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NEW YORK The Art of Urban Change

GENTRICITY


Published by Lorena Sanchez Pereira www.lorenasanchezpereira.com Copyright Š Lorena Sanchez Pereira 2017 All rights reserved Gentricity #3. New York The Art of Urban Change First edition of 25 copies, 2017.


NEW YORK The Art of Urban Change

Lorena Sanchez Pereira

GENTRICITY


Cities have become sites of massive redevelopment where the synergies of culture and capital play an important role. The continued deindustrialization of cities, the rise of the service sector, the changes in labour and economic processes, and the gentrification of large urban regions are now receiving attention in cities all over the world, particularly in relation to the roles of culture and of the “creative class” in the urban process in general. The influence of Richard Florida’s theory about the “creative class” and its importance for the economic development of cities is being used by urban planners throughout the world. As a result, cities are being transformed in a global “SoHo” sites of cultural production and consumption, luxurious residencies and tourist destinations. Are these strategies improving living conditions in the cities, or, on the contrary, do they increase existing social inequalities? What is the current state of the “creative city” and how does it relate to trends like gentrification?

© Lorena Sanchez Pereira, 2017.


NEW YORK The Art of Urban Change New York City has undergone enormous change in the past decade, especially in the former industrial areas of the city. After years of disinvestment in the industrial sector, a new wave of neoliberal urban development is colonizing new territories through rezoning laws, capitalizing on land by recapturing former industrial or vacant sites and transforming them into mixed-used neighbourhoods with luxurious condominiums targeting the upper class, especially on the waterfront. But as, Sharon Zukin points out, this isn’t just a structural shift from an industrial to a postindustrial society or the result of a periodic boom in investment and construction, “we are eyewitnesses to a paradigm shift from a city of production to a city of consumption.” (Zukin, 2010). Cities are being sold, as urban districts and cities everywhere compete for tourist dollars and “creative city” status. Shortly after taking office, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg described the city as a “luxury product”, in this way he was defining a strategy for the city where consumerism, tourism and cultural and knowledge-based industries would become major aspects of New York’s urban political economy. Today, the role of culture, the arts and aesthetic experience in urban development is undisputed, the result of this entanglement is bringing unprecedented transformations to New York’s post-industrial sites. These sites - where artists and bohemians were once allowed to work and live - are at the centre of the city’s urban regeneration strategies, marketing space in terms of a historic and creative value that will eventually be destroyed by the forces of redevelopment. The rhetorics of culture and creativity have been deployed in the reurbanization of New York City as a strategy to increase land value by capitalizing on symbolic value. As Martha Rosler explains, “the search for more and better revitalization, and more and better magnets for high earners and tourists, eventually took a cultural turn, building on the success of artists’ districts in postindustrial economies.” (Rosler, 2013). The predominance of the rhetorics of culture and creativity in regeneration has the clear purpose of instrumentalizing the symbolic value of space, in order to render an image of the city where history, diversity and creativity are acknowledged and protected, however, as Rosler points out: “this new strategy of urban revitalization aims for a less problematic sort of integration that cities have recently known. It aspires to a synthesis of art and industry, or culture and capital, in which diversity is acknowledged, controlled and even harnessed. [But] first, the apparent reconquest of the urban core for the middle class actually reconquers it for upper-class users. Second, the downtowns become simulacra, through gussied up preservation venues. [...] Third, the revitalization projects that claim distinctiveness–because of specific historic or aesthetic traits–become a parody of the unique.” (Rosler, 2013) During the 2000s, the impact of mass tourism - bringing touristification and “tourism gentrification” would do its part to change the city. New York, Bloomberg insisted, was a brand, a product that everyone around the world should consume. In 2006, the Bloomberg administration launched a multi-million dollar marketing plan to bring a record-breaking 50 million tourists per year to New York by 2015. The plan, called “50 by 15,” was headed by a branding and advertising executive who had previously worked for clients like Disney and Coca-Cola. In this way, the rise of mass tourism, like gentrification, was carefully planned, through a grand marketing campaign that aligned the image of the city with the interests of the developers.


