Beauty as a Basic Service

The Heidelberg Project, Detroit

By Kenn Taylor

In the wake of Brexit and the US election, there has been renewed attention given to post-industrial areas and the issues faced by such communities. For some parts of the US and the UK, problems caused by industrial decline have been around for 40 or 50 years, long before the rise of China, the EU or the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). And, as anyone who spends time seriously with the subject will tell you, there are no easy answers or single solutions to such challenges.

So to art. Despite the breathless proclamations of some, art is not a panacea for the post-industrial town, but neither is it a total irrelevance. The creative industries remain a growing sector and a sensible solution to reuse many former industrial spaces that will never see mass production again.

Meanwhile, in some of the residential areas that once drew their lifeblood from such industrial zones, artists, or local communities working with artists, have been using creativity to demonstrate, even make, a future potentially different from top down regeneration or abandonment to decline. The now well-known Granby Four Streets project in Liverpool is one example of this in the UK.

Between Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory I had the opportunity to spend some time at some similar projects in the US. In 1986, in the Black Bottom area of Detroit – a city which perhaps more than any other felt the crushing pressure of industrial decline early on – art student Tyree Guyton decided to paint large bright dots all over the house his family had lived in for decades on Heidelberg Street.

The area had declined rapidly during his lifetime and he wanted to create “something beautiful” in the street. Soon Guyton began to decorate some of the abandoned houses in the street, using reclaimed materials from the neighbourhood. Thirty years later, despite being demolished by the authorities, twice, and suffering arson more than once, the Heidelberg Project is a world-renowned “total work of art”, and the home of an organisation that runs community and education programmes, exhibitions and residencies for other artists.

Part of the Heidelberg Project.

It’s not so much a celebration of beauty in decay like the infamous “ruin porn” from Detroit, but a sign that there is life and people still here, creativity, culture, even growth.

Chicago coped better than Detroit with the transition to a service economy. At least, some of it. In Grand Crossing in South Chicago, more than half the residents live below the poverty line. Here, around 10 years ago, artist Theaster Gates began restoring the house he had moved into on Dorchester Avenue. After the 2008 property crash he also bought the neighbouring house. Restoring it using reclaimed materials and cultural artefacts like books and records from the area, he then began to put on arts events in the houses. Gates had seen the West Side Chicago neighbourhood he grew up in demolished and wanted to stop such destruction from happening again in Grand Crossing.

By 2010, Gates had established a non-profit organisation called the Rebuild Foundation, and had worked with the Chicago Housing Authority to rehabilitate a housing block in the area into 32 mixed-tenure homes and community facilities, called Dorchester Projects. A few years later Gates persuaded the city to sell him a striking but decaying former local bank for just one dollar, providing he got the money to restore it.

Dorchester Projects, Rebuild Foundation

Amongst other things, the bank, now houses the archive of the important African-American publishing company Johnson, and the Black Cinema House. More recently the organisation has set up Dorchester Industries, which provides training opportunities for local residents with craftsmen and artists. The Rebuild Foundation places art firmly in the hierarchy of needs of a deprived community. To quote Gates: “Beauty is a basic service.”

There’s a long tradition in art of highlighting urban social problems. Projects such as these differ in using the urban fabric as a medium in itself and working on the regeneration not just of buildings, but of social, cultural and economic life in these areas. Crucial is how these projects have been led by people based in these communities, albeit interacting with international art networks. Such initiatives may have only impacted on relatively small areas – but it is possible they have done more to change life in and perceptions of them than many bigger and more expensive top-down urban redevelopment programmes.

The Stony Island Arts Bank, a hybrid gallery, media archive, library and community center.

Part of the power of art is its capacity to highlight where we’re going wrong, to tell us things have value that we didn’t realise and point out different ways of looking at the world. Even if projects such as these can’t be reproduced like-for-like elsewhere, they’re not just a reminder to avoid writing off such communities, but more so of their potential – if energy, attention and money are given to them – to create their own future.

