The Bowery, Benjamin & Brixton

August 16, 2014


Everyone has their favourite gentrification horror story. The Hackney cafe which took over an Asian Women’s Advice Centre and used the language of advice pamphlets to advertise their overpriced fry-ups. The ‘Champagne and Fromage’ bar which pushed the ‘foodie’ transformation of Brixton’s Granville Arcade – rechristened ‘Brixton Village’ – into the realms of parody. But you’d be hard pushed to find a more egregious example than that of New York’s Bowery House hotel.

The Bowery House opened in 2011, on the top two floors of a building on the Bowery formerly known as the Prince Hotel. The Bowery is a lengthy street running through the centre of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and has long been a place of refuge for the city’s homeless population. Dozens of ‘flophouses’ were built there during the Great Depression, including the Prince, providing cheap living spaces for poverty-stricken New Yorkers. By the 1950s more than 200 residents were crammed into the Prince’s tiny wooden cabins, paying a few dollars a night for a bed, a shared bathroom and a ceiling made out of chicken wire.

The Prince was sold in the mid-90s, and stopped accepting new residents. By the time plans to convert it into a hotel emerged, there were barely ten residents left. The hotel developers moved them all onto the second floor, and turned the cabins on the higher floors into upmarket ‘tribute’ versions of the rooms downstairs. Guests at the hotel, who pay anything up to $154 a night to ‘live out their flophouse fantasies’, therefore now climb past a floor of chicken-wire rooms inhabited by real-life ‘bums’ in order to reach their ‘authentic’ cabin beds.

One room has even been named after ‘one of the most colorful longtime residents’, although no-one is sure whether so-called ‘Charlie Peppers’ is aware of the ‘tribute’ being paid to his ‘colourful’ life. But whether he knows or not, his poverty, and that of his neighbours, is now a cultural niche to be mined for profit. It’s probably one step up from being thrown out on the street altogether, but there’s a peculiarly insidious violence about a vulnerable person’s entire existence being exploited as a tourist attraction behind their back.

As grotesque as the example of the Bowery House is – not only expropriating homeless people, but shamelessly turning their lives into a paid-for ‘experience’ – its extremity reveals something fundamental about the specific cultural forms through which gentrification is often expressed. Gentrification is ultimately driven by capital’s need to generate surplus value from the built environment. But theories of the ‘rent gap’ or state-sponsored ‘regeneration’ cannot on their own explain why encouraging people to pretend to be ‘bums’ for a night might be a good way to do so. And while the aesthetics of gentrification are easy to mock – the industrial warehouse artspaces, the ‘kooky’ pop-up shops – they are certainly not mere ‘superstructural’ irrelevancies. They are crucial conduits for the flow of capital around the urban environment, and are therefore an equally crucial site of struggle.

It’s worth examining why the Bowery House’s exploitation of their ‘long-term residents’ is so repulsive, in order to see how art is implicated in this process. The people living on the second floor of the hotel are no longer people, but objects in a museum. The complexity and depth of their lives has been completely hollowed out, leaving only a paper-thin appearance. Their lives and their suffering have been transformed into things to be looked at, things to be mimicked and ‘experienced’ as a kind of vicarious thrill – and ultimately, things to make money from.

Prescient as ever, Walter Benjamin could see the Bowery House coming, some 80 years before it opened its doors. In his 1934 essay, ‘The Author as Producer’, Benjamin castigates a German photographic art movement called the ‘New Objectivity’, which he suggests, like the hotel, had ‘succeeded in making misery itself an object of pleasure…a consumer good’. The leading proponent of New Objectivity was Albert Renger-Patzsch, whose elegant, people-free photographs of urban locations (factories, houses, bridges) were published in a book entitled ‘The World is Beautiful’. For Benjamin, this title summed up everything that was wrong with New Objectivity: it reduced the world to surface appearances. The lives of the people who lived and worked in the photographed buildings – whether they were happy or sad, rich or poor – were irrelevant. All that mattered was aesthetic beauty.

Benjamin argued that artists should be aiming at more than merely ‘transfiguring’ the appearance of the world by ‘treating it stylishly and with technical perfection’. Rather, they should use technical, formal innovations to reveal how both the object and the process of producing a photograph of it ‘stand’ in the wider relations of capitalist production. Art that fails to do this is doomed to merely ‘renew[ing] the world as it actually is from within, in other words, according to the current fashion.’ It ends up just reproducing the dominant relations of production, giving everything it touches (including misery) the structure of a ‘consumer good’ – even if the artwork’s ‘content’ is, on the face of it, politically opposed to those relations.

