Beyond Wakanda-Black Panther and Urban Planning Beyond “Woke” Gentrification



James Donovan

My neighbourhood isn’t safe anymore,

Things are changing –

There are intruders invading these borders, I see them,

Setting up shop on every corner,

Cafes trying to corner the market,

Slicing up bread and dishing dope,

Delivering the morning fix like we wouldn’t notice, well

I’m putting niggas on notice,

Starbucks is coming for us,

And them Macchiatos make me sick,

Baristas, blow

Coffee beans grind my gears cos I hear

Starbucks is working for the man!

And lattes are a part of the redevelopment plan,

Cinnamon in the air, daring me to swallow,

White lines dividing tar-colored communities till they hollow yesterday

I smell cappuccinos in the air so business suits are soon to follow,

Men, writing in loose leaf, drinking loose-leaf tea trying to erase me,

No love for the coco, less it comes from a 3rd-world country where they got it for the low-low,

Organic chai in place of impoverished eyes, the wifi is free –

A small fee while they gentrify your community,

Trading in your mugshots, for mug shots,

Because, who could be mad at pumpkin spice?

The hood is at its ballin’ point and they just wanna put you on ice,

The type, that could milk a mocha city white and sugarcoat the strife,

Steamrolling the streets while steaming milk foams on heat, an espresso,

Soon you’ll be black, surrounded by white, domino get delivered to a new postal zone

Like dominoes they come.

To cut off the competition, and decant the legs you standing on

Shorty in a logo – looks like white supremacy.

Whipped cream on a brown brew is their idea of diversity, which is to say

White will always come out on top and people of colour forever at the bottom,

Heated, tell me, why are our communities always dark, dismal and depleted, yo, for real,

Fuck them cups of joe, and them $5 paninis with their tomato, mozzarella and pesto,

See there is leverage in the beverages,

So beware of the caffeine, cos if you see a Starbucks,

And you know the developers are coming.


LG: Hello, you’re listening to ‘In Search of Black Power’. I’m Lawrence Grandpre.

LB: I’m Lady Brion. ‘In Search of Black Power’ is a podcast which challenges conventional narratives around black policy, black movements, and black life.

LG: We’re coming to you from Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a grassroots think tank in Baltimore, Maryland, with an extended platform, New Timbuktu. You can find out more at Brion, I think we need to talk about the cities.

Everybody’s talking about them. They seem to be on one of two tracks; either they’re expanding, some say gentrifying, or shrinking. But on either track, they’re really worried about the future. The conversations about what the future of cities could be are either utopian or desperately planning a future where there’s some salvation for a struggling city. So, if we’re talking about futures, we’re talking about cities, maybe we should talk about one of the most prominent depictions of a futuristic city in the world today. So, Brion, did you see Black Panther?

LB: Of course I saw Black Panther!

LG: And did you see The Avengers? Specifically, do you remember the part of that film where the Wakanda warrior Okoye, now that Wakanda is open to the world she’d hoped they’d get a Starbucks?

LB: Yeah, and I bet they wish that line wasn’t in the movie now because the way Starbucks has been treating black people, they definitely wouldn’t make it past the Wakandan force field.

LG: [laughs] Yeah it’s interesting to me that the Wakandan warrior’s conception of the progress that the world could give Wakanda is a Starbucks. And I think, that’s kind of what I want to talk about today. But let’s take a step back. What did you think of the first time you saw Wakanda?

LB: I thought it was the most blacktastic Marvel cinematic production ever made.

LG: Yeah, it was amazing. It’s designed to awe with these amazing cityscapes, and there is this techno-utopian vision of what an African civilisation could be, but to me, in all honesty, it actually looked kind of familiar. Did any of that look familiar to you?

LB: I’m going to have to say no. I’ve never seen anything like Wakanda, what do you mean when you say it looks familiar?

LG: So, think about the way they rendered the city. So strip away the Kente patterns on the building, what you see are these big glittering skyscrapers. And to me, that shit looked a lot like the way Dubai is depicted in real life.

So while they’re going for this novel vision of an African Utopia, I think it’s interesting that they replicated the visions of current cityscapes of places in the Middle East.

LB: I mean, personally I think designers and architects are all artists who are creating something unique, something pleasing to the eye, and so it may have looked a little like Dubai but that’s still interesting.

LG: I love BP, but I do think there’s something much deeper at play here when we think about cities and the future, and African people, and what templates we use to measure the progress of cities. I want to have this conversation within the context of what people talk about when they talk of Black Panther; they want to talk about what a great thing it was, that we have these representations of black heroes, and black female warriors, and I think it was really interesting for people not just to say it was great to have these cities and civilisations and warriors, but they said they needed it. When people say ‘I needed this, this gave me life’, it was affirming but a little concerning.