This piece was published by CityMetric, a New Statesman website, in December 2016. Funding for this research in Detroit and Chicago was provided by The Art Fund


Pre-Worn: art, artists and the post-industrial community

Hackney, London by Vanessa Bartlett

By Kenn Taylor

In 2012 the Liverpool Biennial continued its tradition of using empty buildings to exhibit art. This time around, spaces it occupied for the period of the festival included the huge abandoned Royal Mail sorting office at Copperas Hill and the former waiting rooms of the Cunard shipping company on the city’s waterfront. With many visitors commenting that these unused spaces were just as, if not more, fascinating than some of the art on display in them.

In the past, the Liverpool Biennial has occupied everything from a disused Art Deco cinema in the city centre to a former glass warehouse near the docks. The de-industrialisation and de-population experienced by Liverpool over the last few decades meaning there is no shortage of empty buildings to use. The re-animation of such abandoned spaces is a key part of the Biennial’s strategy, with urban regeneration a fundamental reason for the festival’s founding and existence.

Of course, the reutilisation of former commercial space for the creation and display of art is itself an older phenomenon. Dating back to at least 1960s New York and since seen around the world from London to Berlin to Sao Paulo.

As well as being a particular trend within artistic production, the use of post-industrial areas for creative purposes also reflects wider shifts within economics and society in the latter part of the 20th century. Traditional urban hubs began to lose the industrial bases that had helped make them rich and many cities, if they could, moved towards more service-orientated economies based on things like finance, the media, tourism and leisure. The effects that this had on the communities that had relied on such industry for sustenance were usually deeply negative; economic decline, social decay and de-population.

However, this also led to the freeing up of a large amount of previously occupied space which, with demand having collapsed, was available at very low rates. This attracted the some of the expanding pool of artists in the post-war era. Once hubs of this new ‘industry’ began to emerge, more and more of the ‘creative class’, to use Richard Florida’s term, started to move in and slowly change the nature of these areas. With the subsequent upswing in activism and entrepreneurship that saw abandoned spaces becoming art galleries, coffee shops and the like, these areas became increasingly fashionable. To the point were those wishing to live in a trendy locale or buy into a particular lifestyle, even if they themselves were not ‘creative’, began to move there. Then, as wealthy professionals came to dominate these areas, the ‘poor young artists’ were forced out. Despite artists in many cases using their creative strengths to rail against the effect, the process has usually been inevitable and irreversible. Such ‘gentrification’ of post-industrial areas has been well documented, for example in Sharon Zurkin’s classic study of its effects in New York: Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change.[i]

What is it though, that attracts art and artists to such post-industrial areas in the first place? That is, aside from the low costs?

The flexibility of industrial space is another key factor. Given the myriad forms of contemporary art that began to emerge in the latter half of the 20th century and the often large spaces it needs to be created and displayed in, huge open-plan buildings formerly filled with goods, machinery and people became ideal art spaces. It was initially artists’ studios, followed by grassroots galleries and then commercial galleries which began using abandoned industrial buildings, but this phenomenon perhaps came of age when public galleries also began to occupy former industrial spaces.

The use of abandoned commercial buildings allowed new museums and galleries to have the same monumental scale of older purpose-built museums and in some cases, such as Gateshead’s Baltic and London’s Tate Modern, even larger. Yet as ‘recycled’ buildings, they didn’t have the same naked self-confidence as a structure created for ‘art’s sake’ as say, Tate Britain or even the Brutalist Hayward Gallery in London.

Turning these buildings into museums was seen, less an act of reverence and ego, as were the museum constructions of the past, with their links to elitism and the idea of a strictly defined high culture, more the humble recycling of unused space. Financially it also made sense. As it became ever harder to justify the spending of public money on ‘fine art’ in a world which had begun to acknowledge all forms of cultural production had validity, re-using abandoned industrial space and bringing a ‘buzz’ to a declined area became another good reason to justify public spending on culture.

However, the notion of tapping into a pre-existing ‘authenticity’ that former industrial areas are perceived as having is also vital to this phenomenon. Like someone buying a pair of pre-worn jeans, the abandoned cranes and switchgear, decay and graffiti in post-industrial spaces lends an immediate character and ‘legitimacy’. A tinge of authenticity that can be taken up by those who are seeking it, I.E. those of middle and upper class backgrounds who inevitably dominate the creative class of any given city.

