Saturday, January 29, 2011

When Gentrification Was Cool--Reprint from The Michigan Citizen: "Cool Class War" (a book review)

I published this article, "Cool Class War" many years ago when I was a regular staff writer for The Michigan Citizen in Detroit.

Those were the days. I was living in virtual poverty in Detroit right after my Masters and PhD degree studies at Cornell (all the years between 1990 and 2004 I had criss-crossed the country, living a decade or so in New York and a decade in Florida and living in Detroit a few years in between. I am in Detroit even now, temporarily (for who in their right mind could possibly plan or seek to live here for good? Such a prospect reeks of the finality of the grave). Detroit is one of those bad habits I can't seem to permanently break). When I wrote the article below I was renting a cheap apartment near Wayne State and had even managed to pick up a couple of courses to teach at Wayne and at the College for Creative Studies; but between writing journalism for The Citizen that didn't pay well and teaching a couple of courses that didn't pay well, I was hit and hurt and down and out in Detroit.

Ron Allen whose poetry and whose arts collective "Horizons in Poetry" had established him already as an elder arts figure in Detroit, was working away in the kitchens of various local restaurants from Union Street to The Cass Cafe and was just beginning to write his most startling, illuminated stage pieces and performance pieces, leading to the critically lauded "Last Church of the Twentieth Century" and others in a series of plays that are even now, following his death in California, being imitated all over suburban Detroit and continuing to expand his reputation as an artistic genius in Los Angeles. Tyree Guyton was doing incredible visual art that sang, and was generally modeling the singular beauty of his person and of his brilliant conceptual art forms. Lolita Hernandez had finished working on her book, "Autopsy of an Engine and Other Stories" and was about to retire from the work and the experiences at the Clark Street Cadillac assembly plant that led to that PEN Award winning book. At some point, maybe a bit before her wonderful retirement party at the Fort and Clark Street UAW House that I attended with Perri Giovannucci, Lolita had become a union official traveling all over The Americas for the UAW--jetset! But maybe that was later.

Poor Leslie Reese, now getting a much-deserved hoity toity period living in Acadamia in Chicago, was back then of maybe a couple of shirt years before then, bicycling from the Commonwealth District near Wayne to work at the DIA where she was a curator and administrator barely making enough to feed her landlord over on Commonwealth Street or thereabouts--same neighborhood, the Commonwealth District, where Bill Bryce of "Jobs With Justice" lives currently in a wonderful old house with priceless stained glass accents, hardwood floors, and his significant, Elaine.

Schaarazetta Natelege was still writing poetry and Kofi Natambu had finished a stint in New York hanging out with all the cats from David Henderson to Miles Davis, and moved out to Oakland where he has now founded his online Journal, "The Panopticon Review".

All that was to introduce the article below, which is/was a righteous attack on a more sly and sinister branch of the gentrification brigade. Richard Florida was into using 'hip' language and imagery to cover what was basically a vulture culture of vampires and cannibals with corporate patrons' money who sought not just to buy up property and resources in the urban disaster zones to flip for fun and profit under the guise of a new, post modern form of friendly fscist urban renewal (removal), but worse than that, Florida brought into the mix what has since become an increasingly popular but mindless, cultist appropriation of infomercial slickness. He posited his cartoon-like, primary colored form of urban removal as a sort of 'self help' positivism that deliberately flattered the mostly gutless bourgeoisie. With my introduction I wanted to highlight all of the arts, artists, and racial 'others' who get ignored by, delegitimized by, and ultimately paved over by gentrification in ALL its guises.

There are many middle class Black people in Detroit who swallowed the whole "Think Detroit", "Create Datroit", "Re-imagine Detroit" PR bullshit cult of positivity and neo colonialism that Florida represented, and are right this very day seeking to capitalize on the sell off of their home town by flipping ghetto properties as the condos go up across the east side that east siders cannot possibly afford. Even at this late and tragic date of desolation and collapse, these bourgeois (a couple of them ex girl friends of mine) are unconscious and selfish enough to be carrying on a buying bonanza in anticipation of the final comedown when L. Brooks Patterson finally rides triumphantly into Hart Plaza on a pink elephant with defense contracts clenched in both Oakland County caveman fists to take possession of the industrial capitol of the world.

