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Alex Proud, who previously wrote about the Shoreditch-modelled gentrification and sanitisation of the down-at-heel parts of London, has a new article about the end state of this process of gentrification and the future of hyper-gentrified London, a homogeneously rich, clean, and dull, place, with all the edginess and excitement of Geneva or central Paris, a city of "joyless Michelin starred restaurants and shops selling £3,000 chandeliers":
Two decades on and you can play a nostalgic little game where you remind yourself what groups London’s inner neighbourhoods were known for 20 years ago. Hampstead: intellectuals; Islington: media trendies; Camden: bohemians, goths and punks; Fulham: thick poshos who couldn’t afford Chelsea; Notting Hill: cool kids; Chelsea: rich people. Now, every single one of these is just rich people. If you want to own a house (or often just a flat) in these places, you need a six figure salary or you can forget it. And, for anyone normal, that means working in finance.
Inner Paris is a fairytale for wealthy people in their fifties (and outer Paris looks like Stalingrad with ethnic strife) while Geneva has dispensed with the poor altogether. As a result, both cities are safe, pretty and rather boring places to live – and soon London will be too.The article is a fine rant, dripping with bons mots like “Bitcoins for oligarchs”, “like Jay-Z as reimagined by someone who works at Goldman Sachs”, and “the bastard offspring of Kirstie Allsopp and Ayn Rand”; the prognosis is not hopeful for London either:
Why? Because the financiers who can afford inner London neighbourhoods are not cool. Visit Canary Wharf at on any weekday lunchtime and watch the braying, pink-shirted bankers disporting themselves. Not cool. Peruse the shops at Canary Wharf. From Gap to Tiffany’s, they’re all chains stores and you could be anywhere wealthy, safe and dull in the world. Rich people like making money and spending it on dull, expensive things. That’s what they do – and they’re very good it. But being a high-end cog in the machine is not cool.
In the short term, our city’s young creative class will continue to move further and further out. Is New Cross the new Peckham? Is Walthamstow the new Dalston? But there are limits to this: there’s not much of a vibe in Ruislip and there never will be; really, the cool inner suburb ship sailed in 2005. So, when you’re stuck out amongst the pebble-dashed semis of Zone 4, miles from a centre that’s mainly chain shops, boutiques for the tacky rich and restaurants you can’t afford or even book, you might start wondering if the World’s Greatest City (TM) really is for you. Then maybe you’ll visit friends, somewhere like Bristol or Newcastle or Leeds or Glasgow. And maybe you’ll discover that there you can buy a house that’s walking distance to a centre full of shops that cater to you, restaurants that want your custom and pubs and clubs whose prices wouldn’t make someone in Gstaad blanch... Perhaps London’s craven fealty to the ghastly rich will finally accomplish what no government policy ever has – it will rejuvenate our provincial cities.Though chances are, the cities with fast links to London will end up hypergentrified as well; Brighton (or “London-by-the-sea”, as some call it) is well on the way to going there, and some speculate that places like Margate (one hour from London along a partly high-speed railway, and already sprouting vintage shops and a modern art gallery amongst the everyday-is-like-Sunday shabbiness) could end up following suit. Birmingham, meanwhile, might jump from never-quite-fashionable to bourgeois luxury for the new-economy elite when HS2 arrives, allowing those who aren't fully-fledged partners to afford somewhere within an easy commute of Canary Wharf.
Proud blames this state of affairs on a system rigged to pander to the beneficiaries of this state of affairs—house-flippers, buy-to-let landlords, ex-Soviet oligarchs looking for somewhere to park their wealth—at the expense of the little people to whom it is made clear that the city does not belong, and who are gradually squeezed further out, towards the periphery and beyond; who still hold onto their shrinking, expensive foothold on the precious land inside the M25, believing that it's stil worth it because of the aura of brilliance surrounding the idea of London; an aura increasingly based in nostalgic delusion, and one which can't last.
