February 9, 2015


A certain well-known talkathon is running boot camp on an afternoon in the Flatiron district. I am one of two alternate speakers, along with eight or nine who are scheduled to deliver in March in a certain well-gentrified neighborhood in Brooklyn. We've got a drill sergeant in Utah who's skypin' our butts from a big screen, and it's feeling somewhere between Full Metal Jacket and Tony Robbins outside of his "zone."

"So your thesis is that installation art causes gentrification? ... Too intellectual!  We want to get away from that. Keep it real, son ... or I'm gonna rip out your eyes and skull-fuck you!"

These folks (late 20s, early 30s) are the urban burners of the gentrification generation. We've got an art therapist working with local kids in the hood, a techie entrepreneur, and a few makers and shakers who've been riding shotgun for ten years or more on mobile scenes that dovetail into urban life, such as it is in these times. I am the Neanderthal of the genre. I'm still thinking you can grab a dead building and throw a rave and the cops won't even show up.

But we are beyond the bohemian imaginary. We are beyond the familiar landscape that lies between the before and the after. The discourse of artistic pioneering and fixer-upper gentrification is a quaint memory. The fight for the weirdness of New York has become ubiquitous, granular. But the fight is on, and has been for a while, and it is trenchant.

Art in New York is anything but dead. It just happens that the present avant-garde makes the ones from the 80s and 90s look manneristic, and so people from the 80s and 90s might not immediately recognize it as an avant-garde. It is not open mic. It does not have a storefront ... in any one place anyway. There is only one Harvard man in the room. It is not your Yale MFA warehouse convention. There's an Italian-American guy with deep roots in Brooklyn, an African-American dude from Philly, kids from Long Island with medical degrees. What happened to the art school avant-garde ... I grouse like a geezer!

But when the boot camp is over and we're just hanging out, and these guys start talking urbanism, it is intense, veteran stuff. They really mean it, and they have a lexicon of terms and tactics born of an urban activism not much older than the Barclay Center. Where have I been?

I propose, to these burners, that New York City is reorienting itself on some fundamental level to a bourgeoise world view. This must involve the excising of our city's signature working class culture. It will not ultimately mean the expulsion of the working class; down-market and subsidized housing will catch up with luxury housing, because we really do need the working class. But the culture and the cadence of life will be bourgeoise through and through. And it is this specter that horrifies. For it flies in the face of probably three-quarters of what we think of as New York.

Vanderbilt Republic, Gowanus Light show, 2014
A 19th century shopping arcade in Paris
(pace Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project)
I tender the Ringstrasse and the Haussmanization of notable European cities more than a century and a half ago. These were proto-gentrifications that cast an overarching pall of gentility over European urban life of a sort that would be alien to most American cities until just a few decades ago. If we Haussmanize Brooklyn, do we have nothing but a mall? Or do we have the birth of a new eccentricity; an Arcades culture that Walter Benjamin would recognize, and which might also square with the entrepreneurial burner ethos?

Can a basically bourgeoise sensibility also be edgy and egalitarian and "dangerous" in a New York sense? In other words, if gentrification totally wins the turf of our nation's largest city, which seems likely, is this a cause for abandoning the city? Or does an avant-garde still have a card to play in this game? It is a question that brings us down the rabbit hole of the commodity fetishization of art, and back up the asshole of its enduring hubris. And I submit the answer is emphatically the latter: yes, we have cards to play, and yes, we are still assholes. But in a good way.

— Ethan Pettit, 9 February 2015