October 31: “The Cultural Politics of ‘Revitalization’”


For those who would like to write a Reading Response for Oct 31, here are four questions that you may consider to prompt your writing:

  1. Following Boyd, explain how social norms are spatially produced. You may use Boyd’s example (and you are welcome to comment on how her discussion of the Granville entertainment district or East Van indie spaces measures up to your experience of these spaces). Or, you may describe your own example. If you choose to describe your own example, make sure your discussion is grounded in/ relates back to the text.
  2. One of the concepts at work in these readings is governmentality, which refers to both strategies of governance and the logics underpinning these strategies. Kern and Boyd in particular examine the forms of regulation that are put in place at multiple scales (for instance, city policies; policies created by business districts; condominium policies); the effects of these regulations; and the logicsthat make these regulations possible. Explain governmentality in your own words using examples offered by the texts, or…
    1. Explain governmentality using the example of campus security. Here’s a bit of a challenge for you to think about, even if you don’t write about it. During our in-class discussion of campus security last Wednesday, I was struck by the general acceptance of surveillance. The dominant belief seemed to be that greater surveillance would mean greater feeling of safety on campus. Yet, Boyd’s article suggests that perceptions of the Granville entertainment district remain focused on the space as hostile and unsafe, despite the increased presence of various forms of security forces (private security, police). In other words, increased surveillance does not itself translate to safer space. It may be interesting for you to think through governmentality using the example of campus security: for example, what makes surveillance appear to be synonymous with safety?
  3. How does O’Donnell’s examination of the culture plans of Canadian cities relate to Kern (or Boyd)?
  4. In the Sunday (28 Oct 2012) edition of The New York Times, there is a report about the Toronto skyline, the preponderance of glass skyscrapers, and the deadly effect that this landscape is having on migratory birds. This topic is relevant to a broad articulation of “urban cultural politics,” as it demands that we consider the effects of anthropocentric thinking: human-centred design rarely accounts for its effects on the non-human world. Moreover, we have only recently begun to take seriously how urban design relies on an expectation that certain resources will continue to be available in the long term. (An example: North American urban development tends to assume that water will be readily available, thereby completely ignoring existing water crises in places like Alberta and the US southwest.) Thinking broadly, then, how would you develop an expansive definition of “urban cultural politics”? Consider and expand upon the content of the readings in your discussion.

Lecture overview.

“Can’t afford to (heart) NY”. This is the text from the yellow print in the image to the left, which I took at a street fair beside Washington Square Park in June 2011. This message goes to the heart of critiques over urban ‘revitalization’. The concept itself relies on a troublesome logic. The Oxford Dictionary of English, 3rd edition defines revitalize as to “imbue (something) with new life and vitality.” In the parlance of many developers and city officials, revitalization is essential because certain urban areas are devoid of life and vitality. Such areas are, in these terms, tabulae rasae that are ripe for private investment. As we saw in last week’s readings, this logic fails to acknowledge the existinglife and vitality in areas designated as “in need of revitalization.” A local example: Vancouver City Council’s approval of the development at 955 East Hastings. You can read about this decision here.

At a basic level, then, to examine the cultural politics of revitalization is to dig into the costs and benefits of urban revitalization: who accrues the benefits; and who pays the costs?

Our class conversations and the questions posed for the week’s readings (below) demonstrate how adept students are at examining these questions. I will add just a few things to the mix.

The O’Donnell report reiterated some of the points that Heather McLean, our guest presenter, made last week. There is a disconnect between the stated desire for fostering youth artistic activities and the funding (and implementation) of that desire. This is a familiar story; federal government funding for arts has been cut dramatically (this typically translates to provincial cuts as well, but Quebec is a likely exception to that rule) and artist-run centres and other art-focused NGOs look for creative alternatives to stay afloat. As the second commentator (below) points out, however, some programs’ practices may be more savvy about the way they spend their funding than others are.  (The first commentator’s query about the production of “proper” citizens is right on point, and it is one that we will return to next week, particularly with the Driscoll reading.)