Copperas Hill former Sorting Office during Liverpool Biennial

This seems to be something that is at the core of what attracts creatives, and the cultural institutions that ultimately follow them, to post-industrial buildings and communities. It is inevitably the ‘character’ and the relative ‘wildness’ of such areas which is the biggest draw after low costs and large spaces. The frequent desire for many in the creative community to live as they wish without attracting too much grief from the authorities, leads to the search for ‘transgressive’ spaces. Whilst mingling with poorer populations who behave in a less ‘conventional’ way (I.E. middle/upper class and suburban) also seems to provide in the minds of some an authenticity they crave. And therein lays the rub. The conditions which many artists seem to thrive on are those that are usually negative for the pre-existing communities that they take residence in. Abandoned space, very low rents, cheap intoxicants, an ‘edgy’ atmosphere, a lack of employment and a sense of lawlessness are generally signs of a community struggling.

Creative communities formed in this way also tend to be short-lived, relying on a rapid turnover of young people moving in. Within a few years most leave these ‘authentic’ localities, as they begin to settle down into family units. That is of course, if such areas don’t reach a tipping point and those moving in change the nature of the neighbourhoods they inhabit into more ‘family friendly’, I.E. quasi-suburban, conditions as seen in parts of London, New York and Berlin. A phenomenon which usually sees rents rise and often drives out more deprived and diverse pre-existing communities. When such gentrification does begin, creatives are usually the first to complain about the influx of the wealthier middle-classes and about how artists are being pushed out. Inevitably identifying themselves as ‘fellow outsiders’ with the ‘edgy’ local community they move into rather than the ‘Yuppies’.

Creative inhabitants of such communities are usually much less willing to admit that it is precisely them who begin the process in the first place. Without their studios and venues beginning to occupy such spaces and them being the “shock troops of gentrification” as memorably described by Rosalyn Deutsche[ii], who help make an area fashionable, the richer urban professionals would be much less likely to follow them, softly softly.

Once the notion of creative gentrification was hit upon, it quickly became a tool of local authorities world-wide to ‘improve’ areas on a brutally pragmatic level. Used as a process to quietly drive out often poor and deprived populations and replace them with the well-educated and wealthy, thus seeing an upswing in tax receipts and a decrease in expenditure. Cultural regeneration in that mode serves the interests of creatives who want ‘free’ space and those who seek areas to become ‘profitable’, but in the process inevitably, ultimately pushes out pre-existing communities.

What though of these ‘alternative quarters’ in the period between their industrial decline and their inevitable gentrification? Are they the hubs of originality and authenticity that so many seek? Well they certainly seem to be places where new ideas and artists frequently tend to emerge from, but for all the claims of uniqueness and individuality, the alternative areas of most cities worldwide, if looked at closely, seem remarkably similar. With any difference usually down to factors which predate their emergence as a creative quarter. Common denominators include the aforementioned former industrial space re-utilised for culture, an international and largely young population, more often than not from comfortable and well-educated backgrounds, ‘alternative’ cafes, graffiti, electronic music and independent clothing stores which sell similar, if ever-changing, fashion styles.

Such creative quarters may emphasise their distance from the financial quarters of cities, with their generic glass office blocks and branches of chain coffee stores, but in their own way they are just as generic; international spaces often better connected to each other than they are to the communities around them.

The respective communities that inhabit contemporary financial and creative quarters have more in common than either would probably like to think. Both are often fond of intoxicants and parties and are cosmopolitan, if largely still of the middle-upper section of global society, a section which is highly mobile and international in outlook. Like the CEO looking for the country with the lowest cost of production and tax breaks to set up a business, many artists move around the world looking for the cheapest digs and availability of funding by local authorities keen for their own slice of gentrification.

