January 19, 2010

The Bohemian League

We shall seize twenty blocks of obsolete industry in Brooklyn, connect them to a hundred non-profit organizations the world over, and bring ten thousand resident artists into the borough every year, not one of them male, fat, or over 30. We shall incur the wrath of every man in the Republic of Slovakia.

We are the Hanseatic League of urbanism. In that wonderful old German city in Poland called Gdansk, surely they talk about us, and about what happened when we moved into that wonderful old Polish city in Greenpoint. The artists are a distinct class of journeymen innovators. And I mean “artist” in a colloquial sense; it is not an exclusive claim for this group to Art with a capital ‘A’. Art happens in every group. “artist” with a small ‘a’ is the designation of a class, a certain population that embodies a set of values and functions in society. We are called artists because we as a group value the arts and aspire to them frequently. But not all artists are artists; some are entrepreneurs, engineers, teachers, tradesmen, or journalists such as myself.

Willy-nilly, this is the group that not only catalyzes the chemical reaction called gentrification, but is also its ongoing reference. We provide the ideology, the style, and the cultural framework in which the real estate and commerce of gentrification unfold. The fact that these business developments may not square with what we had in mind “back in the day” is trivial. The point is that gentrification is the muscular outcome of the cells we implanted in the community. And urban life from here on out will always refer to us, just as in Norway, Poland, Russia, Italy, and England, there are cities that refer to the German traders called the Hansa who built those cities or changed them forever.

Gentrification can happen with our without artists. Luxury housing was being contemplated for the Williamsburg waterfront in the mid-1980s; and there is an argument to be made that without an artist and proto-yuppie constituency in place by then, and the political voices this added to the community, there would have been more towers along the waterfront than there are today. In an alternate universe where all the artists moved to Staten Island, there is no saying the towers of Guttenberg, New Jersey, would not have appeared in Williamsburg.

But it is not a matter of who started gentrification, but of whose version of it has prevailed, and will prevail. In Brooklyn we have a form of gentrification that is deeply inflected by the arts, and by ideological forms in society that correspond to the arts. Therefore, we identify the artists as a social and political force in the formation of Brooklyn at the outset of the 21st century. The more we acknowledge ourselves and our role in the world, the more we articulate ourselves as a class, the more power we can seize from the bums in city hall — to realize what we had in mind back in the day.