The questions posed about the Kern chapters are similarly on target, and they merit further discussion when we have read more of the text (for next week!) The element that I will add now speaks to the first comment (under the Kern heading), about cities including –which I interpret to mean “addressing the needs of” – all aspects of its population rather than focusing on one at a time. This question also troubles me, because it is through the very structures of governance that an intersectional understanding of people’s lives and experiences is refused. The perfect example: Vancouver’s advisory committees. (This is a list of the “people and community” advisory committees. They include LGBTQ, seniors, Aboriginal people, persons with disabilities, etc.) On the one hand, I believe that these committees were created in order to ensure that members of the community, and particularly those who are not represented on Council, have a voice in local government. On the other hand, though, the committees make it possible to maintain boundaries around “whose issues” need to be addressed, in which order. (Of course, this is not unlike the debates over the need for separate academic departments for women’s studies and other subject areas that should be, but are not yet, integrated in a substantive way into other disciplines.) It is indeed the enduring legacy and unintended consequence of identity politics. And governments (and funding agencies, etc.) have quite a hand in maintaining the notion that we are each “proper objects” that can be distilled to an essential identity.

Finally, onto Boyd. I knew that you all would have interesting comments on this piece and you certainly do! One of the things that I appreciate about this text is its intention to interrogate terms like “mainstream” which get deployed easily and often carelessly. As Boyd points out, its definition and use is only relational: “mainstream” can only be understood in relation to whatever it is not. And as many of you point out, the cultural politics of mainstream might be problematic, but so too are the terms that so-called “indie kids” use to castigate this population and its practices.

I am keen to know how you all interpret some of the elements that Boyd doesn’t address, like the “alternative” scene, as one commentator called it. Moreover, does East Van retain the same reputation now as it did in 2006/7 when Boyd was writing this text? Or is East Van itself too expensive, too rapidly gentrified, so that there are other spaces in the city where the “alternative” scene takes place?

One last point about the questions posed below that I want to draw your attention to: that is, Granville Strip as a public space. Boyd notes in the text that the idea of Granville as a public space was debatable. She didn’t elaborate, but in my reading, this is a reference to the presence of private security as well as the ownership and governance structures (like the business improvement district) that regulate the space. Does the Granville Strip “count” as public space in your minds? Does its public-ness depend on the time of day?

We really began talking about this theme last week (especially in relation to city incentives to draw in capital, whether through mega-events like the Olympics or art festivals like Blanche Nuit) and we will carry on with it next week as well. And it’s not particularly uplifting, I admit. While some of the elements of practices that get called “revitalization” may be welcome additions to the urban landscape, they often come with hidden –or not so hidden – costs. The photo in today’s banner is an example of this: it is a picture of the High Line park in Manhattan that I took while standing in the High Line. Now, I love the High Line. Unabashedly. I think it’s a cool green space and incorporates amazing landscape design in a re-use of an industrial landmark. And some of the architecture that has sprouted up around the High Line is also pretty amazing. But you can guess that this very architecture to which I refer is a result of the increased property values enabled by the High Line. Any hint of affordable housing in areas adjacent to the High Line has vanished.

So let me end with the reminder that we need to re-construct even as we examine and critique. If we focus entirely on critique and lose sight of the many strategies that people use to resist oppressive systems, we haven’t gained much: the oppressive systems remain front and centre, seemingly impenetrable, their primacy reified. So how do people challenge normative cultural politics? What kinds of mechanisms do governments have to mitigate the unintended consequences of development? How do municipal, provincial, and federal governments need to work together to find solutions, and, failing that, what strategies can municipalities use to accomplish actions that other levels of government have shirked? There are a variety of answers, of course, but here’s one example of a municipal strategy that can be used to encourage some types of property ownership and discourage others, while using the revenue to fund other programming: real estate transfer taxes. In principle, this is a luxury tax that is paid to a city when a property investor purchases a property for the sole purpose of putting the property back onto the market (eg, house flipping). In practice, it often means that property investors pay a certain amount of tax if they sell the property within six months, they pay less tax if they sell the property after twelve months, and so on. The tax can be useful in two ways: it targets a practice that can cause problems for the housing market by keeping housing costs inflated, and it provides revenue that the city can use elsewhere. The Metropolitan Transit Authority (which serves New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut) receives 38% of its funding from dedicated taxes, a portion of which comes from real estate transfer tax. So it is possible to create a funding strategy that serves progressive ends, and it requires political will to do so.

(On that note: BC has its own campaign to create sustainable funding for transit on the go right now!)

2 thoughts on “October 31: “The Cultural Politics of ‘Revitalization’”

  1. Can a condominium development be thought of as a “community?” Why or why not? And, if it can, is it a healthy community?