LB: I don’t know, it wasn’t concerning for me at all, I was one of those people who saying, I needed to see Wakanda, I need to see those women warriors represented onscreen, it was something that was really uplifting for me because that representation is often missing, so it wasn’t so much the techno element of the film, this Afro-futurism, so much as it was seeing things on screen that represent thing that I see in myself, so it was definitely something that I needed. So I’m interested to hear why you thought it was concerning.

LG: Yeah, I guess what I’m saying is everything what you say is true, and can be true, but we can still ask some deeper question about how this idea of technology and futurism and these depiction we see of technological civilisations have a deep, deep historical root. And people say they ‘need’ a Wakanda, it begs a bigger question, about how do we think about the Africa that already exists, when we have so much in our history, not just in general, but specifically around cities and culture, that we can pull from to give us what we needed. And if we look to these futuristic visions of the city, as something we need, what are the politics of that? I think that the world we see now, people are using the politics of cities and future of cities, to do things that we need to interrogate and understand.

LG: So the city is more than just a place. It’s a theory of how we should live in the world. So many people are not just moving to cities, but there a certain politics of being in a city that’s desirable, that’s cosmopolitan, worldly, etc. It’s not just something you see on screen. It’s something affecting the conversations we’re all having. I’m on these Facebook groups, for amateur urban planners, seeing these huge subway maps connecting the whole of the US in a magical train network. It’s a vision of progress, of the future, that fits directly into the politics of progressive America today. And Wakanda fits perfectly within this frame. Think about the most prominent futuristic items in the film, a magnetic levitation subway. It is exactly the type of future that this progressive political discourse is promoting.

LB: So if Wakanda shows African people as technologically advanced and proficient, doesn’t that answer back the racist notions about black inferiority and the blanket stereotypes about our inability to progress forward? How can this counter-narrative be a bad thing, especially when those stereotypes about black folks are incorrect in the first place?

LG: I completely agree, they’re incorrect, but I think there might be something deeper here. The very idea that technological can be a measure of a civilisation has a history to it. There’s a book by Michael Abas, called Machines as the Measure of Men. He makes the argument you’re talking about, its obviously a myth that European civilisation are more advanced than African civilisations; Africa, had been around longer, they’d made the pyramids. As part of the colonial regime, there was a manufactured ideology that European were able to colonise the world because they were bringing technological progress to the world. It created a benevolent image of colonialism because they were bringing all this great technology with them, and that justified their superior position in the world. And it isn’t just a way of explaining something that happened, I think it’s a cultural framework, which is a different way of viewing the world to some historical African framework about civilisation, progress, and science.

This focus on science and technology creates an object-focused view of the world over a human-focused view of the world, and if we frame our analysis along these lines, might we be using the same exact framework that was used to oppress us in the first place? So I take your point about how we need to celebrate black technology, and it feels like we don’t do that enough. But when I think about it, we actually do celebrate black technology a lot. Let’s do an exercise: off the top of your head, what can you name, that black folks invented?

LB: We made the cotton gin, the stoplight, blood transfusions, and the hot comb by the madam, for the kinks.

LG: And you probably got that knowledge in elementary school, in black history month? Talking about Washington and Carver, and all those other conversations. So I think we say, ‘Yes, we are technologically advanced, we deserve respect’, and that’s true, but might that be a form of respectability politics, as some might say? We’re still locked into this vision of proving ourselves. But what if the standard by which we prove ourselves is limited, or Eurocentric in the first place?

Even Wakanda, gets that jumpstart by that random accident of an alien comet falling into their territory. It makes me think about the real-life technological advance that African civilisations have made, throughout time.

We discovered that Africans were smelting steel several thousand years ago. They were smelting it in a machine using semi-conductive technology, unknown until the 20th century. Europe has never achieved those temperatures. Not only that, they were doing in a single stage, better than the Germans in the mid-19th century which involved two stages. They were doing it using less fuel in Tanzania.

LG: So if we continue along these lines, we see that the technological advances that African people make in real life, aren’t just in the past, there’s something we can use to frame our real life futures. Specifically, our city’s futures. African scholars have been using the history of African cities and African technologies to do real life planning, to see what kind of new cities and civilisations we could build.

Cheikh Anta Diop, speaking French.

LG: I know what you just heard was a bunch of French. But the man you just heard was Cheikh Anta Diop, and he not only was a political theorist, he was actually a scientist. He used his knowledge of science, history and politics to design templates for political evolutions for African cities after independence. He talks about food sources, transport; he thinks trains cost too much. If we have some much of this in real life, that’s I guess why I said I was concerned that people said they needed Black Panther, because what does that mean about how we relate to what we already have?

