Sunday, October 13th, 2013

My Presence Is a Provocation

The urbanist internet has been a ga ga over an article by artist and musician David Byrne (photo credit: Wikipedia) called “If the 1% stifles New York’s creative talent, I’m out of here.” Now David Byrne himself is at least a cultural 1%er, and at with a reported net worth of $45 million, isn’t exactly hurting for cash. In fairness to him, he forthrightly admits he’s rich. He also is bullish on the positive changes in New York in areas like public safety, transportation, and parks, and does not fall prey to romanticizing the bad old days of the 70s and 80s. However, in his assigning blame for New York’s affordability, he points the finger squarely at Wall Street, neglecting the role he himself played in bringing about the changes he decries, changes in which he was more than a passive participant.

Back in the early 90s I liked to hang out in a neighborhood called Fountain Square in Indianapolis, a down at the heels commercial district near downtown largely populated by people from Appalachia. I enjoyed browsing the low end, marginal shops and eating at diners where the food was mediocre and the waitresses sassy but not all that attractive (not that I let that stop me from flirting with them). Today, Fountain Square is not exactly gentrified, but is seeing a lot of investment and new residential construction. It’s a long way from unaffordable, but it isn’t impossible to conceive of a day when it features almost entirely higher prices (by Indianapolis standards) in the way some other zones downtown do.

About that time I also liked to drive around the city and take pictures of various neighborhoods in the inner city. One time I was on the East Side and was walking around taking snaps of streetscapes. I apparently pointed my camera too close in the direction of a white minivan whose owner took umbrage. The driver, who was white, long-haired, with a bit of a redneck air about him, circled the block and pulled up next to me to berate me in a semi-menacing way, alternately demanding to know why I was taking pictures of his van and warning me I should never do it again. (I generally take pains to try to avoid including people in my photographs when possible, and things like this are one reason why).

I’m not going to claim there was any hidden agenda here other than this guy being directly suspicious of my pointing a camera his way. But I can’t help but wonder if subconsciously he was aware of a more subtle but potentially more dangerous threat that I posed to his neighborhood and way of life.

I’m not taking credit or blame for neighborhood change in Indianapolis. But I do know that I’m part of the dynamic of the city I’m in. And when I guy like me walks into a neighborhood, my mere presence can be a provocation. Cities are inherently dynamic places, and we are agents of the forces of change whether we want to be or not. (Which is as true for the poor as for the one percent, we just label it “fair housing” when poor people move into rich neighborhoods, but “gentrification” when the reverse occurs).

While I am a writer and observer on cities, I’m an endogenous not exogenous observer. All of us are players in the development of the places we live and visit, event if only bit players in some cases. And oftimes in the complex world of the city, our actions are part of forces or trends we are not event aware of, ones that may have consequences we would never have desired. That does not absolve us of our role.

As for David Byrne, the role of artists and musicians in paving the way for gentrification is so well known as to be conventional wisdom. Similarly today the hipster. And what’s one of the original signature markers of the hipster? The fixed-gear bicycle.

Just as reductions in crime obviously have an effect of dramatically raising property values (and thus rents) in a place as intrinsically attractive as New York, so do other quality of life improvements such as bicycle infrastructure. By making New York an even more desirable place to live, these improvements, wonderful as they may be and which I would heartily endorse, clearly attract more well-off residents and drive up prices.

Byrne has even taken a direct role in this. He created a series of nine public art type back racks from the city, all but one of which is in Manhattan, and which even includes this delightful example from Wall Street:


Photo Credit: Flickr/zombiete

These racks and his activism with regards to bicycles are what give Bryne his standing an urban commentator.

I for one am glad he made the bike racks as they are fantastic and I’m a fan of New York’s improved cycling infrastructure. But I also recognize that this sort of quality of life improvement contributes towards New York’s attractiveness to the wealthy. It’s just not realistic to think one can clean up the crime, the parks, improve infrastructure, etc. and then expect that prices will remain what they were back in the 70s when Bryne moved to the city. Rather than pointing the finger at the Other, the finance industry in this case, it would be more helpful if those of us who advocate for better urban environments would recognize the inevitable side effects many of our proposed policies would produce, and our own role in bringing them about.