One set may wear suits, the other retro t-shirts, to display their respective capital in each zone they occupy, but both are, in their own way, living off the wider community, creating ‘products’ which, though important, are not the vitals of life made in the far off agricultural and, still producing, industrial zones of the world. While ultimately both branches of this globalised class have, in their own way, occupied former industrial working class spaces of inhabitation and influence, as seen in the case of the takeover of the East End of London by a mixture of the finance class around the former docklands and the creative class in areas such as Shoreditch.

As previously discussed, most creative quarters very quickly become a parody of themselves as, after the shock troops of artists move in, the second wave of urban professionals and cultural tourists follow, occupying an area then, having usually changed it fundamentally into another generic ‘alternative’ hub, seek the cultural capital of being the first into the next ‘hot’ area.

This obsession with the inhabiting the margins seems to stem in part from a desire to exist in an alternative space to the prevailing capitalist system and a rejection of the bourgeois nature of suburban life. Finding, studying, living in and making reference to the margins in the minds of many takes them outside of a system they dislike. Yet the margins are a product of and part of the system. Their gentrification by the artistic and educated classes results in their removal as bases for those who are forced to exist on the edge of society by capitalism and turns them into areas that feed more successfully into the system. In moving into these areas to live in an alternative way, in many cases, such people ultimately help to destroy whatever was alternative about it.

As Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan put it in their essay about New York, ‘The Fine Art of Gentrification’: “For despite their bohemian posturing, the artists and dealers who created the East Village art scene, and the critics and museum curators who legitimize its existence, are complicit with gentrification on the Lower East Side. To deny this complicity is to perpetuate one of the most enduring, self-serving myths in a bourgeois thought, the myth that, as Antonio Gramsci wrote, intellectuals form a category that is ‘autonomous and independent from the dominant social group. This self-assessment is not without consequences in the ideological and political field, consequences of wide-ranging import.’ ”[iii]

So, are there alternatives for the creative class who wish to live in such areas aside from colonising and destroying the communities they profess to love? Well if there is, it’s about integration rather than replacement and, if art and regeneration is to benefit such urban communities themselves, it can only do so by embedding the needs and desires of existing residents into practice.

One possible example is the recent Homebaked/2up2down initiative in Anfield, Liverpool, arranged by the Liverpool Biennial. Over a period of two years the project, led by artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, worked to embed itself in the local community and through collaboration developed the ultimate aim of re-opening a closed-down bakery in the neighbourhood. For the period of the Biennial itself, the group that had been formed around the project also created a tour for visitors based around meeting local people. Homebaked/2up2down thus provided services for the existing community, helped to tell the story of the area to visitors and promote local expression. Those involved are now working towards making the bakery a sustainable community business and refurbishing adjacent housing under co-operative ownership. This stands in contrast to the aforementioned former Royal Mail sorting office and Cunard waiting rooms which, now the Biennial have left, are destined for a new commercial future.

Homebaked Anfield

Yet one of the reasons this Biennial project in Anfield is unlikely to begin the process of pushing out the existing community is because of the small number of professional artists that can live in Liverpool due to the relatively small arts market and the relatively weak economy. This means the process of gentrification will always be limited. Conducting a similar initiative in an area with more opportunities for creatives to make a living and move in, such as London or New York, would perhaps still ultimately be just be another step in making the community into the next ‘hotspot’.

Mark Binelli in his book The Last Days of Detroit examines the ultimate post-industrial city and the various aspects of cultural regeneration that have gone on there, including the Detroit’s emergence as a new, low-cost, wild, authentic space for artists from elsewhere. He’s sees the potential in this to help regenerate the abandoned areas of the city now Motown has far less of a motor industry and Manhattan has almost entirely pushed its edgy aspects away. However, he is also wary of the new playgrounds of the creative class treading on the ruins of communities that in many cases had their existence swept away by factors outside their control. He quotes a local resident, Marsha Cusic: “Some of the people coming here bring a sort of bacchanal spirit, like they’re out on the frontier and they can do anything…Detroit isn’t some kind of abstract art project. It’s real for people. These are real memories. Every one of these houses has a story.”[iv]

Similarly, many of the former industrial areas of Liverpool may have no hope of a future industrial use and their re-appropriation as spaces for art, etc, can give great abandoned buildings, even abandoned areas, a new use and prevent decay into dust. Yet it should not be forgotten that, as much as it may be a futile wish, many of people who previously occupied such spaces, from Liverpool to Berlin to Detroit, would have preferred an alternative world. One of secure, healthy, happy communities with busy industries, not edgy, troubled and ‘authentic’ areas suffering at the raw end of globalised capitalism, with plenty of room for art galleries and parties.