  2. Pre-meeting Qs from students for the Oct 31 class meeting

    *On O’Donnell’s: Children, Youth and the Culture Plans of Canadian Cites*
    In addition to economic imperatives, such as cultivating future audiences for art, cities and foundations make claims that engaging youth in artistic activities fosters sociability and well-being. Do you think that it’s really possible to separate these desired economic and social outcomes? As well, the strong emphasis on social cohesion and economic feasibility seems to be prioritized at the expense of the subversive potential of creating and disseminating art and culture, with civic engagement accounting for only 10% of city imperatives. Does creating ‘healthy and cohesive’ communities through children’s participation in art simply mean socializing them into their proper roles as producers and consumers in the neoliberal city?

    I enjoyed reading this assigned reading however I feel kind of disappointed in which the way the report findings were reported. For example Canadian Heritage in the purpose of this report had a negative connotation that “Canada’s most promising young artists” (p20) will benefit from Canada Heritage whereas other youth without promise disregarded. O’Donnell is “suggesting that those without promise should contemplate work in other fields” (p20). I am familiar with Canadian Heritage and I specifically looked at the bibliography as to what O’Donnell is referencing. I scanned The Canadian Heritage 2010–2011 Report on Plans and Priorities and couldn’t find the statement regard “Canada’s most promising young artists”. But what I did find in this report how Canada Heritage is a major funder and contributes to Katimavik the National Volunteer Youth Service Program that I had participated in promoting a Canadian identity through volunteerism with arts and cultural component. I feel the O’Donnell jumped to conclusion on a term that really means Canada’s most promising young artists is really about young talented Canadian artists whether they developed their talent or were born with their “gift” doesn’t necessarily mean to find employment in other fields. In Katimavik, this program allows youth between the ages of 17-21 years to explore, create, develop a identity Canadian youth nation building investing in cultural diversity.

    *On Kern, Intro and Chapters 1 & 2 of Sex and the Revitalized City*
    After reading chapter 1, I began to think about other cities in the world. The need to bring a higher quality to life by reforming cities, introducing new concepts for tourist attraction or reconstruction of the infrastructure is a tactic and motif cities in reformation take. In Toronto the building of condominiums brings benefits to the city but also neglects some of the population. As it attracts single women to provide independence it excludes others. The reformation of most cities excludes the lone mothers, low income families and welfare earners who also strive for aid. The question is how can a city include all aspects of its population rather than focusing on one at a time?

    Kern discusses how neoliberal assumptions of subjectivity work with certain co-opted feminist ideologies to reinforce female condominium ownership in “revitalized” urban environments. Specifically, concepts of private property ownership tied to deeply-rooted assumptions about North American citizenship are merged with liberal feminist ideals of economic independence and female autonomy outside of (heterosexual) marriage. Why does Kern say these ideological connections are profoundly ironic and problematic? How do the female respondents complicate notions of home ownership as establishing the “perfect” responsible citizen? Who is left out in the “hierarchy of tenure”? And where is state responsibility in all of this?

    Kern (2010) invokes the Foucauldian concept of ‘governmentality’ to illustrate how neoliberalism translates to new modes of governance in which the individual self-regulates and self-disciplines according to normalizing ‘truths’ (see p. 9). In this modern reconfiguration of power relations, the individual assumes responsibility for self-governance through acts of ‘choice’ and self-discipline. In this way, how does the condo ‘lifestyle,’ (i.e., the amenities, recreational services, courtyards, communities, the organization of space and time) engender selves and bodies that self-regulate according to commonsense notions about personal fulfillment and ‘quality of life?’

    The author notes that “the ability of some women to participate in gentrification… rests on the displacement of other women”(p.29). Does the idea of gentrification represent how individualistic society is today and how do we overcome this process? Will changing policy be sufficient or will the transfer of policy into action/reality be a problem once again?

    *On Boyd, “Producing Vancouver’s (hetero)normative nightscape”*
    How does the dance scene in Vancouver reinforce sexed, gendered and class-based norms?

