Artists as the Useful Idiots of Gentrifiers

The links between artistic settlement of depressed urban areas and its later
gentrification are well known. As the area becomes “attractive” for the
consumers of cultural product, and residency there imparts one with “coolness”,
rents go up.

Eventually even the most non-commercial and non-affluent of the bohemian
settlers may be driven out. Some of these artist settlers see themselves on the
same side of the economic barricade as “the people”; not being wealthy
themselves, or with some contempt for the loathed yuppies and bourgeoisie, they
are well aware of and are often against the gentrification process. It is hard
for them then to come to terms with their role in it.

Art and cultural enterprises may be free, “popular”, on the streets – but it is
mainly a commercial product. Artistic entertainment is usually a form of
business, thus places connected with “the art scene” are selling and profitting
from cultural capital as much as landlords. Even free art on the streets can be
recuperated into the “value” of a neighbourhood and ultimately benefit those
with property and capital.

In Poland, there is a notable trend to talk about “revitalization” (as the
gentrification process is locally called) being carried out in “social
consulatation” with the locals, or to talk about programs which are meant to
combat “social exclusion”. But these social consultations are farces organized
by the elites to involve a small group of “the people” in the co-management of
the plan. Usually local people know nothing about them and they are attended by
a small group of residents, often part of the cultural elite: artists,
architects, the occasional sociologist or ecologist. There the authorities
control whay may fit into the plan and what not. In the end, “the people” are
given a sense of “participation” by being allowed to propose whether X will be
painted yellow or pink, and which sort of accessories will be allowed to
decorate public spaces. All is OK – as long as it raises the prestige and the
commercial value of the neighbourhood.

The residents of the Praga neighbourhood in Warsaw have been noticing this
process but are largely kept out of it. Well-meaning sorts wishing to promote
“community activity” would of course rather engage people. They fail largely
because these consulations rarely address people’s most pressing needs and
because the people have long found themselves beaten down with every attempt
they have made to improve their lives.

An example could be seen at a “social consultation” held a few months ago. A
resident of Wilenska St. in Warsaw was one of the few who went there, hoping
that “revitalization plans” would somehow improve the condition of her building.
How does life look on Wilenska St.? You find that many, if not most of the
buildings have no heating. The city prevents residents from moving into empty
flats and do not want to put new residents there – because rather they prefer to
get rid of people. People living next to empty flats which are never heated
complain that no matter how much they try to heat, their flats are always cold.
(Of course since heating properly can cost up to a full-month’s retirement
payment, few people are in a position to do some anyway.) There are flats
without bathrooms, showers or kitchens. In many places, such “conveniences”
exist only because people made them themselves.

And then there are raising rents and costs which many low-income and retired
people cannot afford. Many live in fear that their building will wind up in
private hands and they will be forced out of their homes.

The resident of Wilenska St. wanted to know what “revitalization” could be
expected on her street. She was thinking about her building: holes in the
staircase, no lock on the stairwell entrance, holes in the courtyard that
gathered water and grew everytime it rained, faulty electrical installations,
peeling paint and mold everywhere. Could she hope for some improvement?

Then she found out that revitalization was really like creating some Potemkin
village: surely the facades of the buildings should be painted so they look nice
for passersby. Other types of repair was not the job of the revitalizers.

The residents of Wilenska St. were recently surprised to learn that their street
is the subject of interest not only of local artists, but international ones as
well. The local papers recently announced the results of the 10th annual Europan
competition. This year, artists and architects from around Europe, many of whom
have never stepped foot on Wilenska St. submitted their projects for its
improvement. While the architects picked up cash prizes for their ideas, many of
the residents of Wilenska St. and thinking about whether they should heat their
flats more or buy food this week.

The winners of the competition were some artsy architects from Madrid called
MMasa, together with Scottish architects Stuart MacKellar and Michael Cooke.
Reading through their project, one even sees that they have the residents in
mind. (Except in keeping with artistic pretence, they refer to residents as
“activists” and to the use of public space as “appropriation”.) However one
wonders how or even WHY anybody should give a shit about the social fantasies of
artists from other cities, especially when there are plenty of locals who would
have already carried out all these artsy projects if they just had the cash.

Not that all of the ideas are bad; the good use of public space should be on the
agenda of local community activism. But many similar ideas have either already
been proposed here or actually put into practice. Take, for example, a proposal
from the winners to make gardens in courtyards. Local guerrila gardeners already
do it, and many local residents have tried to create green spaces. There are
only two problems: money and the attitude of residents. As it turns out, not all
locals appreciate such projects, unless there is a sense of community in the
building and the residents are directly involved in planning and implementing
the project. Unfortunately, there is little sense of community in most buildings
and in many places there is only antagonism. Antagonism not only towards
neighbours, but towards the newcomers who are better positioned socially and
culturally to withstand the gentrification process and who are brining it along
with them.

Some attempts at creating gardens and leaving other decorative improvements were
destroyed by local residents, leaving the do-gooders upset that the “local
lowlife” do not understand or appreciate what is going on.

Local architects talk about how “changes” have to be planned with the locals.
Only the continue to be ignorant to the fact that the “changes” they have in
mind are, at least for now, only of limited use to most of the locals. The
artsification of the neighbourhood is mostly for the artists themselves, then
for a select group of local residents. In terms of priority of needs, most
people would not put lack of artistic and cultural events on the top of their

A few scenes from the winning project induced much laughter in Praga –
particularly the ballet dancer in the courtyard of Wilenska St or the
multigenerational outdoor discos in the yards that the artists imagine. Not that
anybody is against dancing – it is just that community life has not evolved to
that stage for most neighbourhoods. Some locals imagine that the most probable
effects of putting a disco in the courtyard would be to piss each other off,
with the local unemployed drunks making a racket at all hours of day and night
and the working people, who tend to have little time for relaxing, loosing

Ultimately, it is no surprise that the elites amuse themselves with such
projects instead of investing in the vital infrastructure of the neighbourhood.
That sort of investment is meant to be made by some fantasy future “investors”,
who having been convinced of the “potential” of the neighbourhood for making
money, will buy things up and fix things up, even if this mean driving out the
poor. In this context, the artists will not play the role of “saviours of the
neighbourhood” for the local people, but rather are playing the role of the
useful idiots of the gentrifiers.

Our Praga Blog: Stories of residents, photos, etc.

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