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Saying No to “Culture”

One wonders what could possibly be so bad about developing a BAM cultural district in Fort Greene, a neighborhood already brimming with vibrant cultural traditions.  If someone wanted to drop a new Yankee Stadium or another huge shopping mall into rapidly gentrifying Fort Greene, that would be one thing.  But short of Heinrich Himmler, who would dare oppose the development of culture?

Indeed, only a philistine would scoff at the capital “C” culture of fine arts and museums, classical dance, and theater.  Like education and giving away turkeys at Thanksgiving, culture is generally considered an unquestionable public good.  That it is beyond reproach, however, is also exactly what makes culture such a perfect tool for radically transforming cities, and it is now the vehicle for the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM)’s efforts to transform Fort Greene.

The BAM Local Development Corporation (BAM LDC) has initiated a ten-year, $600-700 million project to develop a “cultural district.”  With few specific details announced, the LDC is presenting the district as a collection of performance and rehearsal spaces; retail stores; market-rate, artist, and “affordable” housing; restaurants; a boutique hotel; and educational institutions.  Already, the LDC has promises of more than $80 million in government funding for the project.

Yet while the LDC touts the uniqueness of its redevelopment project, BAM did not invent the cultural district.  Cities as diverse as Singapore; Sheffield, England; and Santa Ana, California already have them.  Cultural institutions themselves have also long been a tool of urban change.  At least as far back as the development of Lincoln Center in the 1950s, business and government leaders have used what sociologist Sharon Zukin calls the “allure of culture” to justify spending urban renewal funds.  Through the 1970s, building arts complexes became a crucial way for cities to attract badly needed capital and for developers to find lucrative investment opportunities.

Over time, culture has become just one of several urban development strategies.  Shopping and entertainment centers like Baltimore’s Harbor Place gained popularity in the late 1970s and ’80s.  Inner-city baseball stadiums packed with corporate skyboxes proved popular in the 1990s.  After losing some luster to malls and stadiums, cultural institutions and the concept of culture have again become a major urban redevelopment strategy worldwide, driving development projects in major cities like Paris, London, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Barcelona, Toronto, Rotterdam, and Manhattan’s Times Square—not to mention in smaller cities like Cleveland; Seville; Glasgow; Madison, Wisconsin; Beacon, New York; Newark, New Jersey; North Adams, Massachusetts; and Biloxi, Mississippi—among many other examples.

Cultural complexes, like Biloxi’s, designed by world famous architect Frank Gehry, and branches of the Guggenheim, have been the most popular redevelopment model of late.  Following the much-hyped opening of Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao museum—credited with single-handedly reviving the long-suffering Spanish industrial city—more than 30 cities around the globe have competed for a new Guggenheim as the magic bullet of urban revitalization.  It is no surprise, then, that culture and the Guggenheim are figuring prominently in the early plans for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site.

Other than the hype generated by the Guggenheim and other cultural development, however, it is unclear how and if cities are benefiting from such projects. One recent European study concluded that the “establishment of certain areas of cities as ‘cultural districts’ in some cases…has generated gentrification, displaced local residents and facilities, and increased land values, rents, and the local cost of living.”  Simply put, so-called cultural development has become a major gentrification strategy worldwide—little different than malls and stadiums—that primarily serves the profit-making interests of developers, investors, and government leaders.

There is in fact one major developer, Bruce Ratner, who is at the center of BAM’s cultural district plans.  Ratner is the developer of MetroTech, Atlantic Center, and the upcoming Atlantic Terminal mall, which ring BAM’s district.  Ratner is a member of the board of directors of both BAM and the LDC.  He also controls development rights to one of the first parcels of land set for development of housing and retail space.  Given Ratner’s billions already invested in and around Fort Greene as well as his control over future development, one can see how he stands to gain the most from seeing BAM’s plans fulfilled, his investments prosper, and Fort Greene’s gentrification continue.

Surely the district has the potential to nurture innovative theater and dance, visual art and music, not to mention Brooklyn’s countless talented, often-struggling artists who need much more public and private funding than they currently receive.  But attaching the word culture to the project hides the mostly commercial aims of the plan.  Most obviously, how can the loft housing, retail stores, restaurants, and boutique hotel planned as a major part of the district accurately be described as cultural?  More importantly, anywhere near $600-700 million worth of development is likely to be a windfall to Ratner and other real estate interests, large corporations, and BAM, while raising property values and causing further displacement and gentrification around Fort Greene.

With low-income African-American and Latino renters (including many artists) likely to suffer the worst of this displacement, preventing them from enjoying any of the new cultural amenities, BAM’s cultural district raises serious questions about the economic and racial inequalities generated by the development cities are spending so much to subsidize, no matter how appealing the plans may sound.  Calling development “cultural” thus becomes another persuasive marketing tool to hide development’s ugly effects and to block potential opposition and more equitable development strategies.  Opposing shopping malls or lofts or hotels likely to breed gentrification and built at the behest of powerful developers is one thing, but who will speak out against “culture”?  Who indeed?


David Vine

David Vine is a contributing writer for the Rail.


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