LB: I guess my issue here is, first of all, it’s a movie, right? And because it’s a movie maybe I’m just not seeing it as a guide for political theory. I don’t know if people saying they needed to see Black Panther is the same as ‘I don’t know about the greatness that exists for African people in real life’, right? It’s a movie, and we just doing it for the culture.

LG: So, what is culture? I think that it’s important that we have BP, but I get worried that people limit culture in its definition to food, dress, dance, when its so much more than that. A definition of culture that we use sometimes, and this is just paraphrasing, is that culture is the totality of practice from which a people sustains itself, it introduces itself to history and humanity. And if you use that definition of culture, it’s not just what you can see on the screen for Black Panther, but it’s a mental operating system, a way of evaluating knowledge, it’s a form of technology in and of itself. And how can we use the cultural technologies of Africa to think about new and innovative ways to think about representations or how we engage politically?

There are examples from African history of urban planning reflecting African culture; there’s this notion called Ubuntu, which means ‘I am because we are’, and if you look at this book called African Fractals you see African cities sometimes were planned, not around skyscrapers, but around human interactions, designing a society where people engage each other in productive, more egalitarian ways. There’s ‘nomo’, the cultural technology of the spiritual power of the word, which produces the West African civilisations. There’s matrilineal organisational systems, whereby your descent is seen through the line of the mother, which needs to be harnessed in the way we use political civilisations, the way we have to centre women in our political order. So when you look at that, I think there are some questions you have to ask. For example, I wondered, watching BP, where is Killmonger’s mother? And, are we having an accurate depiction of cultural systems, if that matrilineal line has severed? Where are they going, on this magical levitation light-rail? What are the social, political implications of this technology? And we when don’t look at the cultural resources for development, we ignore the reality of how terrible it was that we lost these cultural resources and what it means about how we have lost them.

I guess that why I want to talk about some of this history, because not only do we risk not turning to Africa for its cultural resources, we risk ignoring the violence and erasure, which makes us feel like there’s nothing there for us even to look for.

LB: Lawrence, I wholeheartedly agree, and I think that you’re right. In the way that we do not see cultural as technology and that we evaluate black culture in a different way than European culture or technology. But for me, I think its also important to note, that BP as a movie is an Afro-Futuristic production. It is an imagined universe of what Africa could be, and what Africa should be, if it wasn’t interrupted by European colonisation. So there may be a world where Africa would have all of those technological advances, in addition to the cultural technology. So we can’t talk about all the marvels of Africa’s past, and not also see the possibility for the spectacular in its future. So Wakanda is for me a very important representation of that possible future and even if it’s partly a replica of the white imagination, I think that’s partly to be expected since the media itself has been whitewashed.

LG: Yeah, I think Wakanda is a blank slate upon which people can project their hopes, but I also feel we should be careful what we wish for, because if the model for Wakanda is these European cities, built-up, technological, Paris, London, how did those cities come to be? If we look at the history of how these things were produced, we see something dark. It was the extraction of resources, that not only impacted the cities but the very populations of these countries, the demographics, so much so that people have coined the term (to explain how these situations have come about) demographic parasitism.

LB: Demographic parasitism? I don’t know what that is. And because I’m a person who loves words, I hear demographic and think people, and hear parasite and think leech. So does this term mean one group of people literally leeching off another?

LG: Yeah, and I actually set this up for another conversation I want to have. Let’s take a step back and talk about this guy, Thomas Multhus. He was British theorist of populations. He had an idea that while resources increased linearly, populations increased exponentially. Some people have used his theories to say that our population growth will outstrip our ability to find more resources. And then, people put that in racial terms. It was the black or brown nations, fifty years ago, that had the highest fertility rate, whereas the European nations were levelling off in terms of their birth rates. So people said there was a population bomb n these brown and black nations that it would create a threat to humanity, it would need so much resources and investment, that it would threaten the world we lived in. Some people disagreed, and tried to flip it. So instead of seeing the black and brown people as the threat, it explained the only reason that Europe got so civilised, had such big cities where you don’t need so much manual labour, i.e. population, is that they were exporting the need for manual labour to the colonies. So the only reason Europe got to build these beautiful cities, is that they had populations or demographics which were conducive to this. And this was only because they were parasites to the black and brown worlds. So my concern is that when we are mimicking Paris and London, saying that this is the future, we’re naturalising a really unnatural depiction of what the future can be, because the only examples we’ve had in the past that have worked have been from this demographic parasitism.

LB: Are you saying there is no world or alternative where we can have a technologically advanced society or nation that is not built on the backs of its poor or its slaves?

LG: Im saying that’s a wonderful question, and I’d love to ponder it. But the problem is, people so desire technological futures, that we are being sold this vision of technological progress in our cities, that has nothing to do with social justice, nothing to do with a new vision of how the world can work. But it just gives us a vision of the future that feels good, that feels like Black Panther, to be honest. But the way it’s being produced is the exact same exploitative system that produced Paris, and London, and the world we’re trying to look past. Just look at Baltimore.