This piece appeared on cities@manchester, a blog of the University of Manchester in May 2013.

[i] Sharon Zurkin, Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press,1982, rev. ed. New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1989)

[ii] Rosalyn Deutsche, Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1998), p. 151.

[iii] Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan, ‘The Fine Art of Gentrification’, The Portable Lower East Side, Volume 4, Number 1, (1987) [accessed 2nd March 2013]

[iv] Mark Binelli, The Last Days of Detroit (London, Bodley Head, 2013), p.285.

Breaking Apart, Coming Together

By Kenn Taylor

The idea of community, or the lack of it, has become a modern-day obsession. Something that was taken for granted for so long, and frequently resisted, many people now seem desperate to get back.

This is perhaps the inevitable legacy of the second half of the 20th century. An era dominated by the individual. An era, largely in the West at least, of rising wealth and opportunity, and of freedom as an ideological counter point to the enforced community of Communism.

For many people now though, in particular since the turbo-individualism that flourished from the 1980s onwards, it seems that we have gone too far, that we have lost something. A view perhaps most often applied in the UK to urban, former industrial communities.

Now a few years in to the 21st century, if we look at any such community and the things within its fabric that defined it, we may find much loss. Churches, local shops, Pubs and social clubs so often have closed as areas declined and ways of life changed. Local industries too, not only a source of wealth but frequently of pride and identity, have also largely succumbed. To be replaced, if at all, by the anonymous sheds of supermarkets, distribution warehouses and call centres, or perhaps the odd foreign-owned assembly plant.

Even the home, the basis of community, has not been spared. In many urban areas outside London, there are often whole streets of abandoned houses were the population has dispersed in the face of lack of work, failed urban policies and social and cultural decline.

The deterioration of such communities is often painted simply as a picture of 1980s Thatcherite policies destroying industries and, by proxy, the communities and cultures that were largely defined by them. This is indeed a huge part of it. In this period, the enforced unemployment and fracturing of traditional peer structures, based on trade unions, apprenticeships and the like, helped to break the patterns of life that had united people for centuries. However, the fact is that increasing post-war wealth and opportunity also played its part in eroding such communities.

As people became wealthier, wages doubled between the start and end of the 1950s, coupled with the support given by the welfare state, people began to need each other less. This combined with relative peace, technological advance and a young, expanding population, also helped lead to increased liberalisation in the 1960s in everything from censorship to religion to sexual morality. As the often oppressive structures that bound people’s behaviours loosened, this created more opportunity to act as an individual against control, be that from your parents, employers, the church, or the state.

In this era, with many people for the first time being able to maybe afford a house with a garden, a car, a washing machine, a foreign holiday, perhaps even sending their children to newly expanding universities, many became convinced that, if allowed more freedom and relieved from the burdens of tax and regulation, their life could be even better. This increase in individual wealth and freedom saw many people who would have previously voted Labour turning to the Conservatives at the end of the 1970s. Labour politician Tony Benn even commented in 1971, “The individual escape from class into prosperity is the cancer which is eating into Western European Social Democratic parties.”

Of course, that was all based on rising and spreading wealth and opportunity. Even though the Conservative administration devastated many communities and industries in the 1980s, across the UK in general, incomes actually rose. North Sea oil and the money generated from privatisation allowed for tax breaks and new opportunities for many who were not trapped in declining industrial towns and cities. Such places were written off by many, the government included, as having ‘failed to adapt’ and thus responsible for their own decline.