Readers of the Guardian or New Statesman will have seen this story numerous times, from different angles and at different points in time, more or less the same, only with the place names moved slightly further out every year. However, part of the message here is in the medium; Proud is writing in the Daily Telegraph, a paper owned by the Barclay Brothers, long associated with the Conservative Party (it's often nicknamed the Torygraph), and one which one might imagine would be perfectly au fait with the ideals of the Thatcherite “property-owning democracy”. When the Torygraph is publishing articles bemoaning how gentrification is hollowing out and sterilising London, then perhaps it is time to be concerned.
I wonder how much this is due to one of the less-often-quited corollaries of the neoliberal/market-oriented mindset of the recent few decades: the idea that anything of value is traded on a market, and everything is a convertible hard currency, this time applied to cultural capital. It used to be that cultural capital and economic capital were separate spheres, and absolutely not interconvertible. There were no cool rich kids, or those who were hid their economic capital. (The word “cool”, in fact, originated with socially and politically disenfranchised African-Americans; in its original meaning, the word didn't mean chic, fashionable or at the top of the status hierarchy, but refered to an unflappability, an unwillingness to let the constant low-level (and not so low-level) insults and aggressions of an institutionally racist and classist system be seen to get you down; as such, it was, by definition, the riches of the poor, the exclusive capital of those excluded from capital.)
Fast forward to the present day; after Milton Friedman declared everything to be convertible goods in a market. Reagan and Thatcher applied this to economic goods, launching the “Big Bang” of deregulation and the 20-year economic bubble that followed. Then the Clinton/Blair era of the “Third Way” coincided with its own Big Bang, this time deregulating the cultural marketplace; starting off with Britpop and going on to Carling-sponsored landfill indie, New Rave, hipster electro (and indeed the recycling of the term “hipster”, originally meaning a habitué of the grimy jazz-and-heroin demimonde of the Beat Generation, now referring to trust fund kids in limited-edition trainers), yacht rock, chillwave and whatever. The old regulatory barriers between the mainstream and the underground were swept away as surely as the barriers between high-street and investment banks had been a decade earlier; the rise of the internet and the cultural globalisation played a part in it, though the mainstreaming of market values once seen as radical would also have had a hand. Soon everything was in a commodity available on the marketplace; 1960s guitar rock and Mod iconography was revived as Britpop, post-punk, stripped of unmarketable references to Marxism, Situationism and existentialist paperbacks and sexed up, as generic NME-cover “indie”, and we were faced with a multifaceted 80s revival that ran for longer than the 80s. Major-label pop producers used ProTools plug-ins to grunge up their protégés, giving them that authentically lo-fi “alternative” sound, while bedroom producers armed with cheap laptops and cracked software made tracks that sounded as expensively polished as anything heard in a Thatcher-era wine bar. Knowing about Joy Division or Black Flag was no longer a badge of being “hip”, as anyone with an internet connection could do the research; the new shibboleths were evanescent memes, like referencing Hall & Oates right down to the facial hair, or reviving New Jack Swing and calling it “PBR&B”, or the whole Seapunk subculture; currents one wouldn't have caught wind of in time without being connected, and whose cultural value became void once the wider world heard of them.
This coincided with the dismantling of free education, the rise in income inequality, and the gentrification of “cool” areas full of the young and creative, and soon it was a good thing that having economic and social capital didn't bar one from cultural capital, because having a trust fund was increasingly a prerequisite. If Mater and Pater bought you a flat near London Fields for your 18th birthday, and if you had a reserve of money to spend while you “found yourself”, and the likelihood of being able to land an internship on a career track in the media once your Southern-fried-hog-jowls-in-katsu-curry food truck failed or you got bored of playing festivals with your respectably rated bass-guitar-and-Microkorg duo, then you had the freedom to explore and develop, and that development could take a number of forms; travelling the world's thrift shops, picking up cool records and playing them at your DJ night, spending the time you don't need to work for money getting good at playing an instrument (and recent UK research shows that people in wealthier areas tend to have better musical aptitude), or just growing a really lush beard. With the rolling back of the welfare state and the "race to the bottom" in wages, these quests for self-actualisation are once again the preserve of the gentry; it's rather hard to develop your creative voice when you're on zero-hour contracts, and spend all your time either working in shitty jobs, looking for work, or commuting from where you can afford to live. And so economic capital has colonised cultural capital, and what passes for “cool” now belongs to those with money. It's not quite like a Gavin McInnes troll-piece about the coke-addicted bankers' scions who form the Brooklyn scene or a Vice_Is_Hip parody tweet about the coolest bar in the Hamptons or the latest sartorial trends from Kuwait's hippest princelings, but those are looking less and less unbelievable.