18 Comments
Topics: Arts and Culture, Public Policy, Transportation, Urban Culture
Cities: Indianapolis, New York

18 Responses to “My Presence Is a Provocation”

  1. Paul Lambie says:

    What’s the solution to make NYC more affordable? Make it a less attractive place to live?

    I think the bigger problem is the widening gulf between the rich and everyone else. More specifically, the growth in the number and wealth of upper income households and the decrease in the number of middle class households. An inevitable effect will be that when a place becomes very popular, as is Manhattan both for its finance jobs and the city’s amenities, the middle class will disappear as they are priced out.

    Fortunately (?), there isn’t a high enough concentration of rich people in most cities to price the middle class (dwindling as it may be) or the poor out of many neighborhoods. As a resident of Indianapolis, I see the reverse problem of a growing concentration of poor people in the majority of the city.

  2. Alex says:

    The notion that advances in habitability–and by this I don’t mean simply luxer luxuries, but genuine improvements in civic quality of life–should accrue only to the rich indicates a rather circumscribed worldview.

  3. Cleanthes says:

    I’d argue that its a feature, not a bug, of global cities. NYC in its current incarnation attracts capital not just from wealthy Americans, but people all over the world. You see a simular phenomena in London, Hong Kong, and to a lesser extent Dubai and Singapore. The “problem” is that people tend to value improvements in quality of life, and are willing to pay for it. The stability and rule of law in the US is a big plus when you come from less stable countries – a large part of Dubai’s resurgence came from the Arab Spring, and large swathes of property in London are purchased by wealthy Indians/Pakistanis as well as Arabs from various countries in the GCC. NY, arguably the greatest global city, attracts the top 1% of wealth from all over the world, so the middle class is fighting for property against the wealthiest, most cosmopolitan individuals in the world.

    And there’s no obvious way to drive out people with wealth while maintaining the kind of world class amenities that a Manhattan or a London has.

    In fact, I’d argue that the whole focus on the 1% is a red herring – the nature of work is changing, and generally you’ll find that global cosmopolitans (the phrase itself isn’t the best, cosmopolitan implies a positive connotation which may or may not be true) are more similar to one another than their own countrymen. The resurgence of cities is a symptom of this change.

  4. bettybarcode says:

    Gentrification is what we call it when demand exceeds supply. Blight is what we call it when supply exceeds demand. Curing one usually results in the other.

    I draw everyone’s attention to America’s Rust Belt cities, which get no credit for successfully defeating the scourge of gentrification. John Norquist famously says that Detroit is the only major American city to defeat congestion. Sure enough, depopulation, disinvestment, deindustrialization and demolition are also superb at defeating gentrification.

    In Buffalo, we still have many more buildings and dwelling units than we have people and uses to fill them, plus no 1-percenters to ruin things for everyone else. Resent your rising rents in NYC? Come here and *really* test your mettle as an artist, musician, app developer, or entrepreneur. Funny how the cultural critics most vocally opposed to gentrification (David Byrne, I’m looking at you) never decamp for cities that are unafflicted by it.

  5. Derek Rutherford says:

    By definition, the wealthiest people will cluster in those cities that are the most “desirable” to live in when price is no object. Where the wealthy congregate, prices will rise (slowly if housing stock supply is able to expand; quickly if housing stock supply cannot easily expand). This is natural and to be expected. Railing against it is a waste of time.

    That rich people live in enclaves make them just like everyone else, and of course they will have the best amenities (that is the whole point to being rich). People who have the idea that “it is unfair that someone non-rich like me cannot afford to live comfortably next to rich people” need to accept that there are other good places to live, which are vastly more affordable and often have superior public schools. A better response would be to focus on improving places other than rich enclaves in NY/DC/Chicago/SF/etc. This is a big country with lots of interesting places – just because most self-described “urbanists” neglect them does not mean that they are not there.

    A final point: David Byrne is revealing his contempt for the rest of the country (even for other parts of NYC) – he clearly thinks it qualifies as a hardship to live anywhere else.

  6. M. S. says:

    Europe, anyone? Americans are so used to zero-sum that we no longer think about how livable many neighborhoods are w/o being just for the wealthy. The disparity between more and less affluent neighborhoods is stark in the US, but not in other, actually civilized, societies. Income Disparity, I’m lookin’ at you.

