. Engels, The Housing Question.)

*I bet this is where they balked!

So that’s what I wrote, but since I’m posting this on Quilas, I will expand it a bit.

I don’t know why it is that people isolate the experiences of artists when talking about this neighborhood. (Well, yes I do, but they shouldn’t do it.) The movement of artists into this area occurred during a specific period of time — post-WW2. Artists were not immigrants; they played a significant role in gentrifying this neighborhood. I wrote briefly about this in my post Artists Made This Neighborhood?

I’m not hostile to artists, but their plight was the plight of thousands more who had no other options, the way the artists did, to live elsewhere. Today, artists are seen as the victims of gentrification when, in the main, they were the tools of gentrification.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. joe
    Jun 19, 2013 @ 12:30:00

    I was just going through your archive looking for something when I came across this post. I have 2 thoughts:

    1. “Liberals don’t care about the poor.”

    In my experience individual liberals do care about the poor. At their best they seek to mollify the structural inequalities endemic to capitalist society by instituting government programs such as income supports, affordable housing, etc and through recognition of the right of labor to organize. For example in his study ‘When Work Disappears’ (liberal) sociologist William Julius Wilson sees the crisis of the ghettoized urban poor as stemming in large part from economic processes such as globalization and suburbanization. He recommends government action to put the ghettoized jobless poor (and the larger redundant white working class) back to work. Where liberals fail is that their best efforts — for example the Great Society Programs — fall short of poverty elimination and simply act as a way of containing the unrest that poverty gives rise to (or at least threatens). Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward made this point in ‘Regulating the Poor’. In a similar vein it has been argued that the Great Recession of 2007-2009 was as serious a crisis as the Great Depression but enough of the New Deal safety net remained in place (especially in the form of unemployment insurance and the massive growth in food stamp use) to keep political discontent from gaining traction as it did in the 1930s. At the end of the day what liberals do not do is criticize capitalist relations from the viewpoint of the poor/working class. Nor do they suggest measures that take us beyond capitalism.

    2. “if artists need to live in slums to be creative, there’s no shortage of those in the world.”

    Artists need affordable space. This has been found either in declining spaces of production (South Street seaport, Soho) or in neighborhoods that have experienced decline but are not too unstable (East Village, Williamsburg, Park Slope) and which are desirable in other ways, including building stock and geographic location. In his book ‘The Last Intellectuals’ Russell Jacoby pointed out that the kind of stable, working class environment that is needed for public intellectuals to thrive have been rapidly disappearing in key urban centers. The argument extends to artists who are also faced with an increasingly precarious position.

    As for how artists fit into the postwar political economy, see Sharon Zukin’s ‘Loft Living.’ It was only in the postwar period that being an artist became something of a career path. Pursuing art is unique in that it includes a sustained period of time needed to develop a body of work. During that period struggling artists are willing to perform low skill and low wage labor as a kind of right of passage. Artists become an important source of highly educated, low wage workforce for all those fancy restaurants and boutiques catering to highly paid workers in finance. They also engage in cultural production that makes their haunts and homes attractive to more wealthy consumers who then flock to those areas to consume an ‘artistic’ or alternative lifestyle. So artists do play a role in driving gentrification (even if they are not themselves the architects of gentrification) and they do become victims of further gentrification.


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