The “Creative Class” and the Gentrifying City

In “The ‘Creative Class’ and the Gentrifying City”, Ocean Howell argues that “bohemian” or “countercultural” lifestyles are becoming institutionalized as instruments of urban development. Using skateboarders in Love Park as an example, he chronicles their turbulent relationship with the city of Philadelphia.

Howell first makes an important distinction between urban renewal or “modernization” and gentrification or “reinvestment/reclamation”. He argues that urban renewal tended to involve leveling and replacing the urban fabric, a task almost always carried out with state money. Gentrification, on the other hand, rehabilitates existing urban fabric and doesn’t necessarily involve state money. I found this distinction incredibly important since it raises questions about public vs. private action in urban development and helps frame his argument about how skateboarders have pushed against Philadelphia city officials. Howell expands on this by describing the tension that arises between the public’s acceptance of the skateboarders and their rejection by city officials.

Citing Richard Florida from Carnegie Mellon, Howell argues for the rise of the “creative class”, of which skateboarders are a part, which rather than being connected by socioeconomic status, are connected by their participation in the process of gentrification. What interests me most about this creative class is that its subclasses never really interact with each other because they play different roles at different stages and benefit unequally. This raises moral questions about the subgroups that occupy the earlier stages. In every story of gentrification there are winners and losers. Howell stresses that it’s not even about who the losers are, but that they are erased from the story. Do we accept that the skateboarders and bohemians will eventually be forced out as part of a process? I think the term “creative class” itself is too broad as an umbrella term and actually contributes to the erasure of the losers.

Perhaps the thing that resonated me the most is that Howell believes we should actively be accommodating the creative class by providing amenities like galleries, cafés, and plazas. What this means is a shift from accommodating the agents of production to accommodating the consumers. In the second year urban studio, we’ve been encouraged to focus on and think about how people live in the city and what they might look for when they consider where they want to live. Last semester, Alex Garvin could not stress enough that we needed to provide amenities for our target demographic. But given the temporal nature of the creative class’ subgroups, how do or should we as architects engage its members as a collective?

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