Lobotomized Cities: Rebecca Solnit in Conversation with Nato Thompson

October 21, 2013

Creative Time chief curator Nato Thompson speaks with acclaimed author Rebecca Solnit about gentrification and the role of culture in cities. Solnit was a keynote speaker at the 2013 Creative Time Summit: Art, Place & Dislocation in the 21st Century.

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Michael Vahrenwald, Untitled, Corporate Town, 2003.

Nato Thompson: Gentrification is a topic you have written about quite extensively in regard to that city on the Bay, San Francisco. It’s also a strange word in that it hints at not only a spatial transformation, but a cultural one as well (in terms of race and class). How do you see that mutable thing called culture playing out in cities and what value does it possess?

Rebecca Solnit: Culture is not only economically beneficial to cities; in a deeper sense, it’s what cities are for. A city without poets, painters and photographers is sterile—it’s a suburb. It doesn’t contain the mirrors of its own inner workings, in the form of creativity, criticism or cultural memory. It’s undergone a lobotomy.

It’s important to add that the people who blame artists for gentrification imagine artists as white middle-class newcomers to neighborhoods; but there are long-term culture-makers from the underclass that matter. Art comes in all colors: think of the Mission District’s muralists, the gospel choirs of the Fillmore or hip-hop in the South Bronx, just for starters.

Most politicians, businessmen and economists, and many urban theorists, present cities as machines of capital, now that industrial production has been shipped off to the Third World, or sometimes American exurbs and suburbs. But cities, for me, are the brain of a society. They’re made for dreaming and imagining in ways that might not be so viable, or might just be lonely, in towns or villages. Big cities become refugee centers for people who are weird and innovative.

The reversal of postwar white flight ultimately led to the suburbanization of the city. Look at downtown San Diego, which has supposedly been “reinvigorated” (to use a bit of urbanist jargon)—it’s dominated by chain stores and condos that are often second homes for the rich. There’s another problem. Cities used to provide poor people with a place—even if it was just a tenement. Now if you fall below the middle class, you won’t find the working-class boarding houses of the 1930s. Instead, you’ll fall into homelessness. There’s this novel phenomenon of homeless people who are employed, sometimes even in white-collar jobs.

Michael Vahrenwald, Untitled, Corporate Town, 2003.

Michael Vahrenwald, Untitled, Corporate Town, 2003.

NT: I work in New York City and live in Philadelphia because it’s more affordable. I commute by train, and it’s a nice, meditative form of transportation, but it also represents this space-time continuum that is deeply related to gentrification. Many of us cannot afford to live in a city like New York, and have to live on the periphery, which means a longer commute—time we’re not compensated for and time in which we could be doing other things.

RS: I have a cousin who works as a firefighter in Manhattan and lives in a rent-controlled apartment within the borough. People think he has a trust fund because every other firefighter lives in the suburbs. But people who carry out essential community functions like teaching, running daycares or putting out fires should live in the places they serve. Otherwise, you get the resort culture you see in places like Aspen, Colorado, where kids who work as baristas or gas station attendants camp out in their trucks because there’s no affordable housing, or Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which can be deadly for workers to drive to from more affordable towns in nearby Idaho.

I don’t want to live in a community that only consists of white people working white-collar jobs. To us in California, “Manhattanization” used to mean that high rises were coming in, but for me it now means that low-income people are being pushed out. Just like biodiversity in the natural world, it is important to have social diversity in our communities—something New York still has on its streets and subways, as people commute to and from work. That is an advantage over car-based cities like Los Angeles, where there is little public space to mingle.

NT: Many cities, including Philadelphia and New York, are either broke or afraid of driving away revenue, so mayors are hard-pressed to put pressure on any lucrative industries, whether or not they’re hurting the working poor. How true do you think this is in your hometown, San Francisco?

RS: In San Francisco, this shouldn’t be true because we’re doing great. Although the financial crisis has affected us, there’s plenty of revenue. However, the city’s becoming a bedroom community; businesses are paying taxes elsewhere and we’re getting all the residents. Google, which is based not in San Francisco but nearby Mountain View, pays its engineers six-figure incomes, and they kick out former residents of the Mission. Meanwhile, the company pays its bus drivers, janitors and document-scanners a hell of a lot less. So where do the Google bus drivers who make $18 an hour live?

Google created the Google Bus because Mountain View is too brutal of a commute by car—about an hour and a half south of San Francisco in rush hour traffic. Employees begin their workday aboard a Wi-Fi-equipped luxury coach, programming and posting on Facebook from behind tinted windows. Apple and other tech companies have similar buses for their employees. These company buses literally pull up to public bus stops, and the public bus has to wait. It’s one of the most visible faces of privatization: Google is using public space, while shoving public transit out of the way.

Silicon Valley creates a homogenous group of very well paid, mostly white—and some Asian—men (and to a lesser extent, women), who are disconnected from their surroundings, partly because they work insane amounts. They disrupt the community’s sense of social continuity and its economic and ethnic diversity. Many of the newcomers are lovely individuals, but their cumulative impact is horrendous.

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Michael Vahrenwald, Untitled, Corporate Town, 2003.