Advert: We will build it together! And when we build it, it will be ours. A bold vision for Baltimore, that will fuel economic growth, bring thousands of jobs to our city, new businesses, new jobs, good jobs. At the heart of it, a new headquarters for Under Armour. Shops, public parks, families. Parks open to the public, better transit, more opportunity for all of Baltimore. Port Covington: we will build it together. This will be big – Baltimore big.

LG: Now, I know you don’t see it, but you can imagine what the YouTube video looks like. It looks like Wakanda. Big, glittering skyscrapers, a message to the black children; this is our city, we are going to build it. And of course, this is global finance capital, produced by a global corporation, whose CEO tacitly supports Donald Trump. But it feels so good to see black people standing next to all this technological progress, and what’s the kicker? What are they going to bring potentially to Port Covington that proves it’s the future? None other, than a magnetic levitation train.

Advert: Where it all began. Officials say we’re on track for an incredible future. A train that floats four inches off the ground propelled by magnets that travel faster than 300 miles per hour, connecting our nation’s capital to the Big Apple, in under an hour.

Road manager prefers the eastside of the Parkway, since they wouldn’t have to tear down any homes. Japan is putting in $5billion, and we are using union labour.

LG: The magnetic levitation train – the same exact train from Black Panther. They’re saying: we can make Wakanda. Just give us free reign, give us these tax breaks, and we can bring the future to you. It goes even deeper. The justification they’re using is that Baltimore is a demographic timebomb. It’s not the same as they are talking about with Africa; now they’re saying, the population of Baltimore is shrinking. And the only way to allow more tax money to come in, is to bring in rich people who can pay more taxes. The term I use for this is, they’re hunting for the white whale. These affluent people who can come and buy expensive houses, so they can pay more property taxes. So we’re being sold a vision of the future, and told this is the only way to stop the population bomb from exploding in our faces, and in that world I can’t help but be really sceptical about the way our vision of the future is being used against us.

LB: Yeah, I think that makes totally sense. And Under Armour as a brand is for those posh jocks and athletes so it makes perfect sense that their sort of development wouldn’t reflect social justice, and you wouldn’t even imagine that they would.

LG: And that’s where, I want to transition to another analogy. It may feel harsh, but I think its important to at least think about this idea. So, the person who runs Under Armour, talked well about Trump, but before that was a prominent supporter of Obama. The folks on these FB groups, making all these ways to save the city, are liberals. The cosmopolitan, multicultural ethos is a liberal ethos. And it’s actually in many places the liberals around the world who talk about population control. And when you think about population control, this fear of populations exploding, you get to a level where people start to feel like the villains. Like Thanos in the Avengers.

LB: Okay, you lost me. What does Mr Infinity Stones himself have to do with any of this?

LG: Well, remember Thomas Malthus. His theories about population and resources (linear vs exponential), is a problem. Some people took an even darker lean to that theory, where they say that for the earth to survive, we may have to let some people die. We may have to have forced population control, in the name of environmental protection. Thanos is a Malthusian – his theories don’t come from nowhere. And some people feel this fear over demographics. And that means not only the right, the fear of immigration, fear of the black planet, but also the left, and they’re willing to control populations to save the future, to save their cities.

LB: You know for me, Malthusian folks, just don’t make sense to me. Because in an age of technology and globalisation and the over-production of food, I just don’t get the current argument for sterilisation or any other form of population control, because there is so much access to everything. Even if we as people grow exponentially, so does everything else.

LG: That has proven true. Malthus is wrong. They used the term carrying capacity, how many people can the world hold, to counter this idea of the population bomb. And every time the bomb was said to explode, we found resources in places, but also people voluntarily choose as cultures to have less children.

We average 2.5 children per family, compared to 5 50 years ago.

LG: People couldn’t even guess that these people were already limiting their population growth, because the theory is, they’ll never change. And that’s where the subtle racism kicks in. These racist logics that black or brown people are hyper-sexual, they can’t not have children, because they can’t stop having sex. So for most people, it would be unthinkable that we would actually eliminate half the planet’s population like Thanos does. And that’s why I want to talk about this, because if you look at some cities in America right now, this is already happening. Between the prison and industrial complex, between the folks on parole and probation, the folks who are evicted, and the folks who are priced out of the cities. The number, in gentrifying neighbourhoods, of the resident population, that has to leave, is just about 50%. Now it’s not killing them, but you are destroying their community, and you are willing to depopulate it, in the name of protecting the future. And as much as we talk about social justice on the left, we here at LBS know that so-called leftists would be willing to resort to population control policies, if they feel they need to.

