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Steel Factories into Art Factories: Limitless Potential?

Photo Courtesy Arch Daily Link to Project: http://www.artsquest.org/about/about.asp

Elbphilharmonie: three concert halls, a hotel, apartments, and a public square elevated 37 metres above the river.

It seems, at least as far back as the construction Mass MoCa in North Adams, Mass, or famously with the Tate Modern in London, there’s been a formula for turning old industrial buildings, whenever possible, into lofts or art spaces (or both or into the thing of art itself, as in the Rhur region). Economic globalization and its ballyhooed homogenizing, is rather creating strong incentives for preservation of unique places as comparatively advantageous, and the steel factories to art factories phenomenon should be seen as part of that dynamic. Pittsburgh has made this industrial to arts economic development strategy a centerpiece of its contemporary claim to fame. And I’m a fan of the project renderings shown above, and generally support the concepts behind creating the ArtsQuest campus on the former Bethlehem Steel Factory lands (although the “creativity commons” rendering gives me pause about the whole venture with its unintended parodying of a food court.)  By comparison to my old stomping grounds, scores of equally impressive 19th century industrial buildings in the Naugatuck Valley, CT met their fates prematurely due to neglect and wrecking balls. They were torn down before these kinds of adaptive reuses became popularized. In fact, many continue to be torn down. Meanwhile, it seems nearly every rust belt city or defunct industrial neighborhood from  NYC’s meatpacking district to Vancouver’s Yaletown or Portland’s Pearl District, have found new uses for their old warehouse areas. Cities as diverse as Minneapolis, RichmondCleveland,  Hamburg, Manchester NH and Manchester, UK are all pursuing similar residential/arts development strategies in the adaptive reuse of their former industrial buildings. The descriptive animus of this phenomenon I would loosely describe as place-making for the creative class. It has become observably cliche(check out this beautiful example in Brooklyn). They always seem astonishingly successful, and indeed for the most part the strategy of arts-led economic development, coupled with historic preservation place-making, has proven itself in remaking beautiful, vibrant places that have challenged people’s perceptions of urban living. They are showcases of winning efforts in many American cities to staunch the tidal exodus to the suburbs. At their best, these adapted areas reminded people of the enjoyment, variety, and interest of urban spaces. Forgotten, however, are all the smaller places that either pursued the same strategies and found them inadequate, or those that never mustered the means or the political will to pursue them in the first place. An artist-led strategy for economic development has been honed with its own pat phrases and truisms for a couple decades now, with analogies to artists being the pioneer species of burnt over urban wastelands, etc, and with these, mythic, cure-all characteristics have barnacled upon the more modest proposals that underwrite the strategy.

Let me take a moment to say when I refer to the cities pursuing these strategies, or simply use “they”, I am generalizing about the nebulous confluence of real estate developers, government policy makers (who might adopt tax breaks or relax building codes for adaptive reuse), and the historic preservation organizations, art councils, and economic development departments who advocated for these arts-led revitalization of older neighborhoods.

Who or what begins the virtuous cycle of building recycling is not what I’m questioning. Unknown is how universally applicable the strategy of introducing artists to brownfields or other blighted areas is, and if there is a competitive limit to how many places can develop the same artist economic driver “niche” for their economically depressed neighborhoods, or as supplement to lost manufacturing work. Also, unknown to me is how the west coast obsession with the ‘authentic’ just makes this good real estate development.

I think the preponderance of successful art clusters are not beholden to the discretionary spending of their regions. The cities and places with formally creative arts sectors and access to worldwide markets, are places like: London, Paris, Milan, Chicago, Los Angeles, NYC, where the arts communities meet and merge with designers and big industries from furniture to advertising and media. Towns like Pittsburgh, Montreal, or Austin are, if I’m not mistaken, able to sustain their own creative, arts rooted clusters by a mixture of local market capture, linkages to larger industries (education, software, furniture design, etc.) and modest, albeit growing, appeal to tourists and regions beyond. These places and their arts led strategies must be distinguished from, let’s say, a West Hampton or Westport artist community that relies upon the patronage of wealthy residents, or a college town like Madison or Grinnell, IA that has an interested, educated class that is unusually supportive and attracts similar interest as part of a college town arts circuit.  For instance, the arts community of the Berkshires is really a suburbanized section of Boston’s education/arts market. But for other towns/cities, I think the artist/creative sector (that I define more narrowly than, let’s say, Richard Florida’s creative class) has a ceiling. It’s not just any place that can adopt certain credos, put a for-sale sign on its dingiest industrial neighborhood, and sit back and wait for the famed artistic pollinator, moneybees to colonize. Expectations must be curbed, and greater recognition given to one of the main draws for artist communities: the presence of other artists in the region.

