Generation C: Creativity, Commerce, and Community in an Era of Economic Decline

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Hipsters: time to cover up the tattoos and get a real job, says Canadian government

Part II

by Miranda Campbell

On young people shifting towards creating over consuming, experiences over things, small over big, sustainable and community-oriented over – or at least alongside – the corporate.

Emerging Versus Established: Conflict with the Status Quo

We might see this shift in bits and pieces, so it might look contradictory: using iPhones to look up how to can tomatoes; $5 lattes and beat-up bicycles; Facebook pages for bands with DIY cassette tape musical releases. And some of these outward tokens, like having smartphone, might obscure harsher realities, like living below the poverty line. In the New York Times article “How to Live Without Irony,” Princeton University prof Christy Wampole lambasts hipster consumer habits, including fashions, mechanisms, and hobbies.  She suggests we are in an era of “reaction rather than action,” of Internet memes, of immediacy, of “inwardness and narcissism,” of first-world anomie.  Wampole advocates moving past this ironic stance to living by performing self-inventories of home decorating choices, speech patterns, and wardrobe. But what if skinny jeans and throw pillows are not the most important things to go looking for? We’re paying attention to the wrong things. Rather than ironic living, what existing actions of care, seriousness, civic voice, and creating things might we find if we look for them? Do young people find what 22-year old Marina Keegan titled her viral essay – “the opposite of loneliness”- the sense of being “in this together?”  What can these actions and sensibilities they tell us about work and living as a young person in the 21st century? We might lack the lenses to see this shift if we fixate on facial hair choices and the like.

Many young people are trying to make a go of creative careers, not because they are free from concerns about making a living, but because they are supported by other, often menial, jobs, or make do with low pay.  In this process, they have to navigate and negotiate increasingly murky waters of how to get creative projects off the ground and make them financially viable. If doing what you love is supposed to override economic concerns or just supposed to be something for spoiled brats, how can you discuss the struggle of making a living? Persistent shame and stigmas about poverty make it difficult to openly acknowledge. It’s much easier to assume that hipsters are the nouveau riche slumming class than really engage with the policy implications of what downward mobility amongst our young means.  One blogger with a MFA in creative writing states, “I haven’t been talking about how poor I am in a serious way or how terrifying it is to be on the cusp of my 30th birthday, wondering when I’ll have enough quarters to do laundry again.”  Instead the default eye-rolling, we might investigate the initiatives young people have created for themselves in the absence of suitable employment opportunities and supportive policy structures. What mechanisms, if any, exist to help these young people make a living from creative projects in these economically difficult times?

Small Versus Big: Policy Problems

 The short answer: not much.  Youth are changing not only the way they are working, but also the way they are living their lives, and this is in conflict with the way pre-existing systems have been set up.  These are questions of investment, but of also policy directions. Big or small? Where does the money go, but also to whom, and how, and for what? In this age of economic uncertainty, do we need new messiahs? Cue Richard Florida. This urban studies guru’s best known book, The Rise of the Creative Class, suggests that trendy professionals working in design, technology, education, arts, music and entertainment, and the like abound more and more.  Florida advocates that cities should try to court this “class” through urban downtown revitalization and though promoting the three “Ts” – “talent, technology, tolerance.” Cities should now be “creative,” have creative “hubs” or “districts”- all of which is predicted to catalyze economic growth.  Florida’s clients include Tampa Bay, Memphis, Miami, Austin, and Toronto. This excitement is not only at the level of the city – some whole nations have drunk the creativity kool-aid.  The United Kingdom has its “Creative Britain: New Talents for a New Economy” policy, and Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and Sweden have also adopted creativity-as-driver-of economy policies. The United Nations – both in the guise of UNESCO and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development – is campaigning to get the developing world on board, working with Indonesia, Cabo Verde, and the African Creative Economy Conference.

This new wave of creativity might just be another version of the old, serving the old. Does any of this help youth move forward in the life pathways they have adopted? The problem here is not just that old and dying systems are in conflict with new and emerging youth pathways; new policies and practices are developing around creativity that don’t reflect where young people are going.