As Marx showed, once something becomes a consumer good, a commodity, its use-value (its social purpose) is subordinated to its exchange value (the quantitative amount of value it bears in the market). In an artwork this contradictory relation between use and exchange is pushed to its limits. An artwork, as Theodor Adorno noted in ‘Aesthetic Theory’, is the ‘absolute commodity’, because it has no use-value whatsoever. It doesn’t do anything, except hang on a wall or stand in a gallery. This is something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Adorno argues that by rejecting all use-value in a capitalist world, the artwork points towards a revolutionary world of new, untainted use-values. On the other, the absolute eradication of use makes art the goose that lays capital’s golden egg: pure exchange value. This is why art attacking and developing its own form and conditions of production is so important to both Adorno and Benjamin: political content is not enough on its own to challenge art’s status as the absolute commodity. As Benjamin writes, ‘the bourgeois apparatus of production and publication can assimilate an astonishing number of revolutionary themes, and can even propagate them without seriously placing its own existence or the existence of the class that possesses them into question.’

This becomes clear when we examine the particular historical relationship between artists and the Bowery. Around the same time as the New Objectivity was in the ascendancy in Germany, documentary photography was making its first appearance in the States, with the Bowery’s itinerant population a popular subject. Beautifully shot pictures of homeless men abounded in books and newspapers; sitting on the street surrounded by their meagre possessions, or passed out in doorways clutching an empty bottle. As Martha Rosler notes in an essay tracing the history of documentary photography, here the ‘political message’ of these pictures was that of the emergent liberal social conscience, calling for the ‘rectification of wrongs’ presented in the photographs. In this view, poverty was something akin to a natural disaster, an unfortunate accident that should no longer be tolerated, rather than something necessarily produced by the processes of capital accumulation. Therefore, rather than challenging the relations of production which led to the poverty on display, the political demands were limited to moralistic reformism: inadequate institutional responses, or charitable donations.

This dynamic was played out within the photographs too, with the isolation of poverty from the processes that produced it reproduced in the ‘beautiful’ technique of the photography itself. The ‘aesthetic-historical’ value of the ‘street scene’ is ripped from its social context, and turned into a fixed image, an aesthetic effect, to be ‘appreciated’ on its own, separate plane. This means that the ‘political message’ of the image has to be consumed alongside the image, via an explanatory text, not through it.

The liberal reformers would have no doubt found the idea of a hotel opening specifically to exploit the image of the homeless people they were photographing appalling. But by failing to challenge the separation of the ‘aesthetic’ from the ‘social’ inherent in their own production process, the political ‘content’ of their work was unable to resist the process of commodification which that separation sets in motion. Art was once again an important mediator in the next step of this process, namely the artists moving into the Lower East Side in the 1980s who were drawn to the Bowery ‘bums’ as subjects for their work. Instead of liberal moralism, these artists, working in the midst of the first neoliberal attacks on the welfare state, presented the poverty of the ‘bums’ as being the ‘pathetic-heroic choice’ of ‘victims-turned-freaks’, as Rosler puts it.

This approach offers no challenge to the relations of production either – in fact, it simply reproduces the neoliberal notion that poverty is something chosen, not produced. In this respect, it hardly matters whether that choice is viewed as a moral failing or as an admirable ‘opting out’ of mainstream society. ‘The boringly sociological [became] the excitingly mythological/psychological’, writes Rosler – and it is precisely this supposed ‘excitement’ of poverty which has led to the opening of the Bowery House ‘flophouse experience’. There is therefore a direct link between the ‘concerned’ photography of the 1920s, the ‘celebratory’ artwork of the 1980s, and the outright exploitation of the Bowery House. Once poverty has been aestheticised and reified as a ‘consumer good’; once the conditions of production, the historical context, have been expelled from the image in favour of aesthetic effects; it is a short logical step to keeping a few real-life ‘bums’ downstairs to add further value to the consumption of that aesthetic commodity.