The central role of the urban process in the political economy is urging for more and better places to invest the surplus. The increasing importance of culture in urban development is deployed as a strategy to raise the value of space through selling symbolic value. On the other hand, mass tourism creates spaces reconstructed for a transient population “attracting people in search of a curated and controlled theme-park experience, all for the purpose of commodifying the city.” (Vice, 2017) How are these forces transforming the material and symbolic fabric of New York City? Williamsburg has become a symbol of the rapid changes that have come to New York in the past few decades, and the forces shaping these changes. In 2005 when the New York City Planning Commission rezoned 170 blocks in Williamsburg, “they explicitly aimed to upscale the waterfront ridding it of its remaining industrial uses and reclaiming the prime space for high-rise residential construction, symbolising the clash between Brooklyn’s industrial history with its new reality as a commodity.” (Zukin, 2010). The rezoning has led to a real estate boom that drove out many longtime tenants and residents. The Domino Sugar redevelopment project on the Williamsburg waterfront is a powerful example, a megadevelopment transforming eleven surrounding acres of industrial space into offices, residential towers and parkland. When the Domino Sugar Refinery opened in 1882 it was the world’s largest. Ships delivered sugarcane from across the world and, in the earliest days, much of the sugar had been harvested by slaves. Life in the refinery was so infernal that the New York Tribune declared in 1894 that a worker had only one hope of escaping “perpetual torture”. In 2014, renowned american artist Kara Walker was commissioned to create an artwork responding to the history of this contested space, which has become a symbol of post-industrial urban identity, the forces of gentrification and the problematic relationship between culture and real estate development. Titled “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” the piece represents an enormous sugarcoated woman-sphinx with undeniably black features, a symbol of the controversial history of the site, and its relation with slavery. However, Walker’s artwork doesn’t confront the present and future of this building and its role in the super-gentrification of Williamsburg. In this way, art is again being used to create symbolic value, without challenging the forces of redevelopment. This art installation marks the end of the history of this site, which will be transformed into offices and luxury apartments, leaving the facade of the building as a memento of the past. The artist’s choice of addressing the connection of the building with the history of slavery, has a redemptive effect, the past is invoked only to be forgotten. As Rothenberg and Lang explain: “Jameson (1991) outlines several key features of postmodern cultural objects, which include a preoccupation with surface effects, depthlessness, spectacle and nostalgia… re-creation of the surface, design elements of a bygone era (architectural details, fashion) with a remarkable a-historicity –or disinterest– in representing the real complexity of historical periods and their relation to our own.” (2017) Another significant example of the current trends of urban renewal in New York, is the repurposing of the city’s High Line. In Rosler’s words: “the resurrection of the city’s High Line, a disused elevated industrial rail line in lower Manhattan’s farwest former industrial zone [...] marks a further step in the long transformation of urban waterfronts, formerly the filthy and perilous haunts of poor, often transient and foreign-born workers servicing the ports into recreational and residential zones beckoning the mostly young and decidedly upper middle class. (Rosler, 2013)


Today, the High Line is one of the most popular tourist destinations in New York City, attracting five million visitors per year, and has become a model that cities all around the world aim to replicate. But the High Line has attracted as many detractors as visitors, who believe that the project epitomizes a trend in urban renewal that is transforming the industrial heritage of cities into a theme park, a city to look at and to consume, where its residents are denied the possibility to put down roots. As described in a recent report: “Disneyfied and assembly-lined, twenty-first-century New York is becoming a pale imitation of its former self, a Potemkin village of what a city used to be. It is not alone. A symptom of globalized capitalism, mass tourism’s homogenizing force is a worldwide pandemic—and it has stimulated a global backlash.” (Vice, 2017) The following photographs propose a journey through the regeneration areas discussed - Williamsburg and the High Line, and surrounding areas like Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side in Manhattan - subjected to the same forces of “creative destruction”. They focus on the transformations of the urban landscape, showing sites of regeneration at an intermediate stage, exposing the layers of history and of symbolic value adhered to these places through social actions. They also show vacant sites, which will soon change, but still pose the possibility of imagining different ways of making use of the land in more democratic and inclusive ways. Finally, the series of images of the High Line, show the production of a space that has rendered the city into a spectacle. Ultimately, these images investigate the forces behind the changes that we see - David Harvey said that “to claim the right to the city is to claim some kind of shaping power over the processes of urbanization” (2013) - but before, we need to understand the forces that are driving urban change in our cities.

© Lorena Sanchez Pereira, 2017.

References: Harvey, D. 2013. Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. Brooklyn, New York: Verso Books. Rothenberg, J. and Lang, S. (2017). Repurposing the High Line: Aesthetic experience and contradiction in West Chelsea. City, Culture and Society, 9, pp.1-12. Rosler, M. 2013. Culture Class. Berlin: Sternberg Press. Rosler, M. 1991. If You Lived Here . . . The City in Art, Theory, and Social Activism: A Project by Martha Rosler. Seattle: Dia Art Foundation and Bay Press. Vice. (2017). Tourism Is Eating New York Alive. [online] Available at: https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/ d38k4j/tourism-is-eating-new-york-alive [Accessed 24 Oct. 2017]. Zukin, S. 2010. Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


When the Domino Sugar Refinery opened in 1882, it was the world’s largest, now, more than a decade after it closed, the refinery and eleven surrounding acres are being transformed into offices, luxury apartments and a waterfront park, one of the latest mega developments on the Williamsburg waterfront.


