01 June 2010

Kultur Takes the Ruhr

Whoops, no posts in the month of May. Sorry about that. I don't know how some people make the time to update their blogs regularly with interesting content. Rest assured, I have not abandoned this thing, I have a few posts I'm working over in my head that should arise in the coming weeks. Patience is a virtue, or so I am told.

I was watching the Deutsche Welle news last week (what, doesn't everybody?) and saw a really interesting piece on the Ruhr Valley's preparations to be one of the European Capitals of Culture 2010 under the theme "Art, Culture & Energy". I've been hoping that the video would go up so I could share it with you lovely people, but so far no dice. So to break it down for you, Germany's Ruhr Valley contains the cities of Essen, Gelsenkirchen, Dortmund and is home to about twelve million people. It was once Germany's industrial and coal mining heartland, though most of the factories have since migrated to cheaper realms in the former East Germany and beyond. The folks in charge of regional planning have apparently been listening quite intently to the likes of Richard Florida and have been busy reinventing the area's image. Where once stood smokestacks, now there are, um, three hundred and eleven luftballons.

The EU's Culture Capital program is ostensibly a chance for cities to showcase their unique character to tourists, which on the surface seems a perfectly reasonable thing to do. But as Andrew Ross has written, it's become little more than a feeding trough for real estate developers at the expense of the displaced working classes. Writing about Glasgow's experience as the Culture Capital for 1990, Ross posits that "the familiar lopsided footprint of neoliberalism made itself visible in a system of labor apartheid that displayed an ever-firmer spatial demarcation between the residences, workplaces, and playgrounds of the ascendant professional service classes and those of the low-wage and unemployed populations at the city margins. From the standpoint of arts practitioners themselves, a 2004 study showed that the progressive legacy of 1990 was widely perceived to have been squandered by the data-focused bureaucracy in charge of cultural policy in the intervening years. An obsession with audience numbers and quotas had inhibited the sustainable growth of jobs in the sector." (Ross 2009; pp 30-32) He goes on to cite a 2007 Demos report by saying "city boosters who followed the model were locked into...a 'cultural arms race,' competing for finite pools of investment resources, cultural workers, audiences, tourist streams, and signature archistectural icons." (Ibid.) As a witness to Chicago's recent failed bid for the Olympics I can relate.

Florida is not without his critics, but his ideas (most of which he amalgamated from other sources, but I digress) are popular among city managers worldwide...and he has made quite a lot of money selling communities his services. But honestly, the way small cities are latching onto this bandwagon is a bit silly. Not to pick on Duluth, Minnesota--I'm sure it's a lovely town for three months out of the year--but does anybody honestly believe that anybody will be drawn there just because the city paints a few bike lanes and cuts tax breaks to art galleries? Don't misunderstand me, those are nice things to have, but the way Florida is selling these ideas as a panacea to dying towns seems a bit disingenuous. It may work for some, and places like Pittsburgh have had success, but the idea that Pittsburgh's revival is reproducible anywhere is preposterous. The much sought-after "creatives" are a limited resource, and most of them tend to be drawn to places that have already reached a critical mass. Large ponds may translate to a lot of small fish, but it also means more ideas being bounced around and more "creativity", however you want to define it. For all of it's qualities, Duluth lacks two critical components to revitalizing a city: connections with the outside world and existing, philanthropic wealth. You need one or the other to get on your way. I'm sure Duluth has it's prominent families that made fortunes from the iron mines, but nothing close to Pittsburgh's collection of Mellons and Heinzes and Scaifes and their associated charitable endowments.

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