NT: Here in New York, Mayor Bloomberg has been anything but sympathetic to housing concerns. In fact, I think the current mayoral election is a mass referendum on housing, from a public that is frustrated with his deeply pro-business, pro-real estate model. Is there anyone in politics or public policy seriously taking up housing issues in San Francisco?

RS: The excesses of development, gentrification and eviction during the dot-com boom—when Mayor Willie Brown was a best friend to the developers—actually produced a great backlash. We elected the most progressive Board of Supervisors in the city’s history. We closed some of the loopholes that encouraged gentrification in the form of designer “live-work” housing. John Avalos, who almost became mayor in the very corrupt recent election, is a very progressive Latino member of the Board of Supervisors, and we have other strong progressive voices coming together in an anti-eviction coalition.

Internationally, cities like Berlin are addressing gentrification in meaningful ways, but here it is hard to imagine what could adequately buffer or counter the market forces that govern real estate. In the United States, housing is a commodity, not a right. People don’t have the equivalent of a right to return to their neighborhoods.

NT: I want to shift to the intersection of art and urban space. In my experience, the arts seem to operate at their best in a precarious situation. Basically, artists need cheap living space to exist outside of, and be critical of, markets. How has art been affected by the changes in San Francisco?

RS: Artists were moving from San Francisco to Oakland in the 1980s and the outward migration never stopped, which makes me wonder what was it like before I got here. How artistically dense was it? Today it keeps thinning out, and while there are people like me who got their rent-controlled perch in time, I personally know three artists—a painter, a photographer and a poet, as it happens—who have been evicted in the past few years despite their tremendous contributions to the city. All three managed to find housing again in San Francisco, but many other people haven’t. These situations create real anxiety, because you seem to get one shot at living in San Francisco with your rent-controlled apartment or your house with three roommates, but if something goes wrong, then you’re never going to get another chance. This mentality makes creative people conservative.

I lived in one rent-controlled apartment for 25 years and I am very conscious that I was able to make a living as an independent writer, starting in my mid-20s, partly because of rent control. I was paying a few hundred dollars a month rent and if I had been paying two or three or four times that, I would have needed a day job. I would have been writing on the side or I would have lived with roommates. My circumstances were pretty ideal for me to be a young cultural producer. Writers who are now in their 20s and 30s don’t stand the same chance.

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Michael Vahrenwald, Untitled, Corporate Town, 2003.

NT: The popular urban theorist Richard Florida, who’s gotten a lot of juice out of saying what local politicians want to hear—that culture is a secret weapon to revitalize their cities—is often also critiqued for exactly your point about how a good cultural community is diverse, and artists actually don’t make much money.

RS: What’s also interesting is that politicians talk about culture as if it consists of nonprofits and museums, which mostly support administrators, not artists. Museums offer small stipends for performances and artist talks here and there. There’s this theory that you’re going to sell lots of paintings if you show in a museum, so they don’t need to give you a damn thing. That might be true if you’re Anselm Kiefer, but if you’re the next Nam June Paik, well, it’s less so. In the end, there’s nothing wrong with administrators—but what are they administering? It better be art, and maybe some funding should go directly to the people making it.

This piece, commissioned by Creative Time Reports, has also been published by Alternet.

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  • Zac

    That was fantastic and helpful.

  • larrybob

    Sarah Schulman’s book Gentrification of the Mind addresses related issues.

  • Eric Becker

    Pithy and concise: sums up a lot, and very well at that.

  • Todd Edelman, Slow Factory

    How are “cities like Berlin are addressing gentrification in meaningful ways”?

  • Megan Wilson

    Via Crystal Audrey Malinda Nelson: “Although I take exception to her equating people of color with the underclass or working poor (they are not synonymous and never have been) Rebecca Solnit offers some amazing incite into what’s sterilizing our cities.”

    I agree with Crystal on this … I also find it interesting how artists get lumped together in their role(s) or lack there of in gentrification … since there are so many different responses and roles that artists and arts organizations have in the process of gentrification, and ultimately the mass displacement of existing communities – e.g. 1) the artists and arts orgs that consciously and actively work together with the developers and city agencies in support of these gentrifying forces; 2) the artists and arts org who unwittingly end up working with the developers/city agencies out of desperation for the meager funding that is being offered and redirected to support these gentrifying efforts; 3) the artists who work in opposition to these efforts because it’s considered the “rebel” position, yet rarely, if ever become actively involved in actual organizing efforts – since in truth it’s more about “commodifying / capitalizing on their dissent” as artists (as Thomas Frank has written extensively about); and 4) the artists who are actively involved in community organizing efforts and use their work very actively and vocally against these forces in an effort to dismantle them … I have more to say … but it will be included in the series of articles that I am currently working on about these topics … will keep you posted, so to speak …

  • bob

    How nice for Rebecca that she was able to pay below market rents for 25 years and didnt have to have a “day job”. I wonder where this sense of entitlement comes from, as if squatting in a rent controlled flat to be a “writer” gives one desired status in a city like SF. How many other white “artists” have colonized and gentrified SF’s mission district, and driven up rents.
    Jon Avalos “almost became mayor” with 38% of the vote, to the Mayors 61%. Dont believe everything the “artist” says.

  • Trev_t

    It would have been nice to hear some discussion of SF’s decades of no growth policies and their affect on the city overall.