Is cultural regeneration classless?
I’m grateful to Triston Wallace and his blog here, which has prompted this short reflection on culture and class.
Some years ago, Richard Florida’s concept of the Creative Class was all the vogue – the idea of a whole stratum of society, a ‘class’ of artists, teachers, and a mix of other very broadly creative professionals, which was beginning to congregate in a number of US cities and generating economic growth and urban regeneration. Florida made much of the tolerance and diversity which characterised this group.
I’ve always harboured an anxiety that Florida’s thesis is innately ‘classist’ – celebrating the values of an educated middle-class, while implicitly denigrating the values of traditional working class urban communities.
This doesn’t undermine a core part of his thesis: that the economic and social dynamic in many of our most successful cities is being shaped by a new group of creative businesses and individuals. But Florida’s approach stikes me as worryingly straightforward, failing to engage fully with the tensions and community conflicts which cultural regeneration butts up against.
Triston’s piece, referred to above, cites Hoxton – frequently referred to as an example of cultural and creative-led regeneration on the fringes of the city of London. Hoxton was traditionally a very poor white area of town. And, the chances are the locals are not as tolerant and diverse as the new creative types moving into their neighbourhood. The transformation of Hoxton into a buzzing creative district will have generated some trickle-down benefits for the local community, in their poor quality social housing. But to what extent are they, or have they, been involved in the changes taking place. Are they now setting up their own cultural enterprises, or hanging out in the cool cafes and bars? Or, more likely, do they continue to experience high unemployment, and shop at places like Iceland?
Too often the ‘creative class’ which transforms neighbourhoods does so at the expense of local people, and sometimes local values and culture. And, by implication, the values underpinning that cultural transformation are far from tolerant and appear only to engage with ‘diversity’ so long as the diversity does not include the poor (very often white) communities left untouched by the gentrification of the area. That’s the challenge, by the way, in places like Hackney Wick, where it is planned that there will be a creative and digital cluster post-2012.
There are, of course, examples of a more integrated – if not indigenous – cultural-led transformation, and I am certainly not arguing that cultural regeneration, and cultural and creative development are harmful for communities. Rather, my beef is with Florida and with others who push the importance the concept of the ‘creative class’ but who appear not to have much of a concept of ‘class’ at all.
I’m not sure who it was who once said that ‘urban regeneration begins with poetry and ends with real estate’. While simplistic, there’s something very profound in here about the disempowering force of urban development which most ‘poets’ would want to resist.