  7. I disagree that the David Byrnes of the world should relocate to places like Buffalo as comment #4 suggests. Most wealthy people are not in the business of consciously gentrifying neighborhood. It’s the upstarts and up and comers looking for affordability and opportunity who start the gentrification process, isn’t it?

  8. bettybarcode says:

    Patrick Prescott wrote, “It’s the upstarts and up and comers looking for affordability and opportunity who start the gentrification process, isn’t it?”

    Well, yes.

    Nevertheless, show me one outspoken critic of gentrification who has quit a rapidly-gentrifying city (NY, Chicago) for a slowly-gentrifying one (Buffalo, Detroit). They don’t and never will, because the latter lack (or so they believe) the privileges, pleasures, comforts and amenities afforded by wealth and growth.

    Actually, David Byrne and his ilk would feel right at home here. Buffalo is bursting with funky galleries, indy coffee houses, upstart breweries, bicycle amenities, urban farms, loft apartments, new immigrants, and social entrepreneurs of all stripes, but we’ll just keep it our little secret. Let the rest of the nation believe that it is still 1977 in Buffalo and that blizzards are a chronic menace.

  9. wkg in bham says:

    This is sort of a chicken and the egg situation. Why are artists drawn to NYC –as opposed to Buffalo to pick a place? Primarily it is the presence of a large arts “patronage” population – those with the taste and the money to actually buy art. I don’t know of any metropolitan area, or even a small one like Birmingham, that isn’t overrun with those of think of themselves as artists (delusionary in most cases). What most cities lack is not artists – but patrons.

    It is clear when Mr. Byrne says “New York” he really means “Manhattan”. When adjusted for cost-of-living almost 50% of New Yorkers are poor. 50% of NYC = 3,500,000 people who somehow manage to get by. There are a lot of one-per centers in NYC, but certainly not more than 500,000 of them. I don’t think NYC is in any danger of being totally out-of-reach to any but the rich. I was under the impression that Queens was a largely middle and working class borough.

    I think if Mr. Byrne is nostalgic for 70’s era Manhattan – there are plenty of areas in Brooklyn or the Bronx that probably contain the requisite degree of grittiness that he remembers. But alas, as Mr. Renn points out, should Mr. Byrne relocate to one of these neighborhoods – his mere presence is going to affect the gestalt of the neighborhood.

  10. Alon Levy says:

    When artists and other out-group people move into a neighborhood, it’s called gentrification. When a city kicks out poor people with eminent domain or collusion with landlords and replaces the housing stock with luxury towers, it’s called development.

  11. Cleanthes says:

    I think that people drawing the conclusion that we should follow the Europe model in aggregate are comparing apples to oranges. We’re talking about global cities. From that perspective, I’d argue the two big ones in Europe are London (let’s just put them in Europe for argument’s sake), and Paris. And they’ve shown many of the symptoms of NY well before people started complaining about NY. Living in Paris is for the elites, period. The poorer folks and immigrants live in the banlieues. If anything America is becoming more European – the rich live in the inner city, while the poor are pushed into suburbs. This is a reversal from American “exceptionalism” previously, where the rich fled to the suburbs. I’m still not sure whether this is a positive or a negative.

  12. Alon Levy says:

    Paris has a lot more affordable housing for people who’ve been there for a long time than Americans give it credit for. Rent control has its benefits. It’s supremely expensive for people who’re fed up with lack of jobs in Nord-Pas-de-Calais or the rural areas and want to move in, but for born and raised Parisians it’s not that bad.

    As for London, it’s expensive for everyone, but the wages are high to compensate. While it’s the most unequal city in Britain, its Gini index is 0.337 (link), which not only is far lower than in any US metro area, but is also separated from the least unequal US metro areas by more than the least and most unequal US metro areas are separated from each other. The most unequal US metro area, New York, has a metro area Gini index of 0.5, and a city Gini index that’s higher, while the least unequal US metros are in the 0.42-0.43 area. European metro areas are not dominated by inequality between the city and the suburbs, but by inequality between the richer metro areas (London, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Munich, etc.) and the poorer regions within each country (England away from the London commuter belt, provincial France, former East Germany, Wallonia, the Netherlands away from Randstad).