Now of course, there’s nothing left to sell, the oil is running out, and places that escaped the worst ravages of Thatcherism in the 1980s now also find themselves staring into the abyss now their industries and communities have also declined. Wealth and opportunity is shrinking and many of those who had done well in these times are now seeing their children and grandchildren denied the opportunities they had, and face a society that seems darker and harsher than they could have imagined a few years ago.

As family, work, class, cultural and religious structures that held people together declined, this lessened the ability of society to influence people to behave in way that wasn’t wholly selfish. This was further pushed by the ‘Bling’ culture which has prevailed since the Thatcher era. Initially this was the preserve of the Yuppies and entrepreneurs who prospered in the new economic liberalism of the 1980s. Eventually though, this culture trickled down to ordinary people and fame, status, money, power and the pleasure and will of the individual were elevated to all that mattered.

Thatcher removed the enemy of her ideology by destroying the unions and industrial communities, but this has come back to haunt those who believed this would see the return to a more stable and acquiescent society. Firstly such destruction created despair, which saw many industrial communities overwhelmed by Heroin addiction, and then later, almost its counterpoint, Ecstasy, and the raves that occupied the abandoned industrial spaces and represented new hedonistic communities for those deserted by the decline in old ways. Both these phenomena led to the ugly expansion of criminal gangs, now capable of making much higher profits through drugs, who now offer a seemingly easy route to money, power, status and belonging for those with few other opportunities, filling the vacuum in many communities left by the decline of previous power structures.

Today, we seem to have reached a turning point. Perhaps not a conscious one, but just like the changes brought about by rising wealth, an inevitable one. The money has run out, the opportunities for the individual have declined and many people are perhaps waking up to what has gone, and just how much we really rely on each other. Yet, in wishing for old ideas of community to return, we must also be careful not to look down those terraced streets with rose-tinted spectacles.

It is ironic that 150 years ago, so much art and literature was created at the Victorian height of the Industrial Revolution about how horrible urbanisation and industrialisation was, and how it had uprooted and destroyed rural life and created dysfunctional communities in dirty towns and cities.

From Romantic poet William Wordsworth to anti-industrial proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris, and Pre-Raphaelite painters like John Everett Millais, many artists, despite frequently finding their patronage from those who had made their money in expanding industry, lusted after a rural, anti-modern idealism.

But for all its aestheticised harmony and idyll, the reality of life on the land was hard and brutal. Life expectancy was short, it doubled in the UK during the Industrial Revolution, and the idealism of the village masked the serfdom and ignorance that often defined such life. The newly developing industrial settlements eventually formed their own new culture and sense of community which, in time, became as normal as that which it replaced in the countryside.

Now we find that, as they are declining too, many people romanticise industrial communities in a similar way. But for all the Silver Jubilee street parties that were held in now empty roads, there was also often domestic violence, alcoholism, vicious bullying and repression that went on behind the net curtains. The uncomfortable fact is that feelings of community are to an extent always based on the adoption of a form of collective identity and the exclusion of that which is different.

From the Rock and Rollers of the 1950s to the Ravers of the 90s, we should not forget all the brilliant art and human potential that has been unleashed by rebels butting against oppressive ways that rigidly bound people into narrow patterns of behaviour, alienating and often destroying anyone that differed from an oppressive norm. Individualism may have damaged community, but it allowed the potential of people to be who they wanted to be, and we should not forget that. Such liberty was hard-won.

We cannot go back to the way things were. Just as the new ideas of community were formed after the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution, communities in our Post-Industrial age will have new shapes defined by the circumstances of their own time. The ever-expanding rise of the online community alone means that things will never be the same again and, in time, this too may become as normal as the previous ideas of community it replaced.

Community is a two-way thing. We all to an extent feel the need to belong, yet we are all individuals. Too much community can be oppressive, too little leaves us isolated, vulnerable. When a way if life is broken, it is always painful, but it is part of the inevitable shifts of humanity, things go on, new structures are formed, and new ways of living become accepted. Rather than look back and wonder at once was or might have been, today in our ever more connected world, we should see what new communities we can form and perhaps how we can use them to look after each other that little bit more.

This piece appeared in Article magazine’s ‘Broken’ issue in April 2012. 

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