As gentrification pushes young creatives out, our cultural hubs become detached from the ecosystem they were built to foster
Cultural buildings are the new town halls: more socially inclusive than the pub or the church.
The best cultural projects act as public spaces, schools for continuing education, crucibles for talent, fostering innovation and social happenings, from yoga classes to children’s libraries. When free of entry charge, they are a place you can go to learn, rather than just buy – a triumph of experience over consumerism.
But what we’ve learned from the failure of the icon-building boom is that, for a cultural building to really contribute to a city, it must be part of a social ecosystem, not simply a place for tourists to visit. A cultural hub must be connected into a pre-existing cultural vibrancy, supported by decent infrastructure and a community that actually lives there.
The most successful cultural projects are local and not seeded, where the talent lives around the corner and activates the spaces all year with collaborative and community projects. The artists are not brought in on a bus from the suburbs to perform occasionally in front of a seasonal audience of tourists.
But in cities across the world, the march of gentrification has seen cheap housing and studios in downtown locations converted into lifestyle properties, and astronomical rents are driving young creatives out. Sometimes this displacement coincides with the creation of a cultural hub in the form of a theatre or other arts building, which then stands as a totem for a grassroots culture that is already in the process of moving elsewhere or has disbanded completely.
‘The kids that made Portland cool have been moving out at such an alarming rate that the city council has declared a housing emergency’
Stateside, the kids that made Portland cool have been moving out at such an alarming rate that the city council has declared a housing emergency, while New York mayor Bill de Blasio is trying to come up with an affordable housing zoning scheme to save more neighbourhoods from wholesale gentrification. A recent Columbia University study showed that even the wealthiest residents in already gentrified areas of New York are now worried about being displaced too, as foreign buyers move in, driving the prices up in their already high-priced neighbourhoods.
In London, where the inflation of house prices once meant relocating to an unloved neighbourhood on the city fringes, there is now a growing diaspora leaving the city altogether – not for the suburbs, but for Berlin. In 2014, the number of British people living in the German capital increased by 35 per cent within a year. Now, subsequent rent rises in Berlin are in turn squeezing the locals. British architect Scott van Looy told the Guardian: ‘The problem is people like myself, moving over from London, snatching up flats after seeing what they think is a bargain.’
When it comes to cultural vibrancy, it is not simply a case of build it, and they will come. There is nothing more likely to put off a collective of artists than the sanitised insertion of a new-build cultural campus or the top-down creation of an artists’ village. Vibrancy comes from a diverse social mix in a resident, not transient population.
A better investment would be the careful identification and preservation of urban subculture where it currently exists. Supporting these communities with cultural buildings, and providing long-term controlled cheap rent and subsidised start-up and studio space to keep the community together, is critical. There is always a tipping point in a neighbourhood when gentrification can be seen to have gone too far. We need symbiotic urban centres with a wider ecosystem that allows cultural vibrancy and gentrification to co-exist.