Real Estate Developers Know How-To Sum Things Up Neatly Sometimes

The ability of the internet to market products and services at low cost from nearly everywhere still has not changed the fundamentals of urban agglomerations–the presence of graphic, silkscreen, T-shirt companies scattered nationwide notwithstanding. Usually, in those cases where adaptive reuse of industrial areas is planned for new arts sectors, there are added catalysts like youthful demographics, an inherited legacy as a capitol of a culturally distinct region, or an educational institution (think RISD in Providence). But even with those factors, things can peter out far from the full city transformation to robust economic growth. There needs to be kindling to catch the creative sparks of an artists community–feathering a cheap, grungy, plenty caffeinated, industrial-themed nest for the creative types to roost in is not enough. Planners need to start thinking one step ahead, to creating linkages with local educational and financing institutions and to their other local industries, to see how artists and designers might work together with local industries to improve and enhance their  global competitiveness. I believe this is done more effectively in other nations, whether its the way in which Italian regional governments market traditional, artisanal products into international brands and products, or how South Korean corporations/government are adamant in sponsoring excellence in broad categories beyond the technological, understanding how creativity in different fields form positive feedback loops. For instance, in much the same way Silicon Valley computing power and human capital can help the affect the animation businesses of Hollywood, or the publishing and television industries in NYC benefit from the presence of so many local actors and models, so can the smallest American communities be able to build places that make obvious its talented, creative people’s usefulness to other businesses, even if done on more modest scales of arts fairs and local restaurants. Adaptive reuse of lost industrial buildings and places is important, not because artists and designers are going to create the quantity of middle-income jobs manufacturing has lost, but because they often involve the concerted planning efforts of many different stakeholders in order to find complementarity between disparate industries and demographics of a city or region. In essence, they can make a splash.

"The Shirt Factory is a community of over 35 artists who thrive and collaborate in an environment devoted to the arts."

Indeed, I do not think the successful adaptive reuses in economically depressed regions, combined with this arts-led strategy, has ever been about the arts or historic preservation, but something deeper and more to do with high school civics class (those of us who had it). I think its productivity is sourced in bringing together people from diffuse disciplines and backgrounds to concentrate on the creation of new spaces. In this creative enterprise, they imagine their city as a productive locus to enact partnership possibilities. Opportunities are invented.

The use of the historic industrial buildings is key on two levels. Immediately, the efforts are symbolically part and parcel of the city and as keeping in continuity with local heritage, and start to change what might have been a longstanding negative narrative. Even so, there is still a real risk of backlash against the effort as either a gentrifying front, or as a foreign intruding presence meant to irritate or annoy, but ultimately impossible for their particular place (low self-esteem is common to cities plagued with brownfields.) Secondly, the results are tangible and generate positive momentum, buzz, and begin a trend that can cause further investments from previously hesitant or doubtful residents.

Using previously long disused buildings is difficult to object to (although sometimes done) and celebrating their appearance also works to soften gentrifying criticism, and often puts the new business or new residents deep in the heart of older neighborhoods where they cannot fail to be seen and where they will immediately start depending upon, and supporting, local services. They will believe themselves closely identified to the city, and in turn the city will eventually embrace them. This is to be contrasted with the way many light industry business parks were erected on the edges of cities, close to suburbs, as tax and subsidy havens that were devoid of any other compelling reasons to exist other than to retain the business nominally within city limits.

Mattress Factory Pittsburgh

Once located near the edge of town for the sake of tax breaks, those subsidies had to be constantly maintained or enriched. Once located on the edge, the impulse to just cross the line out of town or state to even cheaper conditions proved too strong, the reasons for physically clustering in the center exposed as no longer relevant, and the gravitational force of the city center irreversibly compromised and weakened. Therefore, money not spent on keeping the local workforce more educated and superior in order to retain manufacturing advantages, was, in the final analysis, wasted.

In contrast and superficial as it might seem, creative or so-called ‘human capital’ intensive operations, like those of artists or designers, are seen as irresistibly drawn to the unique attractions of an urban agglomeration and not reliant upon the erection of special tax haven business parks or the ‘right amount’ of government financing. Instead, cultural ‘things’ like music venues, coffee bars, museums, parks, other similarly aged or like-minded people, and even squishier terms like tolerance and heterogeneity, could be given as reasons for competitive advantage. This is a list that starts to sound suspiciously equivalent to a good tourist guidebook (of course artists also need art dealers, clients, and fellow artists in order to support themselves, although the links between popular tourist destinations and the arts is obvious), but the attractiveness of such a theoretical approach to many desperate communities is apparent. It is also a list with a lower threshold to meet than the hard work of institution building once large company sponsors and patrons had left. That’s the danger in the current economic development storyline of attracting creative class people and its strategies–it can build hope on flimsy premises and scattershot precious resources, while ignoring doing the heavy lifting of connecting employers to educators, enabling networking, and expanding the public realm and its concordant services so to make the place itself indispensable to many operations. Quality of life issues are important, connections between people is more important.

