“Culture Class: Art, Creativity, Urbanism, Part I” by Martha Rosler. June 2011

Throughout the 1960s, as former metropolitan empires schemed, struggled, and strong-armed to secure alternative ways to maintain cheap access to productive resources and raw materials in the post-colonial world, the Western democracies, because of unrest among young people and minorities centering on increasing demands for political agency, were diagnosed by policy elites as ungovernable.

In a number of cities, as middle-class adults, and some young “hippies,” were leaving, groups of other people, including students and working class families, took part in poor people’s housing initiatives that included sweat equity (in which the municipality grants ownership rights to those who form collectives to rehabilitate decayed tenement properties, generally the ones in which they are living) or squatting. In cities that have not succeeded, as New York and London have done, in turning themselves into centers of capital concentration through finance, insurance, and real estate, the squatter movement has had a long tail and still figures in many European cities.

In the US, the urban homesteading movement, primarily accomplished through the individual purchase of distressed homes, quickly became recognized as a new, more benign way of colonizing neighborhoods and driving out the poor. Such new middle-class residents were often referred to by real-estate interests and their newspaper flacks – not to mention an enthusiastic Mayor Ed Koch – as “urban pioneers,” as though the old neighborhoods could be understood according to the model of the Wild West. These developments surely seemed organic to the individuals moving in; as threatened communities began to resist, however, the process of change quickly enough gained a name: gentrification.

In some major cities, some of the colonizers were artists, writers, actors, dancers, and poets.
Many lived in old tenements; but artists did not so much want apartments as places to work and live, and the ideal spaces were disused factories or manufacturing lofts. In New York, while poets, actors, dancers, and writers were moving to such old working-class residential areas as the Lower East Side, many artists took up residence in nearby manufacturing-loft neighborhoods. Artists had been living in lofts since at least the 1950s, and while the city winked at such residents, it still considered their situation to be both temporary and illegal. But loft-dwelling artists continued agitating for city recognition and protection, which appeared increasingly likely to be granted as the 1960s advanced.

A canny observer of this process was New York City-based urban sociologist Sharon Zukin.
In her book Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change, published in 1982, Zukin writes about the role of artists in making “loft living” comprehensible, even desirable. She focuses on the transformation, beginning in the mid-1960s, of New York’s cast-iron district into an “artist district” that was eventually dubbed Soho. In this remarkable book, Zukin lays out a theory of urban change in which artists and the entire visual art sector – especially commercial galleries, artist-run spaces, and museums – are a main engine for the repurposing of the post- industrial city and the renegotiation of real estate for the benefit of elites.

So... is this getting serious?

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