The Black bourgeois will be there cheering, welcoming him, waving deeds and property tax receipts over their relaxed heads. When that day comes, the Poletown plant (a GM plant SO DAMN LARGE that the architects had to take into account THE CURVATURE OF THE EARTH to build the damn thing!!!) will finally make its true purpose known: war production. And Detroit will be back on top; White again, blue collar again, meat headed again, segregated again, with the Big Four and STRESS back in business again, and on that day the image of Diego Rivera on the wall of the DIA in the Rivera Court will come to life, creep down out of the "Detroit Industry" fresco, and hitchhike the hell out of town, down 75, on the way back to Mexico and freedom.

So I wrote this long introduction in order to clarify that Detroit, and all of urban America, was abandoned by power capital for a definite reason: to kill the depth, richness, and complexity of culture I have described above, that I have described only a slight bit of. For god's sake then, as we lose the Water Department, Bell Isle, the Ambassadore Bridge, and Cobo Hall, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad tales of the deaths of kings.

For I have known such giants....

“Cool” class war
The Rise of the Creative Class
Richard Florida; Basic Books/Perseus, NY, 2002; 434 Pp.
By Rayfield A. Waller
Special to The Michigan Citizen
“The Rise of the Creative Class,” a best seller, looks and sounds very much like a cult book. Maybe it’s the book’s pop terminology and half-baked economic science. It lacks analytical and historical sense. Richard Florida’s “creative class” of urban pioneers buy up land in blighted cities like Detroit and throw up condo developments the poor can’t afford.
Florida uses the term, “the creative class” for those who work in technology, arts and science. They are white elites reoccupying inner cities that have crumbled in the wake of federal abandonment, infra-structure collapse, police brutality, loss of worker rights, government corruption and joblessness.
Florida, professor of regional economic development at Carnegie Mellon University and a recipient of the Washington Monthly annual Political Book Award, is guilty of supporting a ‘cult’ of historical ignorance. The book is written in the corporate hip voice of advertising execs and talk show hosts. Florida’s description of “the emergence of a new social class” of scientists, engineers, architects and writers to take back the collapsing economy and build an American utopia, trivializes the history of cultural unrest and revolution in America.
How so? By obscuring the roots and meaning of civic and economic collapse tormenting urban America and its underclass. Urban collapse is related to the corporate and government greed of the 90’s, say most progressive cultural critics (Michael Moore), educators (Stanley Aronowitz) and mainstream economists (Paul Krugman). This collapse was, in fact, the revenge of government and corporate elites, who saw their grasp on the culture nearly broken by the rise of 60’s counterculture rebellion.

Urban collapse was deliberately engineered by Reaganomics’ transfer overseas of fifty trillion dollars’ worth of manufacturing jobs and working class wealth.
Florida trivializes that history: “The ‘counterculture’ was — and is — popular culture and popular culture is a ticket to sell things and make money,” he writes, dismissing 40 years of political and cultural struggle by women, Blacks and urban white ethnics against planned inequality, poverty, racism, sexism and class-ism. “The Rise of the Creative Class” charts and graphs the course of wealth associated with the creative class, but there are no graphs representing America’s massive transfer of wealth away from public education, health care and regulation of industry.
This transfer was America’s response to rebellion, protest and riots by urban Americans objecting to the same corporate and government elites now funding what is essentially a ‘cool’ class war of ‘creative’ elites against urban have-nots.
The book’s index contains few progressive economists, and practically no working-class sociologists, ecologists, feminists or historians addressing the class war carried out by the rich against the poor after the Carter administration.
Florida writes, “A potentially more powerful theory for city and regional growth has emerged. The basic idea . . . is that people are the motor force behind regional growth. Its proponents thus refer to it as the “human capital” theory.”
This seems nonsensical, considering the Enron scandals: corporations (and many city governments) see people not as a force behind growth but as objects to be exploited — and thrown away.

In the 80s, activists like Detroit’s “ACORN” collective demanded regulation of industries, funding of public education, and citizen empowerment through issue referendums and citizen review boards. The young Anglo, suburban professionals gentrifying the blighted remains of core urban centers with the help real estate companies and developers — what Florida calls a ‘creative class’ — enjoy support from companies like GM, GlaxoSmithKline, Exxon and Monsanto.
“Rise of the Creative Class” would more accurately be titled, “The Suburban Empire Strike Back.”