Where I live, in Montreal, the city had a visit from Florida, and then gathered upwards of $120 million of funding from municipal, provincial, and federal levels of government – plus more from private corporations – to build our downtown festival zone, the Quartier des Spectacles, home to outdoor free summer festivals like the Jazz Festival. At the same time that this megalith was being built, an important and well-known music venue for small-scale and emerging local and international artists, the Casa del Popolo, was closed because city inspectors uncovered that the venue was operating without the proper –and hard-to-come by – permit for live music clubs (alcohol and music together … the horror!). One of the venue owners, Mauro Pezzente, commented, “there are so many specific bylaws that are archaic and need to be updated – they could be less general and more specific to the location … Everyone needs to lobby local government to open the city up to being more friendly towards music … You look at other cities and they have so many live music venues. It’s 100 per cent about licensing here.”  The city of Montreal likely does see itself as friendly to music, with the construction of the downtown festival zone, and the rebranding of itself to have a “cultural metropolis” tagline, post-Florida visit.  But this friendliness to music is Boomer-friendly, corporation-friendly. It’s a sanitized and sanctioned vision of creativity, and young people are taking themselves elsewhere. A study on investing in culture shows the young people today are not interested in “large, formal, single-use facilities” but are interested in “multidisciplinary facilities and smaller arts spaces … open spaces that are flexible.” These young people “perceived a disconnect between emerging artistic practices and the facilities being championed, funded, and built today.” Are we erecting Shangri-Las that will sit empty, outdated relics of a bygone era, as young, emerging ways of living diverge from established ones?

Here’s the thing about the Florida model of heavily investing in building creative “zones”: it doesn’t work.  The premise is that creating conditions to favour the creative class will stimulate economic growth and spread down to all: good ol’ trickle-down economics, this time just centered around creative types rather than big business. But the essential difference is moot: we’re talking about courting the elites, not young up-and-comers. Florida himself has conceded that “on close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits.”  The “creative class” are not the young creative workers I am talking about here.  In Florida’s schemata, these young people figure in as “bohemians” (in other words: hipsters.) The presence of these groovy young folks is an important factor to lure creative professionals (who is going to serve the execs their cappuccinos?).  So “bohemians” matter not as artists or workers or young people facing particular conditions of labour and economy, but as funky little magnets.  If we remember that emerging youth directions are different than established ones, and if we want to get behind the emerging stuff, we need to shift how we think about these bohemians. We need to ask not how “bohemians” are able to lure “real business”: we need to investigate the business of bohemia itself.

A creative hub doesn’t happen through building monoliths to attract trendy executives.  A real creative hub, friendly to young people, happens by safeguarding affordable living and studio spaces, and keeping the cops out. David Byrne has lamented the demise of New York City as the “center of cultural ferment,” the demise of the New York City he moved to as a young man in the 1970s. Byrne suggests that “emerging artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, journalists and small business people” have been driven out of New York City by skyrocketing real estate costs, but argues “we can’t let that happen.” Without taking note of the differing needs and trajectories of youth, we risk this happening everywhere. How could policies better match unfolding economic and creative directions?

What about investing in young people, directly, or figuring out what makes for youth-friendly policy?  We don’t need to look further than the late great Ms. Houston to know that children “are the future. Teach them well, and let them lead the way.”  Our rhetoric around the entitled, lazy, privileged hipster / millennial / Generation Y / what-have-you is a smokescreen that allows for willful ignorance that “teaching” the young might also mean actively working to create youth-friendly conditions and policies.  Are today’s youth really over-indulged? In MacLean’s, Tamsin McMahon puts it plainly: “Why are we doing so much to try to help seniors when they’re already the wealthiest generation in history?” The Canadian government spends $45,000 per citizen aged 65 and over in benefits and subsidies, but just $12,000 on citizens aged 45 and younger.  The Conference Board of Canada has found the “poverty among the elderly is far lower than the working-age population.” Claire Callway, a blogger calling herself a disillusioned, broke 30-nothing, declares, “The world of 2013 is massively different from the one my father grew up in, the old policies and ideas don’t work anymore, and we need to find solutions.”

To find these solutions, we need to turn to youth themselves, and figure out what they are doing, and why, and how it’s shaping our collective futures.  This means moving past hipster-hating rhetoric, figuring out how to label this generation, or fretting over whether or not adulthood has died. Youth today experience exploitation, struggle, challenge, and privation.  They are also hustling to fight some of these problems, and their stories and experiences show us some solutions, the road forward. We don’t need new gurus or creativity messiahs. It’s time to listen to youth themselves.



Dear Montreal: Can We Make It Last?

5455 and 5445 De Gaspé – Loft Style Offices Now for Rent. Photo by Raphaëlle Aubin.