The question is, what happens in the end? Will cultural capital converge with economic capital, and “cool” be redefined to be a sort of cultural noblesse oblige, a manifestation of wealth and status, or will, as Proud suggest, the whole thing collapse into a cultural low-energy state of tidy tedium?
House prices in London keep rising; London housing is, after all, a de facto reserve currency, and most sales in the "super-prime" market—places like Chelsea, Mayfair and Belgravia—are done in cash to foreign buyers, often from economically or politically troubled regions whence getting one's wealth out is a sensible idea; also, if one wants to hobnob with the world's movers and shakers, a pied a terre in London is essential. One result of this is that demand from the unimaginably rich global titans pushes the merely locally rich further out, and triggers a wave of outward-moving gentrification ending in cash-strapped working stiffs moving out to remote corners of Norfolk and spending several hours a day commuting to their London jobs, collapsing exhausted when they get home, but not before setting the alarm for 4:45 the following morning to do it all again:
The "extreme commuter" appears so regularly in demographic updates these days that it will be a miracle if, like Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman before him, he doesn't become a prime target for next year's electoral pitch. A recent Radio 4 exposé of the phenomenon came crammed with horror stories of single mothers rising at 5am in the Essex hinterland to drive their offspring to the childminder's before proceeding, via train, Tube and pavement to some sweating house in Threadneedle Street or Holborn Circus. Ominously enough, there was very little in it about that search for the fulfilling rural lifestyle that we hear so much about, and a whole lot more about ground-down wage serfs forced into five- or six-hour daily round-trips by domestic circumstance or the lack of affordable housing near their place of work.While some resign themselves to the joyless grind of extreme commuting, others have found different solutions; such as living on no-frills floating slums on the Thames (the London property market's own answer to the Chinese zombie fishing trawlers), with a combination of low-wage service-industry workers, the economially desperate and a smattering the sorts of oddballs one finds drawn for one reason or another to the fringes:
The room I chose had a smashed window and was open to the elements, meaning I could see my breath when I was in bed (March 2013 was to prove one of the coldest on record). The only upside was that the draft offset the fumes from the stove, lessening the dread caused by the occasional sounding of the carbon monoxide alarm. Better to be cold, I reasoned, and wake up the next day.
This way of life inevitably attracts colourful characters. A few longer-term residents, some of whom had been on the boat for years, genuinely enjoyed the life of the river. They had pets, and were often heavy drinkers, chain smokers and drug users, partying until the early hours. The boats meant freedom from rules and regulations, and form-filling officialdom. Most residents bought bottled water rather than consume the drinking water that was filtered straight from the river, but one man told me it didn't bother him because he never drank water; his entire liquid intake came in a cider bottle. He once advised me to cover my food in the kitchen; not because of rats – they were dead – but because they had stuffed the ceiling full of poison and had no idea where it might fall out. Included in this group were some of the younger crowd on my boat, people who liked the communal living, sitting out on the deck in the summer with a barbecue and some beers. It was enough for them to forget the conditions. Some of them admitted that they could afford to live elsewhere. They worked full-time; one designed computer games; another was a football coach; one young woman worked for a local council. They had no plans to stay in the long term, but were saving money by tolerating the boats.Perhaps less romantically, some 289,000 families in England and Wales have taken to sharing homes with other families, in a laudable display of thrift of which George Osbourne would certainly approve. Fewer poor families selfishly demanding their own homes, after all, means more homes to be done up, sold, and left empty and "bubble-wrapped", the better to retain their investment value.