    Boyd discusses in her article the experience that many people have when venturing downtown to the Granville Strip – the hypermasculinity that causes bar fights and sexual harrassment alike (par. 29). The pumped-up, alcohol-fueled “macho“ behaviour is so bad that the participants of the research, so-called “indie kids“, often choose to avoid the area completely. Instead, they choose to hang out at “less mainstream“ venues – ones where they apparently feel safer, despite often being located in the frequently avoided East Van (par.30). The “aggressive masculinity“ described in the article is definitely a phenomenon that I have experienced in downtown clubs on the Granville Strip and in other major cities, and I had also personally noticed the difference of heterosexuality expressed in “mainstream“ vs. alternative locations. Upon also reading the O’Donnell article on youth and culture plans in cities, I began to wonder if arts and creativity as both an economic and social focus, as O’Donnell recommended cities should have (p.3), were also responsible for the different feelings of safety and sexuality created in these alternative venues. As Boyd notes, nightlife is often frequented by youth, and the focus of most “club culture“ is purely on compulsive heterosexuality and performative gender roles (par.6). Alternatively, the “indie kids“ equally identify as heterosexual, but express their gender in ways that go against the norm, and unify themselves “over common interest in particular aesthetics of music, art, dress and dance“ (par.9). Do you think that the fact that most alternative events or venues are created around some sort of music or art directly contributes to less aggressive expressions of masculinity, or higher feelings of security or safety in the youth that experience them?

    Though I would not refer to myself as an ‘indie kid’ (I really dislike labels/categorizations), I do agree with some of the concerns that both Boyd and the indie kids raise about hetero-normative spaces in this article (i.e. issues around safety, surveillance, etc.). However, I was both troubled and concerned with the ways in which the indie kids described ‘hyperfemininity’. For example, Boyd has included excerpts from interviews she conducted with women from the ‘non-mainstream’ scene, and I noticed that an individual referred to some female “mainstream patrons” as “Barbies”, and when commenting on “the performance of gendered roles”, one person mentioned that: “[…] You know, like the big guys, with the baseball cap who’s loud with his beers yelling, being all loud and having possession over his woman who’s always wearing tight revealing clothes or hairspray” (p. 182). The use of the term “Barbie”, and the comments directed toward some women’s exterior appearance – i.e. “tight revealing clothes” (p. 182) are extremely problematic, because in my opinion, the indie kids are not only engaging in a form of body policing, but they are also slut-shaming women who dress in a manner that they may not approve of. Ironically, even though indie kids criticize mainstream discourses, through their negative comments, they are reinforcing misogynistic perceptions of women, as well as participating in a form of ‘female-on-female’ hate themselves. Perhaps, this is an example of the “reversed elitism” that Boyd refers to on page 185?

    Boyd accurately identifies the heteronormative gender construction of the Granville strip and Gastown, but I would be interested to learn more about gender construction in the ‘alternative’ nightlife scene. The short section in the paper dedicated to the alternative scene does prove sound but I think that it could do with some more analysis as to how this scene is constructed, and how it thrives and continues. The discussion of Vancouver as a ‘no fun city’ has just recently resurfaced this past week in the Huffington Post and in our school’s newspaper, The Peak, providing some more insight into the current Vancouver nightlife scene. So I ask the class, how is gender constructed in the alternative scene?

    Through the reading, the issue of space and place is discussed in regards to the entertainment establishments along the Granville strip. How does the placement of the nightclubs along the Granville strip affect the use and functionality of the space of Granville Street? Taking into account the fact that is a public space and looking at individuals who wouldn’t necessarily be frequenting these clubs.

    With the constant change in mainstream society, [ed: and how “mainstream” is defined?] what kind of changes do you see in regards to the nightlife in Vancouver?

    Boyd’s (2010) study went from 2005 to 2006, and suggests that Vancouver, as a neoliberal city, “produces, maintains and reiterates the moral contours of heterosexuality” as the defined hegemony found in the nightlife of Granville street entertainment district (2010, p. 169). Do you believe this is true? Why or why not?

    In the Boyd article we see how Vancouver’s nightlife is seen to be segregated into mainstream and non-mainstream entertainment venues. Do you feel that since the interviews in 2008 that this has changed? And do you feel that Boyd describes indie kids in an appropriate manner? And do you think it is fair to state that all indie kids are the same? Or do you feel that is creating another divide and social stigma?

    In Boyd’s article, many of the participants who belong to the ‘indie’ community are involved in the cultural industries. From their responses it would seem that they view the art/ indie dance community as antithetical to commercial or mainstream ‘entertainment’ and mainstream people. So then how can the same government that privileges the entertainment district through enacting more lenient policies on businesses on the Granville strip also be supportive of the arts? Is this simply ‘reversed elitism’ on the part of indie dancers? Is there a way for the city to support alternative spaces/ subcultures and mainstream spaces/ culture simultaneously or is there a fundamental difference between the people who occupy these spaces and their respective political ideologies?

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