The Perils of Hipster Economics
On May 16, an artist, a railway service and a government agency spent $291,978 to block poverty from the public eye.
Called psychylustro, German artist Katharina Grosse's project is a large-scale work designed to distract Amtrak train riders from the dilapidated buildings and fallen factories of north Philadelphia. The city has a 28 percent poverty rate - the highest of any major US city - with much of it concentrated in the north. In some north Philadelphia elementary schools, nearly every child is living below the poverty line.
Grosse partnered with the National Endowment of the Arts and Amtrak to mask North Philadelphia's hardship with a delightful view. The Wall Street Journal calls this "Fighting Urban Blight With Art". Liz Thomas, the curator of the project, calls it "an experience that asks people to think about this space that they hurtle through every day".
The project is not actually fighting blight, of course - only the ability of Amtrak customers to see it.
"I need the brilliance of colour to get close to people, to stir up a sense of life experience and heighten their sense of presence," Grosse proclaims.
"People", in Grosse and Thomas's formulation, are not those who actually live in north Philadelphia and bear the brunt of its burdens. "People" are those who can afford to view poverty through the lens of aesthetics as they pass it by.
Urban decay becomes a set piece to be remodeled or romanticised. This is hipster economics.
Influx of hipsters
In February, director Spike Lee delivered an impassioned critique - derisively characterised as a "rant" by US media outlets - on the gentrification of New York city. Arguing that an influx of "... hipsters" had driven up rent in most neighbourhoods - and in turn driven out the African-American communities that once called them home - he noted how long-dormant city services suddenly reappeared:
"Why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the south Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better? The garbage wasn't picked up every ... day when I was living in 165 Washington Park... So, why did it take this great influx of white people to get the schools better? Why's there more police protection in Bed Stuy and Harlem now? Why's the garbage getting picked up more regularly? We been here!"
Lee was criticised by many for "hipster-bashing", including African-American professor John McWhorter, who claimed that "hipster" was "a sneaky way of saying 'honkey'" and compared Lee to television character George Jefferson.
These dismissals, which focus on gentrification as culture, ignore that Lee's was a critique of the racist allocation of resources. Black communities whose complaints about poor schools and city services go unheeded find these complaints are readily addressed when wealthier, whiter people move in. Meanwhile, long-time locals are treated as contagions on the landscape, targeted by police for annoying the new arrivals.
Gentrifiers focus on aesthetics, not people. Because people, to them, are aesthetics.
Proponents of gentrification will vouch for its benevolence by noting it "cleaned up the neighbourhood". This is often code for a literal white-washing. The problems that existed in the neighbourhood - poverty, lack of opportunity, struggling populations denied city services - did not go away. They were simply priced out to a new location.
That new location is often an impoverished suburb, which lacks the glamour to make it the object of future renewal efforts. There is no history to attract preservationists because there is nothing in poor suburbs viewed as worth preserving, including the futures of the people forced to live in them. This is blight without beauty, ruin without romance: payday loan stores, dollar stores, unassuming homes and unpaid bills. In the suburbs, poverty looks banal and is overlooked.
In cities, gentrifiers have the political clout - and accompanying racial privilege - to reallocate resources and repair infrastructure. The neighbourhood is "cleaned up" through the removal of its residents. Gentrifiers can then bask in "urban life" - the storied history, the selective nostalgia, the carefully sprinkled grit - while avoiding responsibility to those they displaced.
Hipsters want rubble with guarantee of renewal. They want to move into a memory they have already made.
In a sweeping analysis of displacement in San Francisco and its increasingly impoverished suburbs, journalist Adam Hudson notes that "gentrification is trickle-down economics applied to urban development: the idea being that as long as a neighbourhood is made suitable for rich and predominantly white people, the benefits will trickle down to everyone else". Like trickle-down economics itself, this theory does not play out in practice.
Rich cities such as New York and San Francisco have become what journalist Simon Kuper calls gated citadels: "Vast gated communities where the one percent reproduces itself."
Struggling US cities of the rust belt and heartland lack the investment of coastal contemporaries, but have in turn been spared the rapid displacement of hipster economics. Buffered by their eternal uncoolness, these slow-changing cities have a chance to make better choices - choices that value the lives of people over the aesthetics of place.
In an April blog post, Umar Lee, a St Louis writer and full-time taxi driver, bemoaned the economic model of rideshare services, which are trying to establish themselves in the city. Noting that they hurt not only taxi drivers but poor residents who have neither cars nor public transport and thus depend on taxis willing to serve dangerous neighbourhoods, he dismisses Uber and Lyft as hipster elitists masquerading as innovators:
"I've heard several young hipsters tell me they're socially-liberal and economic-conservative, a popular trend in American politics," he writes. "Well, I hate to break it to you buddy, but it's economics and the role of the state that defines politics. If you're an economic conservative, despite how ironic and sarcastic you may be or how tight your jeans are, you, my friend, are a conservative …"
Lee tells me he has his own plan to try to mitigate the negative effects of gentrification, which he calls "50-50-20-15". All employers who launch businesses in gentrifying neighbourhoods should have a workforce that is at least 50 percent minorities, 50 percent people from the local neighbourhood, and 20 percent ex-offenders. The employees should be paid at least $15 per hour.
Gentrification spreads the myth of native incompetence: That people need to be imported to be important, that a sign of a neighbourhood's "success" is the removal of its poorest residents. True success lies in giving those residents the services and opportunities they have long been denied.
When neighbourhoods experience business development, priority in hiring should go to locals who have long struggled to find nearby jobs that pay a decent wage. Let us learn from the mistakes of New York and San Francisco, and build cities that reflect more than surface values.
Sarah Kendzior is a St Louis-based writer who studies politics and media.