Meanwhile, one person has calculated that it is cheaper to rent a place in an upmarket district of Barcelona and commute to London each day than to rent one in London. The downside, of course, is spending several hours a day on Ryanair.
Finally, a Buzzfeed listicle, enumerating 14 signs you're house-hunting in London:
You need to consult your Oxford English Dictionary, because £720,000 for a flat certainly isn’t your definition of “affordable”.
You examine your finances and decide to delay buying for a couple of years in order to save up a bigger deposit. A year of working over time and living off baked beans later…and house prices have risen by £40,000. See ya later hesitater.
Writing in the Torygraph, Alex Proud (of Proud Galleries) bemoans the “Shoreditchification” of London, the process by which the phenomenon of hipster culture (by now, heavily leveraged with marketing) seizes rundown areas of the city and forcibly makes them over, raising rents, replacing local shops with gimmicky bars catering to affluent 26-35-year-olds, and ultimately leaving them open for the bankers and Foxtons to take over; sort of like the Shock Doctrine, only with ironic facial hair and upcycled furniture:
You find a previously unnoticed urban neighbourhood, ideally one that’s a bit down on its luck. Pioneer hipsters move in and coolhunters ensure it starts trending on Twitter. A year later, the mainstream media notices and, for the next 12 months, the neighbourhood is byword for urban cool. Soon property prices soar pushing the original residents out, the bankers (always a trailing indicator) begin to move in and a Foxtons opens. Finally, the New York Times runs a piece in which it “discovers” the area and the cycle is complete. The last hipsters move on and find a new neighbourhood to play with.Shoreditch, Proud asserts, is long past the terminal phases of this phenomenon, being a “cold-climate Aiya Napa”, frequented by stag-party tourists from Essex. Dalston, the hipster haunt of recent years, is past it as well (despite there still being completely unhip and unironic Turkish restaurants alongside the basement DJ bars and Giorgio Moroder-themed pizza joints; never mind, though, by the time Kanye West and Kim Kardashian open their matching fashion shops in Dalston and the Essex stag parties start negotiating the Overground in to take in its lad-mag-certified cool, it will doubtlessly be as dead as a doornail), with Peckham being about to be jettisoned for somewhere further out; possibly even, Proud reckons, Croydon.
Which more or less makes sense, until Proud posits a counterexample of “sustainable cool”: Camden.
So, what is the solution? The solution is to treat places like proper neighbourhoods rather than Apple products with a two-year upgrade cycle. Here I hold up Camden as an example. OK, I know I have a vested interest, but Camden was cool in 1994 (and even 1984) and it’s still cool in 2014. It has, dare I say it, sustainable coolness. True, at no point in time will be it be as achingly “now” as a speakeasy in a repurposed public loo in Camberwell selling dirty cocktails in jam jars, but that’s the point. Sustainable cool knows which bandwagons to ignore.Which is quite ironic, given that Camden seems to be as much a spent force, as far as any sort of living counterculture goes, as swinging Carnaby Street or the King's Road of Malcolm McLaren's day. Camden, of course, had been ground zero of Britpop, that third coming of Mod, that time as a hidebound and flag-draped back-to-basics conservative backlash. (In his book The Psychic Soviet, rock performer and cultural critic Ian Svenonius drew parallels between Britpop and the Southern Rock movement of the 1970s, in that both took a genre which had been free-wheeling and countercultural and remade it in the image of a flag-waving, reactionary traditionalism. More recently, Britpop has again been in the news, as Tory-affiliated cheesemonger Alex James has announced that he is registering the term as a trademark for a line of sugarwater.) And while Britpop might not have had the oversized folkbeards, mason-jar cocktails or overuse of the word “artisanal” that have made Hipster™ an easy target for jokes over the past decade or so*, Camden circa the mid-90s was pretty much the definition of “achingly “now””.