Just this last political session, in Minneapolis, there was this hugely progressive crime bill, that introduced mandatory minimums and lock ‘em up thinking – what is that, other than population control? How did they justify that? They said it was the only way people would feel safe, working and playing in downtown Baltimore. It goes even deeper than that. There’s a thing called ‘right-sizing’ cities, by saying that they grew too big in the past, they cost too much money to support the whole city with resources and services. So we literally have to chop up the whole city, and figure out what portions of it we want to save, and what portions of it we want to stop giving services to, to save the rest of the city. In places like Detroit, this has been interpreted, according to scholars, in racial terms. The social life of black folks, the institutions, they don’t register on the map of the urban planners, so they’re more willing to chop off those parts of the city and give the resources to the urban core, which they can then gentrify. I guess what I’m saying is, sometimes a supervillain is obvious – big booming voice, threatening to destroy the universe. And sometimes, they sound like this:

[Man’s voice]: There’s been cities, particularly in the north-east, in the rust belt, that for fifty years have been shrinking in population. And for 49 of those 50 years their strategy was, next year everyone’s coming back. They finally found out that that aint the case. So this approach called right-sizing has emerged. Here’s the industry definition: readjusting a shrinking city’s built environment and infrastructure to match its current projected population.

[Woman’s voice]: We’re coming in with a data driven approach, but we don’t have that local knowledge, so it’s really important to us that you engage locally, because that’s the core about how we’re going to be effective is meeting locally.

LG: It’s the everyday violence against black folks, that never rises to the level where you make a movie about it, but a level of devastation to black communities. Here in Baltimore, they announced millions of dollars to demolish vacant homes, but no money to restore communities affected by the war on drugs. All those institutions, those youth groups, grandmothers, building with black community, are destroyed. And what the city says, is that our city is at stake, and its only if you destroy portions of it are you able to save it. And the most problematic thing is even their vision of restoring the city, restoring these neighbourhoods, requires their destruction. Think about how they talk about new jobs, so black folk can go there and work; if you think about it from a different perspective, it’s actually sucking the best talent in the black community out of the community, and having them serve in communities where the money and resources don’t flow back. So we talk about how great the cities are, how diverse they are, and there is this desire to feel multicultural as something to consume. And while the proponents of the new city say this is the future, it feels like a form of vampirism. I think sometimes about the jobs they promised to bring, this infusion of money and capital, and new jobs will spring up like magic from nowhere. I think about the types of jobs they typically are, service economy jobs, security guards, cashiers, secretaries, and while this is proposed to be the future, I think about Franz Fanon, a famous theorist who said, ‘The smile of the other is always a gift’. There’s expectation to smile and be happy whilst you’re working, in the environment that’s so full of structural violence. And in these jobs that they promise to bring, that’s the best you can do is to smile and be forced to serve the gentrifiers, while the community you knew is being hollowed out. So these might not be actual supervillains, but we should talk about the threat that this way of thinking, this vision of the future serves for our community. Because those who control your vision of the future might just control your present.

LB: So, Lawrence, you talk a lot about our need for technological advancement being used as a tool for gentrification, right?

LG: Yes.

LB: Well, I think there are other vectors, as well, of gentrification.

LG: What might that be?

LB: Okay, let me ask you this. What are some indicators that you are standing in a recently gentrified community?

LG: So, you might have new condos, a Starbucks, a dog park, for example.

LB: Right. So to add to that, I often notice that community art shifts due to urban renewal.

LG: Oh, so you mean that murals that pop up, the street art and the galleries that seem to come out of nowhere.

LB: Exactly. In fact, my argument is that white yuppie artists are the purveyors of gentrification, and a change in public art is often Stage 1 of the gentrification process, and becomes a signifier that initiates this new wave of development. Let’s take a step back.

I know many may have heard the term gentrification before, but I don’t want to assume that every listener actually knows what we mean. You may hear terms like upscaling, urban renewal, transformation, economic development, and although many of these are not synonymous, they are often used interchangeably. They often mean one thing. As blogger Tabitha Warton put it, ‘when an area is gentrified, a once-blighted community is repaired, reoccupied, and revitalised’. This doesn’t go without hard work, and dedicated people, and often takes several years for gentrification’s positive effects to become apparent to the naked eye, and even longer than that for the neighbourhood area to be considered a success. A simple Google search will give layman’s definitions, like: ‘Gentrification is the process of making a person or an activity more refined, or polite’. But its easier to find the definition by looking at its roots. The term gentry means ‘people of good social position’, or in the UK, ‘the class of people next below the nobility in position and birth’. So gentrification is literally a process of creating a space for the affluent, so the high-society. It’s all in the name.