  13. Cleanthes says:

    Hi Alon,

    I’d argue that wage inequality isn’t the primary problem in London, its that London is home to a large population of individuals who don’t derive their income from London, and which probably aren’t captured in those numbers. I’d guess that a good portion of the 1MM GBP homes are going to foreign buyers (I’ve heard around 50% or higher, though that may be hearsay). And even if they’re only temporary residents, they still drive up the price up and tend to gravitate towards amenities that are out of reach of the middle class. I’m more familiar with Asian cities because I’ve been working in the region, but you certainly see the same “spill-off” effect as well. Real estate in Tokyo, Seoul, HK and Singapore is a pipe dream for even some of the upper middle class.

    I don’t know the specifics behind Paris, but I don’t think affordable housing for long time residents of a city is the solution that Mr. Byrne is looking for. Clubs like CBGB drew talent from all over America (and the world), with artists often holding day jobs to pay the bills, primarily because they were kind of sketchy. I’m not sure that affordable housing for existing residents does much to resolve the issue of attracting and creating the scene that he’s lamenting.

    I’m not super comfortable with using the Gini coefficient unless I see the underlying assumptions, it seems highly sensitive to measurements (I’d guess that if you take individual vs household income, you’d see different numbers for example). It also doesn’t seem to take into account household size or demographics – an aging population or smaller population is likely to have a smaller income than one with a robust baby boom. Finally, it seems to me that the Gini coefficient only measures income dispersion, which while useful, is only a small part of the story. Of course I’m also hopelessly pedantic.

  14. @alon, “When artists and other out-group people move into a neighborhood, it’s called gentrification. When a city kicks out poor people with eminent domain or collusion with landlords and replaces the housing stock with luxury towers, it’s called development.”

    I love it! So true. But most cities would call it “economic” development.

  15. P. Spiegel says:

    “waitresses sassy but not all that attractive (not that I let that stop me from flirting with them).” This casual aside is one perfect example of the claim, by women, that their looks are subject to being judged 100% of the time, and that they are called to account for their attractiveness on (men’s) demand. Stop writing like this, please.

  16. Bob Cook says:

    I don’t think white people, in particular, have a trained eye to understand how their presence is a “provocation.” Certainly, black people are very well aware that their appearance in a neighborhood that previously had no black people is often an extreme provocation. (My Chicago suburb of Oak Lawn has at least one village board member calling for all basketball hoops to be removed from parks, if you catch my drift.)

    Of course, a lot of that has to do with economics as well as race. White people moving en masse into an area tend to have a lot of money to “improve” things. What we’ve had trouble figuring out is how to meet that middle where people can move into where they want without the result being much higher costs, or much lower, in the neighborhood. But I guess that gets back to your discussion about neighborhoods being dynamic — when momentum happens, it tends to be in one extreme or the other.

    The interesting thing about a city such as Indianapolis is that those momentum swings don’t seem to happen nearly as quickly as a larger burgh such as New York or Chicago. Part of that may be because even the priciest areas are relatively affordable, compared with other cities. Plus, there isn’t the population density that makes moves so sudden. Fountain Square is a good example, in that you don’t have to get too far to see its Appalachian roots.

    For one thing, the Peppy Grill is still in Fountain Square, so there’s that.

  17. bettybarcode says:

    P.Speigel wrote”

    “‘waitresses sassy but not all that attractive (not that I let that stop me from flirting with them).’ This casual aside is one perfect example of the claim, by women, that their looks are subject to being judged 100% of the time, and that they are called to account for their attractiveness on (men’s) demand. Stop writing like this, please.”

    Too bad there is no upvote/downvote feature at this blog. I’d upvote this in a big way.

  18. Chris B. says:

    @bettybarcode and @P.Spiegel while I don’t think women, or men for that matter, should be objectified, I believe nitpicking about “casual asides” only serves to distract from the serious aspects of gender inequality and just gives ammo to those who want to accuse anyone concerned about women’s issues of being a PC nag.

    Mr. Renn was writing about his own experience, and while you are free to request that he be more sensitive in his writing style, it is his story to tell, and he will write it in the way he chooses. Also, since he was describing his interactions with people in the Fountain Square neighborhood, and in the case of the waitresses, specifically describing his interaction in the context of flirting, it was certainly appropriate for him to bring up the looks of the women he flirted with. When it comes to sex and flirting, all individuals judge the appearance of others, and it is perfectly okay for them to do so.

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