By Miranda Campbell

Is Montreal’s status as a cultural and artistic hub in jeopardy? Recently, David Byrne lamented the demise of New York City as the “center of cultural ferment,” the demise of the New York City he moved to in the 1970s — a place where people migrated to for the “possibility of interaction and inspiration,” the “possibility of serendipitous encounters,” a place where you were “in the thick of it.” Byrne suggests that “emerging artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, journalists and small business people” have been driven out of New York City by skyrocketing real estate costs, but argues “we can’t let that happen” if New York has any hope of continuing on as a cultural capital.  So what is there to do?  Can we make the possibility of serendipity last?  Or does the attempt to preserve that possibility only fossilize it, creating cultural relics rather than cultural inspiration? Montreal is not New York City, but it is a place that still has that feeling of being in a hotbed of vibrant creative action, a place where unexpected things happen, and can happen. Real estate costs here are definitely not in the New York City stratosphere, but the same pattern of artists being  pushed out of the places they’ve adopted can be found just about anywhere.

The Bovril Building. Photo by Miranda Campbell

In Montreal, the 30-year lease has been developed as one strategy to anchor artists in their neighbourhoods rather than have them displaced by real estate speculation.  Earlier this July, we heard the news story of a deal being brokered between artists and the Hasidic community in the Bovril building on the corner Parc and Van Horne, commonly known at the Cuir Dimitri building—the city granted a zoning change allowing the Hasidic community to convert the ground floor into a school, provided that artists working on other floors be given 30-year leases to allow them to stay in the building with affordable rents.  This was a pleasant enough little story, but there’s a bigger story of underlying effort to ensure Montreal stays artist friendly. Byrne hopes that fat cat bankers “might emulate the Medicis and fund culture-makers – both emerging artists and those still in school,” but failing an influx of philanthropist patron coin going into the independent artist purse, trying to legislate stability for artists might be the route to go.

Founded in 2010, Pied Carré is a non-profit organization that represents the more than 800 cultural producers working in the Mile End (known for having one of the highest densities of creative workers in Canada) and works towards protecting and maintaining artist studios. Real estate speculation in the St Viateur East area has been particularly voracious, and unlike residential leases that have certain protections, commercial rent can fluctuate wildly. The building at 5455 De Gaspé, which houses many artist and artisan studios, was sold for $8 million in 2008 and resold in June 2011 for $37.8 million. The new owner, Allied Properties, acquired this building, and later its neighbour, 5445 De Gaspé, with the intention to renovate to attract high-end office clients, and artists thought they’d be getting the boot. With her work at Pied Carré, Raphaëlle Aubin was part of a community-led team working towards intervening in these types of situations and proposing solutions (such as acquisition of buildings, urban planning bylaws, and long–term leases) while lobbying municipal and provincial levels of government to take action, as well as working with both artists and building owners to try to develop solutions.

Raphaëlle Aubin, third from left, at a social mapping of Mile End workshop put on by Bricolage Urbain. Photo by Melanie Lambrick.

Raphaëlle comments that the goal of Pied Carré is to secure affordable long-term space for artists, creative workers, and artisans.  Most often, artists have studios in commercial buildings, where rent can increase 100% year to year. Looking at the work that Acme was doing in London with long-term leases in industrial buildings, Pied Carré forwarded the 30 year lease proposition in the hopes of giving artists stability to transform their spaces and to buy equipment that’s “super expensive and heavy, and costs $5000 dollars to install” without the threat of eviction or astronomical yearly rent increases.

At 5445 and 5455 de Gaspé, Allied Properties was hot to trot to renovate entire floors to rent them as high-end offices, but the Plateau Mont-Royal borough wasn’t on board. Raphaëlle explains that “the borough put an interim control on the area – a freeze on the area of the construction of new office spaces that were 500 square feet or larger” as what was happening was owners were “kicking everybody out on the floor, and building one giant office with new tenants.” Pied Carré had gotten a lukewarm reception when previously meeting with Allied, but after the borough blocked its development plans with the interim control, Allied was interested in chatting again.  Eventually, a community benefit agreement was hammered out, and Raphaëlle comments, “the borough said we would think that if you signed a long-term lease with artists, over 20 years long, that would be a benefit to the community, and we would give you a dérogation, an exemption from being part of this zoning, so they were exempted from it.” As a result of negotiations between Pied Carre and Allied, several floors at 5445 de Gaspé have been set aside for long-term artists leases, and the rest are slated for redevelopment.