Now that may seem rather innocent on a surface level, but there are nuanced reasons that make gentrification a cringy, hot topic for black folks around the nation. And the question we must ask ourselves, is what does it mean to create a space for the affluent? What does it look like, and how does it affect the surround communities? The second question we must ask, is where are these affluent communities being created, and what was previously in those places? In other words, who or what are the gentrifiers replacing? And once you start to answer those questions, you’ll start to understand the real issues around gentrification. For starters, let’s look at the typical communities that are gentrified. Urban sociologists would categorise them as ‘Zone 2’ of industrial cities, which are located just outside of city’s financial or business districts, and once housed the workers of those industries, but are now full of vacant buildings and are now crime-ridden and poverty-stricken. What is left out of this description, is that those neighbourhoods are often largely black, or communities of colour. And part of gentrification’s success is that it attracts new business both local and national, to an area that would otherwise be written-off. So going back to Lawrence’s example about Port Covington, or any other communities that were built-up, it’s that attraction of new business that creates this successful gentrification model. But, those people that were in those communities, still have their own culture and aesthetic, their own way of life, even if the city and its developers don’t recognise it. And thus this evil of this transferral of places from one class to another, is multifaceted. Thinking about it as an artist, and a person that studies culture: the first thing is, it renames a place. And this is linguistically erasing a space. Two, it often demolishes that place, physically erasing the significant sites, it rebuilds, which is oppressive, because it is an architectural representation of a hierarchy showing what is and is not important, and it repurposes the space, which is perhaps even more offensive, because developers will retain the shell of a building to accrue tax benefits, or what have you, whilst still using the significance of that space in the community, commodifying another culture, or history, for their own advantage.

LG: So I get your critique of gentrification. But why are you calling artists the purveyors of it in the first place?

LB: Okay, so let’s be clear. Art and cultural production existed in these low income communities that often come to be gentrified, far before the term ‘gentrification’ was ever coined. The art that produced did not affect the local real estate, or attract the interest of local developers. It was just another component of that neighbourhood’s character. Then two things changed. First, different kind of people started to move into the city. It started with the suburbanisation of America and the effects of red-lining, where, post WW2, the government created subsidies for white, single-family homeowners and subsequently drew red lines mapping out predominantly black neighbourhoods where bankers were less likely to give loans. White people were encouraged not to live there, and lower quality homes were sold at balloon rates to black families. This white-flight, as many called it, and red-lining, gave rise to very homogenised upper- and middle-class white communities that lacked diversity, lacked vibrancy, that created a space for stay-at-home mums and the model nuclear families, whilst also at the same time crippling those black communities and causing hardship and economic disinvestment. But this intentional racial and economic separation left the children of those white-flight pioneers later in life yearning to return to the city their parents migrated from. They longer for the hip streets, the grunge appeal; the suburbs was a dull place, and the city was fringe, intriguing. But it wasn’t enough to just enter the city, and immerse themselves into the city’s way of life, but they brought the best part of the suburbs with them. Essentially, they wanted to put an urban trench coat over a suburban outfit. They wanted the warehouses, the high-rises, the drugs, the lure of danger; they could actually touch it. But they did not want to sacrifice the framer’s markets, the gated communities, their $4 coffees, etc.

The term ‘creative class’, was actually coined by Richard Florida, an American studies theorist who encouraged cities to carve out more space for creatives, because creatives can bolster the economy and increase jobs. So Florida looked at the ways that artists coming back to cities effected the cities, and created a whole theory of why mayors, and city planners, should all get behind this movement of artists back into cities.

Richard Florida: The main message of my work over the past decade, is that every single human being is creative. But then, as with anything, one has to put statistical parameters around what that means, and what I’ve found is that in the US and around the world, our society is really divided into people who are paid to use their creativity at work and those who maybe are quite creative, but are paid to use their physical strength in low-skill manual work. In any event, there are about 40 million Americans who are privileged to be part of the creative class, in fields of science and technology, entrepreneurs, architects, designers, arts and culture, and then the classic knowledge-based professions, people in business, management, healthcare, law, etc. It’s about 35% of the workforce. But the creative class only lost 5% of their jobs over the recession, whilst the manual labourers lost 15%. One thing that’s really interesting, in the most advanced regions of the country, like Silicon Valley, over 50% of the workforce is in this creative class, and in some countries like Singapore, Sweden, Netherlands, already more than 45% of the workforce is doing creative work. So the challenge that presents itself to us is how to get more people involved in the creative workforce, using their talent, their minds, because it will afford them a better salary and address the inequality in this country.

