My Presence Is a Provocation


The urbanist internet has been a ga ga over an article by artist and musician David Byrne (photo credit: Wikipedia) called “If the 1% stifles New York’s creative talent, I’m out of here.” Now David Byrne himself is at least a cultural 1%er, and at with a reported net worth of $45 million, isn’t exactly hurting for cash. In fairness to him, he forthrightly admits he’s rich. He also is bullish on the positive changes in New York in areas like public safety, transportation, and parks, and does not fall prey to romanticizing the bad old days of the 70s and 80s. However, in his assigning blame for New York’s affordability, he points the finger squarely at Wall Street, neglecting the role he himself played in bringing about the changes he decries, changes in which he was more than a passive participant.

Back in the early 90s I liked to hang out in a neighborhood called Fountain Square in Indianapolis, a down at the heels commercial district near downtown largely populated by people from Appalachia. I enjoyed browsing the low end, marginal shops and eating at diners where the food was mediocre and the waitresses sassy but not all that attractive (not that I let that stop me from flirting with them). Today, Fountain Square is not exactly gentrified, but is seeing a lot of investment and new residential construction. It’s a long way from unaffordable, but it isn’t impossible to conceive of a day when it features almost entirely higher prices (by Indianapolis standards) in the way some other zones downtown do.

About that time I also liked to drive around the city and take pictures of various neighborhoods in the inner city. One time I was on the East Side and was walking around taking snaps of streetscapes. I apparently pointed my camera too close in the direction of a white minivan whose owner took umbrage. The driver, who was white, long-haired, with a bit of a redneck air about him, circled the block and pulled up next to me to berate me in a semi-menacing way, alternately demanding to know why I was taking pictures of his van and warning me I should never do it again. (I generally take pains to try to avoid including people in my photographs when possible, and things like this are one reason why).

I’m not going to claim there was any hidden agenda here other than this guy being directly suspicious of my pointing a camera his way. But I can’t help but wonder if subconsciously he was aware of a more subtle but potentially more dangerous threat that I posed to his neighborhood and way of life.

I’m not taking credit or blame for neighborhood change in Indianapolis. But I do know that I’m part of the dynamic of the city I’m in. And when I guy like me walks into a neighborhood, my mere presence can be a provocation. Cities are inherently dynamic places, and we are agents of the forces of change whether we want to be or not. (Which is as true for the poor as for the one percent, we just label it “fair housing” when poor people move into rich neighborhoods, but “gentrification” when the reverse occurs).

While I am a writer and observer on cities, I’m an endogenous not exogenous observer. All of us are players in the development of the places we live and visit, event if only bit players in some cases. And oftimes in the complex world of the city, our actions are part of forces or trends we are not event aware of, ones that may have consequences we would never have desired. That does not absolve us of our role.

As for David Byrne, the role of artists and musicians in paving the way for gentrification is so well known as to be conventional wisdom. Similarly today the hipster. And what’s one of the original signature markers of the hipster? The fixed-gear bicycle.

Just as reductions in crime obviously have an effect of dramatically raising property values (and thus rents) in a place as intrinsically attractive as New York, so do other quality of life improvements such as bicycle infrastructure. By making New York an even more desirable place to live, these improvements, wonderful as they may be and which I would heartily endorse, clearly attract more well-off residents and drive up prices.

Byrne has even taken a direct role in this. He created a series of nine public art type back racks from the city, all but one of which is in Manhattan, and which even includes this delightful example from Wall Street:

Photo Credit: Flickr/zombiete

These racks and his activism with regards to bicycles are what give Bryne his standing an urban commentator.

I for one am glad he made the bike racks as they are fantastic and I’m a fan of New York’s improved cycling infrastructure. But I also recognize that this sort of quality of life improvement contributes towards New York’s attractiveness to the wealthy. It’s just not realistic to think one can clean up the crime, the parks, improve infrastructure, etc. and then expect that prices will remain what they were back in the 70s when Bryne moved to the city. Rather than pointing the finger at the Other, the finance industry in this case, it would be more helpful if those of us who advocate for better urban environments would recognize the inevitable side effects many of our proposed policies would produce, and our own role in bringing them about.

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile, where this piece originally appeared.


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