As much as I love Seattle (in particular, the dusky textures of its light), it is no longer a city for budding young artists. It has become, in effect, what Jonathan Raban described as a hard city in his masterpiece, 1974's Soft City. The city in that book is London of the early 1970s. Ten years before Raban completed Soft City, urban sociologist Ruth Glass noticed that the government's post-war commitments to progressive social housing—called the nationalization of housing and development rights, as detailed by the "Town and Country Planning act of 1947"—were under considerable political attack by the proponents (mostly developers) of laissez faire urbanism. Glass described the class consequences of this return to raw market urbanism as gentrification. The word first appeared in her 1964 essay, "London: Aspects of Change." The word has not lost any of its explanatory power or original meaning 55 years after its birth. It is still very much of our world.
A few weeks ago, Seattle lost a popular Ethiopian establishment called Saba to gentrification. Socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant and members of the East African community tried save it, but, of course, failed. The only kind of talking happening in this town is done by money. Developers plan "a six-story, 289-unit apartment building with commercial space and... underground parking for 230 vehicles." The expected number of cars tells you already the kind of people who will live there.
Seattle has not lost its soul. It has always been a boom-and-bust town. But it has lost other forms of communication and signification. Saba was a business forsure (it had to turn a profit to survive, and it did just that for 20 or so years), but it also bubbled with other languages. These other words that express other modes of feeling were overwhelmed by the same and strict monolingualism of money that displaced thousands of black Americans from the Central District. And if you think we have reached the end of this Agent Smith-like replication and consolidation (this is the other "me too"), you are very much in the wrong.
If the rumors are true that a number of businesses in downtown Columbia City have been threatened with a dramatic spike in rent, we can be certain that the game is pretty much up there, too. They will have to go. Even South Seattle funeral homes for black folks have to go. The retired Asian Americans of the Beacon Hill and the ID have to go. Gentrification is a process that is, apparently unstoppable and results in a city that is cold not only to the poor, but the working and bohemian classes. As the arts scene died in San Francisco in the last decade, it is dying here in the present decade.
Many artists have fled to Tacoma, whose arts scene still has a pulse. But the fact is, the whole metropolitan area of Western Washington will not escape the whirl of Seattle's mind-bogglingly large real estate bubble. If you want a soft city, the place must meet, for the long term, Raban's criteria, which is presented in his 2008 Financial Times article, "My own private metropolis." This is nothing else but affordability.
Raban on the soft London which, in the 1970s, had entered its twilight:
My London was far seedier than it is now – an immense honeycomb of relatively inexpensive flats and bedsits, mostly contained by the perimeter of the Circle Line. It was a place where immigrants and the impecunious young could still afford to live within walking distance of Hyde Park Corner, quarrying out nooks and crannies for themselves in Victorian houses originally designed for large families and their servants. The Earls Court square on which I lived when I was writing the book was as diverse and cosmopolitan as any place I’ve known: it was home to Arabs in dishdashas; gays in leather gear, waiting for the Coleherne pub to open; out-of-work actors; titled diplomats; jobbing plumbers; microskirted prostitutes in fishnet stockings; Australian students; Italian waiters; and the most famous American poet of his age.
Raban on hard Seattle, which, in 2008, had already long left its dawn:
The inevitable consequence [of this affordability] is that diversity is being driven from the central city to its remote peripheries – a trend that is reflected in metropolitan areas around the world. Here in Seattle, for instance, to find good Indian, Chinese or Korean restaurants one now has to make a 20-mile drive into the suburbs, which is where immigrants, along with artists, students, freelance writers and other natural denizens of the soft city are increasingly moving because they can’t afford the alpine rents of downtown.Alpine rents, indeed.
There are only two types of city that, under the economic conditions that have prevailed since the end of the 18th century, can escape the grip and power of capital. One that has, in the words of Glass, nationalized (de-commodified) a considerable part of its housing stock. And one whose housing sector has been dramatically devalued by an economic catastrophe. There is no, as far as I can tell, two ways about it. Seattle's metropolitan has neither public housing or a deflated economy, and so it makes no sense for immigrants to stay there. What all new working-class Americans need is a cheap point-of-entry to the affluent city. This is called an arrival city, and there were many such points of arrival in Seattle in the 1970s and 1980s (Little Saigon, little Addis Ababa, and so on). But by the second half of 1990s, they began to move to the suburbs, as Raban pointed out in the Financial Times piece. The burbs became cheaper than the inner city. Today, however, immigrants in Tukwila are again being displaced by Seattle's ever-expanding real estate bubble.
Nor does it make sense for young artists to stay in Seattle. When one makes art, one is almost never "shaking their money maker." And making art takes lots of time, and when time in a city becomes nothing but making that rent, you will not make art or the kind of art that requires (for its greatness) not just productivity but lots of time for leisure. This is the part of artistic production that's almost always missed by those with practical minds, men and women with middle-class common sense, the judges of contests for art grants. A big part of making poems, paintings, novels, music, films, sculptures involves aristocratic waste or doing stuff unrelated to the direct or obvious act of creativity. Young artists of Seattle must stop smelling the coffee and do something about it. Move to Detroit.
Detroit has been in decline forever, which, for a young artist, is pretty much the entire time they have been alive. The deindustrialization of the city began in the 1970s, accelerated in the 1990s, and appears to have peaked in 2008. A million or so people moved out of Detroit during that time (between the 1970s and today), and its property values collapsed to nearly nothing. And this is no exaggeration. A house in that city cannot be considered an investment. Much of its exchange value is gone. If you buy house, it is because you want to live in it, use it, and do things that mean something to you in it. But the city is not dead. It survived the vacancy of unchecked property flipping. It still functions after the deflation of the speculative-motive. Sure, it has its problems and oddities. But the tap water is great, the shops are well-stocked, and there are lots of cheap restaurants and bars. What more does a young artist want from a city? Renting a place for $200 is not unusual. If you spend $40,000 on a house, you practically own what in Seattle would be a palace. The mortgage on a $50k house is still under $500.
The arts organization Powerhouse, for example, buys homes in the cultural rich and working-class neighborhood Hamtramck (part Yemeni, part Bengali, part polish, part artists) and transforms them into places for residences of every kind and theater shows and musical performances/recording. A city does not get softer than this.
The arts scene in Detroit is thriving. It also has vital cities of arrival. And there's a huge and stable black American population. The capital that dominates the city is almost entirely local and can be named: the owner of such and such bridge, the owner of this pizza franchise, the owner of that mortgage lending company. The chances of Detroit becoming like Seattle soon are next to zero. You can enjoy exactly all of the aspects of a great metropolis that Raban, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, describes as "soft-citydom."
Just as you’re free to create your own unique paths through the honeycomb ["inexpensive flats and bedsits"], so you can create your own community. In suburbia, you’re stuck with your neighbours, and with the same bores you ran into over dinner last month and the month before. In a [soft] metropolitan city, you may well not know the names of the people living next door, or on the floor above; your true neighbours are scattered through the inner postal districts, connected by a spiderweb of phone lines (and now by texting and e-mail). I used to see “my” London as a circuit board whose electronic layout was my secret.
Find out more about Detroit tomorrow, September 21, when I present a slide show of Detroit's current art scene called "Life After Economic Catastrophe." I will also begin a class at Hugo House this October about how to write in a city that's in the process of positive and negative changes.