LB: Here in this clip he explains about the benefits of the creative class. The very last part of the statement is interesting to me, because not only does he believe that the creative class can help strengthen and bolster an economy, but he also for some reason believes that the creative class can stand against injustice and inequality in this country. But this argument lacks a historical and racial analysis. As an artist myself, I’m inclined to agree that a creative class can stimulate local economies. But I also know that in the 70s, the art industry rose to be a nearly 45 billion dollar industry. But there’s a hierarchy within that industry. Fine art, or high art, is very different than what is produced in inner-city communities, predominantly black communities. And so, white students around the nation started to food the colleges to get master’s in fine art, bachelor’s in fine arts, to get a piece of this billion-dollar pie. But black folks were often cut out of the market entirely. With their suburban taste and newly acquired art degrees, they transplanted themselves into dilapidated inner-city communities, with one aim: to break into the market, and win big. So when Florida is talking about the creative class, he’s very much still talking about those white, yuppie artists who have now gotten degrees and have now moved back into their city, and he is trying to convince us that making a space for only them is best for community. And these artists, they could have moved into well-to-do areas, where art galleries already existed. They could have worked their way up the ladder like anyone else. But instead, they make an intentional choice to move to communities of colour, and use them as their canvas.

Sarah Shulman, the author of ‘Gentrification of the Mind’, says ‘it’s a currency move. They see it as a way access power. Because other white artists and people who run the market also live there’. And rising real estate values also create a feedback loop for the art market. You have to be wealthier to live in places like New York or similar places these days, so artists in gentrifying cities, creates art that sells for more money, which creates an art market less concerned with social values, and more concerned with aesthetics that appeal to the wealthy, which feeds into this MFA system, that creates more market-orientated artists who then move to cities and make aesthetically-pleasing but conceptionally-vacuous art.

So again we think back to the Port Covington example. We would expect companies like PC to do things that are socially just for the communities that they sit in, but that’s not their aim. They’re not coming here to be a benefit to the community, they’re coming here to make money. And these artists are often going to these communities to make money, and you can make the most money when your expenses, the place where you live, is just not there. And you’re creating it yourself.

This creates another complex. An educational industrial complex. Because these white students get expensive college degrees, that provide mediocre training which often does not lead to a career in the art sector itself, unfortunately, and they move into these gentrifiable communities, take up space, with rent often paid by their parents, and again working in a community in a job far different from what they went to school for. So not only are these artists coming in and creating spaces for themselves on top of these communities of colour, but they don’t even often stay in the artistic career. So it produces a cycle: they’re fed the dream that art is the way to go, I can make so much money, and when it doesn’t happen, they’ve already moved into these spaces, they’ve already brought their piece of the suburbs back into the city, created a space that feels comfortable, even though it was at the expense of displacing so many people of colour, and now it’s home for them. And the cycle continues. But artists cannot gentrify communities on their own. Yes, they do come in a repurpose buildings with their DIY spaces, and the like. But the most permanent changes come when local government creates tax-abatement programmes, and other incentives that give artists the tools they need to transform these places into sought-after low income communities. To make matters worse, cities often own a lot of the abandoned buildings in blighted communities, and just sit and watch them deteriorate of their own accord. Baltimore has over 16,000 vacant, uninhabitable buildings. When you loosen that definition, the number of currently vacant properties rises to over 40,000, and issues around red-lining and discriminate laws help us explain how we got to this point. Cities will bring in developers, like in Baltimore, and level whole communities to rebuild suitable living for what Florida calls the creative class. Developers also follow the trends of these migrating artists. They create plans and street-scapes that complement the urban/suburban hybrid plans that the new hipstervilles require. Supports of gentrification will argue that revitalisation and neighbourhood changes are natural; that it’s simply the way things are. Neighbourhoods change and grow. But the difference for me, is that while some communities assimilate to new ways of life, black neighbourhoods are transformed through attrition. The shift is aggressive and harsh and oppressive. Any other description is a distortion of the truth. We’re not moving because we want to. These artists become the purveyor of an onslaught of trauma and displacement, or erasure and cultural dismemberment. Black folks, again, are not just leaving because of upward mobility or better quality of life, often; their communities are demolished. Gentrification is an important aspect for the strategy for impoverishment, by creating neighbourhoods and housing that only the white-collar workforce can afford, the city is systematically destroying the material conditions for the survival of millions of people. And artists make it all look pretty, all palatable. But as Kim Levin, an artist put it, who cares as long as they’re trying to show good art? And what is even more remarkable is that gentrification has become so normalised, so everyday, that it is commonplace to see a new development erected right on your doorstep without any notice. These local developers often bypass this first phase of development all together. They no longer need this artistic group to enter the neighbourhoods of colour and start the slow process of class transference because unfortunately, there aren’t many left willing to put up a fight against gentrification, because gentrification itself has become a way of life.

LG: So Brion, your conversation about art and gentrification got me wondering, as an artist, do you have personal experience with seeing some people benefit from the artistic focus of redevelopment, but other people benefitting less?