The Wythe Hotel, opened in Spring 2012, a beneficiary of the nearly 200 blocks of rezoning the city pushed through in 2005 turning Williamsburg into a development free-for-all. The Wythe Hotel is housed in a converted 1901 factory building on the Williamsburg, Brooklyn waterfront. The design of the building has been widely praised for embracing the original building and surrounding area’s industrial past. Through this process of heritagization, former industrial sites are invested with new meanings and often drained of old ones, they invoke a “return of the past without affect.�


New hotel developments and residential condominiums keep sprouting in Williamsburg, as the demand for housing continues to rise and developers sale the neighborhood as a bohemian oasis. Today, it’s more expensive to live in this part of the city than ever before.


The average rental price is more than $3,000, according to Trulia Real Estate, and the average sale price is close to$1 million—a far cry from the days when artists and bohemians ventured into this post-industrial area in search of an eclectic and comparably affordable neighborhood in close proximity to Manhattan.


East Williamsburg is still an actively industrial part of Brooklyn that has been reborn as a startup incubator. But because much of the neighborhood is zoned for light industry, surrounding blocks are filled with factories and warehouses that make everything from concrete to wontons.


East Williamsburg apartments have become something of an artist’s haven, as creative types lease these huge old open interiors to create installations and large-scale sculptures.


Gowanus is an industrial neighborhood changing into a gentrified area, despite being one of the most polluted urban waterways in the United States. The industrial activity in Gowanus includes a mix of traditional industrial businesses, craft industries, and artists, but they might disappear if developers build luxury condos in the neighborhood.


365 Bond St., along the Gowanus Canal, a rental building is starting to reshape this industrial area. This building is the first of its kind along the Gowanus Canal, although the development team believes it’s time to start embracing the canal’s awkward beauty—and everything about the project, from its esplanades to its vibrant cultural scene. “People have been talking about Gowanus for years, saying Gowanus is going to be the next SoHo” a real estate broker told the Times, “But lately I’ve been starting to believe it.”


Starting in the 1970s, the Lower East Side reinvented itself as an epicenter for cultural production and dissemination. The New Museum (previous page), a downtown culture-maker since 1977, erected a sleek new structure on the Bowery in 2007, making use of recent rezoning to rise ten stories above its low-slung neighbors (occupied, at the time of construction, by lighting stores, kitchen supply wholesalers, and the last Single-Room-Occupancy [SRO] residences for transients). The building was the subject of much local criticism and ultimately became a symbol of the continuing re-branding of the Lower East Side from run-down neighborhood to up-and-coming arts hub.


The area’s growing trend towards high-end condos poses a heavy contrast with the history of the area as a landing place for immigrants around the turn of the 20th century. Katz’s Delicatessen, immortalized in the 1989 film “When Harry Met Sally” is a New York institution that sales $19.95 pastrami sandwiches to a legion of fans from all over the world. Last year, the owners sold two neighboring properties and its air rights for about $17 million, paving the way for a developer to build an 11-story condominium next door.


Today, the High Line is one of the most popular tourist destinations in New York City, attracting five million visitors per year, and has become a model that cities all around the world aim to replicate. The popularity of the High Line has attracted property developers, businesses, and even major cultural institutions like the Whitney Museum, capitalizing on the reputation of the area as the center of a rapidly expanding global art world.


The High Line renders the city into an aesthetic experience, a city to look at and to consume. Through the High Line pedestrians move in an organized fashion through a series of curated views of the river, architectural jewels and building sites populated with workmen, bulldozers and cranes.


The High Line’s third and final phase is its most compelling, as it wraps around Hudson Yards, the largest private real estate development in the history of the United States. Hudson Yards will seem like a city unto itself, with dozens of skyscrapers, millions of square feet of retail, commercial, residential space, a new “culture shed” and a park.


The High Line has been a catalyst for some of the most rapid gentrification in the city’s history, it serves as a paradigmatic instance of the degree to which culture and capital are intertwined in contemporary post-industrial cities like New York. In a world where the High Line has become a model that cities all around the world aim to replicate. What kinds of spaces could be produced without driving gentrification or turning your city into a spectacle?


GENTRICITY


GENTRICITY

Profile for Gentricity

NEW YORK: The Art of Urban Change  

Gentricity presents a series of photo-essays focusing on urban change in a context of intense post-industrial regeneration. In recent years,...

NEW YORK: The Art of Urban Change  

Gentricity presents a series of photo-essays focusing on urban change in a context of intense post-industrial regeneration. In recent years,...

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