Matt Shane working on Observation Area, Oil on canvas, 8 ft. x 20 ft, 2012, from

Matt Shane is one young visual artist who is part of the 30-year project at 5445 de Gaspé: for him, the 30-year lease means being able to stay put rather than facing unsustainable rent hikes and displacement.  He says that the 30-year lease project will “allow me to keep my studio in the neighbourhood I live in. The rent will increase each year, but the rate is incremental and is a known quantity. I don’t earn enough money as an artist to pay more than I already do for my studio. If I couldn’t afford this studio, I’d have to seek another location further away, which would be problematic as I don’t have a vehicle and work at a large scale.”  Beyond these personal benefits, Matt sees the community benefits of anchoring artists in their neighbourhoods. He states: “many artists have been working at 5445 / 5455 de Gaspé for years. This project enables us to stay in these spaces, which have become our homes. They are not beautiful or luxurious buildings, but their tall walls, concrete floors and abundant windows serve the purposes of most artists quite well. Artists have played a huge part in shaping the Mile End into what it is today. Our presence has, over time, rendered the neighbourhood trendy and attractive to big developers. The usual rules of gentrification would, at this point, have us packing up and getting priced out of the district. The 30 year lease project spurns that cycle. It allows us to stay where we are, and it will ultimately ensure a diversity of class and occupation in the Mile End, which is a sign of a healthy neighbourhood.”

Construction underway at 5445 De Gaspé. Photo by Miranda Campbell.

The 30-year lease may be a boon for artist stability, but it’s an imperfect solution in many ways. Although pleased with the project and the precedent it has set, Raphaëlle says, “it’s important to note it’s not an entire career. If you’re an artist, [a career is] 40 years maybe.” Artists are going to be able to stay in the building long-term, but Raphaëlle notes, “there are a lot of people who have been displaced because they’re not part of the definition of artist, artisan, all that. Gentrification affects all strata of workers.  It’s not just artists who then get evicted.  It’s a bunch of other people too, like manufacturing jobs …  I think we have to find some kind of way that we can keep our neighbourhoods diverse with a whole bunch of different types of jobs, not just office jobs, and then now office jobs paired with artists!” Before the 30-year lease project began at 5445 de Gaspé, artists were dispersed throughout the building, but now they’re “ghettoized [together] on a bunch of floors.”  Raphaëlle wonders if artists “want to be next to artists all of the time?” Artists are not staying in their pre-existing spaces, and “now because it’s a Project, capital P, three or four floors are going to be used for [artists], they all have to be up to code, which means a huge amount of money … of course, if there are broken sprinkler systems, those should be fixed, but…” Being up to code means a lot of technicalities, like having to have a fire exit on each end of a space – as a result, whole floors have been gutted and are being rebuilt. For his part, Matt Shane comments, “at this point, the only downside is the process of renovation and moving to a new space within the building. We’ve been in a temporary studio for the past 9 months, and we’ll only get into our new space in mid-December. That has cost us time and money.” Raphaëlle also wonders if this type of government-sanctioned project reduces the possibility of spontaneity and serendipity of artistic careers unfolding through happenstance.  Does the new 5445 de Gaspé still have those magical possibilities of “interaction and inspiration” and “serendipitous encounters?”

At the same time, it seems clear that some type of intervention is needed.  Raphaëlle suggests that it’s important to have cultural workers more involved in urban planning so they could work on lobbying and adapting zoning bylaws that can work against them.  She also recognizes the difficulty of this kind of work, in part because it’s difficult to understand the city’s bylaws and how they function.  The mystifying language of city codes and bylaws might be found across North American cities, but Raphaëlle says, “Montreal is particularly difficult to understand. The corruption has to do in part with the fact that people don’t know how it works; they don’t understand how government contracts are given out or how zoning bylaws work.”  Inspired by New York City’s Centre for Urban Pedagogy, with four other young women from her urban planning grad student days, Raphaëlle has started Bricolage Urbain, an organization dedicated to citizen engagement though developing educational tools and organizing activities to explain how the city functions: “the reason we started Bricolage Urbain was our own frustrations with having to decode the city and how it works. We found it so difficult and we have the training, so if we found it difficult, and we are all bilingual, I can’t even imagine how difficult it is for a regular person.”

It seems that that there are no easy solutions. By attempting to address the risk of losing the fertile and inspiring environment Montreal offers to cultural producers, we create new risks, like that of stifling creativity by creating an institutionalized, fossilized arts scene that’s lacking the spontaneity and magic of what once existed. But thanks to the work of people like Raphaëlle and others, this process of development and displacement of artists is being addressed, and by taking into account these new risks and attempting to grapple with them, we may have a chance of preserving some of that magic.