Anyways, is this just the nature of comparing manufacturing versus creative sectors, or is the location and building types the key difference? In the past, manufacturing sectors in America were also considered ‘human intensive’, especially as was the case with the famed Yankee ingenuity of the Northeast in celebrated economic powerhouses like Bridgeport, CT. And we can observe in East Asia that manufacturing, especially advanced manufacturing, is not resource based but still very ‘human capital‘ intensive and still cluster at points where skills and know-how can layer and build. So, indeed, I think there is a portion to this that is straightforward bricks and mortars geography, where centrally-located historic buildings are being adaptively reused demonstrate city vitality and can create a self-fullfilling perception that the city is inventive and renewing itself, and when done so in localities near to their legacy infrastructure investments it can reassert the city’s regional centrality and optimize the whole system. One look at the historical tenacity with which the financial sector has clung to Lower Manhattan’s outmoded skyscrapers in-close to the Stock Exchange (after 9/11 being converted when feasible to residential buildings), and then to Midtown and NYC metropolitan area more generally, will support the view that labor markets exhibit a certain stickiness to one another and, importantly, to a geographic place. Corporations might list HQ in the Caribbean, but the executives and work is still done on the Gold Coasts of Long Island Sound and Lake Michigan. On any scale, location counts.

Moderna Museet, Malmo, Sweeden. Completed 2009, old electric plant.

The idea of artists as ‘pioneer species’ or ‘pump-primers’ who spearhead new imaginative undertakings and initiatives in the most blighted and oldest city areas, thus pouring revitalizing wine into old depreciating vessels, then whose efforts will in time attract wealthier suburban consumers to return like cultural vultures to downtown areas to shop and dine once more, which in order leads to more lucrative operations like developing real estate, and then through an increasingly vague and muddy process results in economic rebound for the whole of the city. Oddly enough, even when I put it in this mangled mishmash of metaphors and give misleading emphasis, I do not believe the approach is without merit; when we understand it as a method for communities to work together imaginatively on a new city-building project. Non-profit arts institutions working with government leaders and private developers to fund the rehabilitation of old structures involves organizing a very diverse and broad group of actors. Yet, the bringing of arts and artists to a town must be remembered not as an end unto itself in most cases, but as purely a cheap means for places that are resource poor to do something productive together. This confusion, however, of artists as economic development ends rather than means, can lead to the foolish funding of large performing arts spaces and the like often in small cash strapped places without any aforementioned criteria for successful arts clusters, which in the end is likely to have as much effect on the local economy as a new sports or ballpark.  Equally damned but perhaps far more heroic, is the quixotic pursuit of brave souls in a place like Butte, MT to make themselves the bohemian capital of the Old West, one funky bistro at a time. Artists, or their nerdy computer programmer cousins, who in the past almost legendarily have been recruited to live and work in ratty warehouse locations on the promise of open floor plates, lots of sunlight, and perhaps some dive bar, might have been a cicada-like boon once seen in a blue moon. Their future decision-making should not be over-thought or over-sought in economic development plans–their caprices are subject to sudden, unpredictable change from industrial buildings (as pointed out in the end of this interview).

There is also certainly an element of the trendy involved in the rediscovery of the city as a desirable place to live and that has had at least as much to do with dropping crime statistics as a new appreciation of factory aesthetics. Fostering complementarity and cooperation between creative professionals and the economy writ-large, rooted in well-designed places with strong continuity and respect for places’ formative heritage, should remain uppermost in the clear minds of policy makers. Building the same cooperation around urban agriculture, or a new credit union, or building apprenticeships between schools and artisan workshops might in many instances be more valuable than a big orange box.

That said, for many mid to small cities without bustling, commodified culture scenes, their factories are closed, their mines are closed, their timber mills are closed, but their imaginations should not be.

(this video, to me, is a reminder of the fleeting nature of things. and i’m not just talking about the decaying industry buildings.) Also, a plug. Please save Remington Arms Factory: http://www.archdaily.com/57093/help-save-remington-arms-factory/

Now, belatedly after all this opining and pontificating, I will read Alex Cuthbert’s “The Form of Cities: Political Economy and Urban Design” Anyone else already read it? Always a good thing to read about how planning history is a “moribund subject” and how planning is a ‘mongrel discipline, ritually bred from elementary particles derived from social science, economics, architecture, urban geography, law, engineering, etc.’ whose only ‘claim to be a profession is only by virtue of its legitimation by the state’.

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