And it is the same logic that turns Brixton or Hackney from a place to live into ‘Brixton’ or ‘Hackney’, ‘the place to be’, the ‘up and coming area’. In his essay, ‘Artists, Aestheticisation and the Field of Gentrification’, David Ley invokes Benjamin’s character of the urban ‘rag-picker’ to illustrate the way in which the aesthetically-minded see themselves as converting ‘junk’ into ‘value’. Excluded from economic power (albeit often through choice), those with an aesthetic disposition respond through the autonomous award of ‘recognition and prestige’, using criteria supposedly far removed from ‘traditional’ bourgeois tastes. In the built landscape, this is articulated through a valorisation of areas often dismissed as ‘ordinary and everyday, even plebeian’. These areas ‘can be valorised as authentic, symbolically rich and free from the commodification that depreciates the meaning of place’ – in other words, isolated from their social context and fixed in position as ‘cool’, ‘authentic’ or ‘vibrant’.

What this actually means is that the social relations of the city are deprived of their contradictions, their depth, their changeability – they are ‘made beautiful’, held at arms length, separated from themselves. Once this distance, this dehistoricisation, has been established, it hardly matters whether these social relations have been alienated in order to provoke admiration or concern, to be ‘experienced’, or, as will eventually happen as capital flows in, cast aside. In each case, society is silenced, petrified and smoothed out; formally primed for its exploitation by capital. Aesthetic valorisation therefore actively facilitates capital’s desire to recapitalise the full ground rent of depreciated property.

This process must be situated in the wider role of urban space in post-Fordist capitalism. In  ‘From Management to Entrepreneurialism’, David Harvey suggests that the rapidly increasing mobility of capital, supported by developments in communicative and transport technologies, has removed most of the spatial constraints once associated with production. Under these conditions, rather than risk the fostering of industries which could up sticks to lower-wage economies at any time, cities compete in ‘the production of those kinds of services that are (a) highly localised and (b) characterised by rapid if not instantaneous turnover time’. Harvey’s examples include ‘tourism, the production and consumption of spectacles, [and] the promotion of ephemeral events’, such as the Olympics. Big one-off events remain important, but the aestheticisation of whole swathes of cities could be said to be even more effective. Unlike a spectacular event, the consumption of a place which generates ‘monopoly rents’ by being regarded as uniquely ‘cool’ or ‘authentic’ is not limited by time.

But the importance of aesthetics does present an obvious problem, in that as gentrification takes hold, it invariably leads to the loss of the very ‘authentic’, working-class and often ethnic-minority character of the area which prompted such ‘rag-picking’ in the first place. People can no longer afford housing or rents, or are deliberately ‘decanted’ by local authorities keen to capitalise on rising land values. The attempted solution to this contradiction is the premium placed on the appearance of ‘authenticity’ in the bourgeois cafes, bars and restaurants which are the visible symptoms of gentrification. Hence the proliferation of commercial properties which appropriate the aesthetics of ‘anti-capitalist’ spaces, as well as the desperate campaigns to stop ‘commodified’ shops such as Sainsbury’s Local opening in areas like Stoke Newington. But the failure to challenge the formal identity between aestheticisation and commodification makes any attempt by first-wave gentrifiers to somehow ‘stay true’ (on an aesthetic level) to the spirit of the areas they are gentrifying seem ludicrous, if not, like the Bowery House, downright offensive. Once the process has taken hold, under capitalism there is only one direction in which it can travel: towards capital accumulation.

None of this is to say that art is somehow responsible for the way that capital flows around a city. But it is to say that an art that does not attempt to transform its own ‘apparatus of production’, that does not challenge its own position in post-Fordist production, is reduced to meekly helping capital and gentrification on its way – even if the content of that art is ostensibly against gentrification. With this in mind, it’s hard to think of a worse response to gentrification than the recent Facebook group proposing that London-based artists ‘all move out of London together’ to somewhere ‘regional’, such as Bradford. Not only does this strategy manifestly fail to confront art’s own role in the processes of gentrification, it precisely replicates the separation of aesthetics from social relations which leads to art being exploited in such a way. Worse, it risks turning the struggle against gentrification itself into another aesthetic consumer good.

This holds true for other modes of aesthetic and literary production too: there has been no shortage of ‘concerned’ journalistic articles about gentrification in recent months. As with artworks, unless such articles (this one included) are accompanied by a ruthless critique of their own relation to the processes of capital accumulation, and a political rather than merely aesthetic struggle against those processes, they will – in Benjamin’s cutting phrase – ‘have no other social function whatever, than eternally to draw new effects from the political situation in order to amuse the public’.

By Matt Bolton | @matatatatat 


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