More stuff. An essay in search of a thesis. Stop me if you've heard this one before. I write more often than the world changes.
The city is, I think, always a subconcious preoccupation for me. Both of my parents were city planners and I think I thought I might follow them in that direction at some point in my life. In fact, I think what dissuaded me most from going that direction, besides personal stuff, is that the same issues that are now being discussed in music were already becoming problems in that field*. While most authors that I recall reading back then were still obsessed with the twin "evils" of late Modernist architecture and suburbanization, I was already sensing issues, not with gentrification, but with the more sanitized version, New Urbanism.
New Urbanism sought to recreate some of the main virtues of city life, for instance, the focus on walking and public transportation as opposed to the use of the car, mixed-use development, and a preponderance of public space. From what I can tell, the most talked-about works of the movement from outside of the sphere focus on new developments like Celebration in Florida. But there was certainly an interest in redeveloping existing urban sites and urbanizing denser suburban areas. Between the house subscription to the ULI magazine, and all of the development in perpetually cash-rich Washington, DC, and, especially, Bethesda, MD and Arlington, VA (both just outside DC's formal limits but very integrated into the metropolitan area), I got to see a lot of the ideas play out fairly quickly after they were conceptualized.
What struck me immediately about New Urbanism is the comfortable relationship it maintains with capital. Whereas in Jane Jacobs' utopian vision of urban life, the city is anarchic and thrives on the uncoerced cooperation of its residents, New Urbanism's democratic vision, supposedly derived from Jacobs, had no compunction in integrating large corporations into the process of (re)development.
Partially, this is, of course, due to pragmatic necessity. Cities, for the most part, don't buy land, don't develop it, and don't build the buildings themselves. Hence private developers. But even developers need help. Hence banks. But, as my mother said years ago, banks don't loan money unless there is a good promise of return and that possibility of return can only be ensured by securing large retailers as tenants in the buildings to be constructed.
Whether due to the nature of how projects are financed or not, New Urbanist developments tend to reflect the values of those who construct them, specifically a consumerist vision of democracy, instead of a radical one. The difference between the two is the difference between choosing amongst choices or choosing the choices themselves. Zygmunt Bauman, in his book Postmodernity and Its Discontents, and speaking specifically of the arts, likened the situation to a stage, access to which is now more universal than before, with the catch being that nobody can throw anyone else off. As in a New Urbanist mall, we can choose anything we want, even to not shop, but there are no options that dis-include shopping or not shopping.
There is a New Urbanist development in Arlington called Pentagon Row (some pictures here). I used to visit it quite often, partially because of a compulsion towards new spaces, regardless of whether I like them or not, and partially because one of the local businesses added to the project to add flavor (both literally and metaphorically) happened to be the most convenient location to me of a DC-area chain of Lebanese restaurants that I enjoy. Like many developments in the style, there is a public space there, a square, meant to be a place of gathering. But the private nature of the whole development overshadows the ostensibly public purpose of the space. For all the allusions to Italian piazzas, it's almost impossible to imagine anything ever happening there. All of the stores and restaurants have big windows; the distinction between public space and shopping space is collapsed.
My parents, especially my father, were fairly enthralled with New Urbanism. Products of the 1960s, participants in the backlash against anonymous public housing and the suburbs, they still invested in urban planning the hope of their times: that the way urban environments were constructed could truly influence on a fundamental level, the lives and societies that inhabited them. But their focus was purely on form, not content. Any development which promised walkable, tree-filled streets, mixed-use development with street-level retail, and buildings that integrated with each other in harmonious ways was, de facto, a good project. I feel like this focus on form has interesting parallels with music, whereby the tension of how music actually functions socially, and who it serves, is completely glossed over in favor of the formal concerns of recreation. In fact, the "lame"-ness of it all, of retro culture, has a lot less to do with aesthetics, than with what is at stake, the content, which is nothing.
I've been uneasy with the word gentrification for a while now (way before I read Lloyd's Neo-Bohemia - minuscule pat on the back). What I'll continue to reiterate is that the mere shuffling of the racial, cultural and economic constituencies of various neighborhoods pales in comparison to the ontological shifts that happen in these places as they become part of the "mapped", or mediated, post-industrial landscape. The post-industrial hipster migration to urban centers is an echo of earlier industrial migrations and will have the same transformative effect of those earlier migrations. The people will come and go, the purpose will remain the same. That the racial, cultural and economic backgrounds of those migrating are much more coherent than those of the people being pushed out is incidental to the process of gentrification itself. The sites of exclusion and discrimination exist elsewhere, not physically, but socially, in terms of how cultural knowledge is disseminated. The cultural knowledge of the worker class of the new economy is the resource to be exploited, replacing the physical labor of the older economy.
What both bottom-up gentrification and top-down New Urbanist schemes share (as well as the critiques of both Modernism and suburbanization), besides their preoccupation with "livability", is that they install white, middle class people as the foundational class of urban narrative. In some ways, it's true, because the height of American cultural production, the Post-WWII period, happens to be circumscribed within the period between their flight and return to urban space. But that narrative also inscribes a certain deviancy within culture produced outside of it. That deviancy, that "energy, frustration (and) need for temporary transcendence" is what needs to be removed in order to make the music function.
(so i'm no closer to necessity here - but now maybe the question is - why do us "crackers" have to do this? from where does the bourgeois desire come for "predictability and control"? I feel like there is answer somewhere in the process of the depolicitization of what I have called biological antagonisms. difference as a revolutionary political strategy that makes impossible the empathy necessary for revolutionary change... is the idea of "difference" a bourgeois idea? did it precede it's use as part of the vocabulary of multiculturalism? did it undermine structural critique? is it now, this bloodless tolerance, undermining the disciplining process of culture? is "difference" its own disciplining process against culture? Badiou wrote in Ethics that tolerance can't tolerate intolerance... but intolerance is the lifeblood of politics and culture! how to even recover "bad" taste from so many years of listening?)
One more thing...
There's a tension. On the one hand (and yes, I have started to read Retromania now) between what Simon describes as the omnivorousness of the ideal consumer, and the fact that, now that all tastes can be catered to, there's no need to change anymore, either externally or internally. You can stay with your tribe forever.
I meant a long, long time ago, to respond to this post and the idea that retro could be a strategy for the "radical rejection of the consumer capitalist need for constant novelty". I disagree. Actual novelty can be a really awesome, valuable thing. The problem with capitalism is that it sells you the same shit over and over again with slight improvements. As an act of pure creation, outside of the social ramifications, the iPhone is big development. That Apple has to sell you a new one with slight changes every year is where the real waste of consumer capitalism lies. Likewise with music. Basic Channel/Chain Reaction was novel. The ten thousand records that sound like those records are what creates a perpetual market, in the worst sense of the word, for the initial style. That market takes the initial music out of the narrative of history, outside of itself as a specific even. And since, as I mention here, most consumers are not that educated, the market persists because of/enables historical amnesia. The amnesia that prevents radical desire.
Novelty was a way of opening up space ahead of capital, the thing that created the utopian moment of culture as something that could belong to someone before being sold. The fumbling attempts by capital to catch up with and integrate new ideas actually solidified and dramatized the cultures it tried to exploit, and helped them to form their moral vocabularies.
*Ironically, given that the barriers to getting things done are much higher, architecture and urban development have been way ahead now. One example: Autobahn, the harbringer of sleek Modernism in popular music, hadn't even been released when Pruitt-Igoe, a model Modernist housing project, was demolished. While your down here distracted from narrative, I should also mention that the architect who designed Pruitt-Igoe, Minoru Yamasaki, was also responsible for the design of the World Trade Center. Freaky, huh?