LB: Yeah, I think Station North is a perfect example involving Baltimore. Station North is one of the arts and cultural districts here, one of the oldest ones, and maybe in the last decade people have really started to see that community change due to Station North. Because the process was so slow, it was hard for people to really see the changes, but now I think it’s apparent. The Mica transplants, the tech company that’s in that area, have started to really change the demographic of that area, right. They started to put up murals that don’t represent the community that they sit in at all, to attract new business like Impact Hub. If you walk in you might see black art on the wall, but the people that it’s there to serve are not really in that community. You’ll see artistic workspaces that really lend itself to people who are produced art indigenous to that community. It is the art of the workforce, the creative class, who want to be in that community but don’t currently live there. I’ve gone to gallery spaces there, a street-scape event they have on Oliver Street, and it is so white and so different from what I know Green Mount to be. And it would be beautiful if an art district in a black community somehow reflected the black art that already existed in that community, but what you saw was the graffiti street art and the depiction of young black girls on the murals being replaced or overshadowed by the MICA students and Station North students putting up their own art that just doesn’t reflect the black Baltimore that I know. So I think that’s a great example of what that looks like.

And now, you know, the real development is coming in, you got condos being built on Green Mount – who would’ve thought? They’re now doing artist-affordable housing. I know as a black artist myself I would’ve have loved to have these options a long time ago but it wasn’t until these white artists needed a place to and started to envision a place that would have those opportunities in Baltimore. And it’s just really unfortunate.

LG: Yeah, I think people are seeing this story all over the country and it’s hard for them to be precise about their critique. What I see happening sometimes is that they’ll go to a community group – like a marching band – and they’ll have them perform at their events. And folks say ‘look, they’re inclusive, they’re bringing in community groups’, but I think what you’re saying, ‘how come the community group can’t own city arts, why can’t we have an incubator where we can have African drumming, or different form indigenous art that we can be invested in’. And linking the two talks together, I think some people think that it is the past, we can’t go back to the past when we had black folks on that African stuff, that’s the past of Baltimore. The future of Baltimore needs to be these MICA kids, and these big, multimedia flashy examples of what they’re creating, and not what black folks did, which doesn’t feel new, doesn’t feel like something they can market and invest in.

LB: I think that’s true, and I think that’s a very dangerous analysis of what’s happening. Another example still using Station North, two very similar institutions, one that was black-owned and black-run, and one that came as a result of Station North. There was an institution called the ‘Living Well’, that used to sit a mile down the road from Station North. Again, this is performance space, this is a space where you can hold classes, you can have artistic incubation, but it definitely had a collective model built in to the institution itself. And it was crowded out by Impact Hub, a national model that essentially does the exact same thing, and the folks who brought Impact Hub to Baltimore thought it made sense to put a new institution doing exactly what a black institution was doing in that neighbourhood there, and because you paint it with this veneer of community involvement and black art people assume it’s the same thing only bigger and better, and then they all go to Impact Hub leaving the Living Well having to move and start over. And for you Lawrence, one question I had coming out of your talk, is that we say it’s dangerous looking at technological advancement as a measure of success, particularly for black communities. And I’m just wondering, what does that success look like if we’re not looking for technological advancement?

LG: So when I talk about culture being a technology, I do think we need to understand cultures in much more depth and detail, and then see if we can have these cultures function in ways where they’re doing more work to build up communities. Interesting that you bring up the example of the Impact Hub, because I recently went a meeting at the new black Smithsonian in Washington DC, and they said they had an exhibit in the Impact Hub, and they actually had people come and do archival work using these brand-new archiving machines that this institution had. And I heard that a local black museum, the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, had to go to Impact Hub to digitise their archives. And to me that was a prime example of the failure that we have when we envision progress as centred on technology, because you’re making the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, which has a lot of cultural technology that Impact Hub doesn’t have, dependent upon Impact Hub to digitise their archive, and giving this new institution the veneer of legitimacy. And they actually said, it’s because they had better WiFi, better accessibility, that they chose Impact Hub. So we have to stop using those types of metrics, that are always going to favour institutions with more capital and more access to white privilege. What if you cold measure the work that the founders of the Great Blacks in Wax Museum did? They wrote a whole book on social work, that attempted to redefine social work from a cultural lens, and the things they do as an institution reflect that. So, I think we as a community often ask this question, ‘well if what we use now doesn’t work, what does work?’ If we have this critique of what exists, how can we transition to something different? And I think that we need to just spend a whole episode talking about a new vision of measuring success, or what we could build, if we had the time and space. A new vision of the future for cities, but specifically Baltimore, that could reflect an alternative to what we’ve critiqued.

LB: If you’re interested in hearing about these alternatives, please tune in next time to ‘In Search of Black Power’.

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