Britpop may not have started in Camden, but it gained critical mass there, in places like the Good Mixer; the resulting chain reaction sucked all the oxygen out, leaving behind pure marketing cranked up to 11. Camden these days is about raking through the rich seams of Britain's (and, to a lesser extent, the globalised Anglosphere's) history of post-rock'n'roll subcultural cool and producing tables of manufactured tat. Go to Camden Market, contend with the thronging masses of what William Gibson termed the Childrens' Crusade, and you will see what is essentially a meat market of dead subcultures, where well-preserved cuts of Punk, Goth, Emo and Belieber are served up to wide-eyed teenagers from smaller places all over the world, alongside the ubiquitous pirated T-shirts extolling the virtues of poor impulse control in series of three badly-drawn pictographs, identical to the ones in any Hot Topic in America or any tourist market in Thailand.
* One could, however, make the case that the two-stroke Italian motorscooters that became fashionable with the Mod-revival-revival phase of Britpop are, in today's time, a far more ridiculous affectation than the fixed-gear bikes beloved of the stereotypical “Shoreditch hipster”.
Spare a thought for the latest victims of London's runaway property prices, mid-ranking bankers on less than £500,000 a year, who find themselves priced out of the property market, whose super-prime properties are being snapped up by global oligarchs, with the merely rich moving further downmarket:
“People here are already carrying a lot more debt than they used to,” said a senior manager at one European investment bank in London – again speaking off the record. “A member of my team has a £750k mortgage on his house, which is a huge burden for him. A lot of other mid-ranking people here can’t afford to live in Zone 1 and are having to move out to Zones 3 or 4 – which is difficult when you’re a VP-level banker working very long hours.”
As for other Londoners, the crunch point reportedly comes when bankers hit their early 30s and start having families. Until then, they’re happy to live in house shares or small flats conveniently situated in central London. Once they have families, they need larger London properties and aspire to pay private school fees. “People suddenly see their disposable income pared down considerably,” said the European banker. Traditionally, the head of HR says senior bankers would have moved their wives and children into the cheaper British countryside and bought themselves a weekday pied-a-terre so that they could live in London. Now, however, she suggests that bankers’ wives often have jobs of their own and want to continue living in the city – even if they’re not contributing much towards the cost of doing so.However, help is at hand. The Tory-LibDem government has just announced a “help-to-buy” scheme which seems tailored to the squeezed bankers' very needs. Let it never be said that the Tories don't have the welfare of the little people at heart...
The Bacon-Wrapped Economy, an article looking at how the rise of a stratum of extremely well-paid engineers and wealthy dot-com founders, mostly in their 20s, has changed the San Francisco Bay Area, economically and culturally:
You don't need to look hard to see the effects of tech money everywhere in the Bay Area. The housing market is the most obvious and immediate: As Rebecca Solnit succinctly put it in a February essay for the London Review of Books, "young people routinely make six-figure salaries, not necessarily beginning with a 1, and they have enormous clout in the housing market." According to a March 11 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, four of the ten most expensive housing markets in the country — San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Marin counties — were located in the greater Bay Area. Even Oakland, long considered a cheaper alternative to the city, saw an 11 percent spike in average rent between fiscal year 2011-12 and the previous year; all told, San Francisco and Oakland were the two American cities with the greatest increases in rent. Parts of San Francisco that were previously desolate, dangerous, or both are now home to gleaming office towers, new condos, and well-scrubbed people.The economic effects of gentrification, soaring costs of living and previous generations of residents being priced out are predictable enough (and San Francisco has been suffering from similar effects since the 1990s .com boom, when a famous graffito in one of the city's then seamy neighbourhoods read “artists are the shock troops of gentrification”). And then there are the effects of the city's wealthy elite being replaced by a new crop of the wealthy who, being in their 20s and from the internet world, share little of the aesthetic tastes and cultural assumptions of the traditional plutocracy, favouring street art to oil on canvas and laptop glitch mash-ups to the philharmonic; their clout has sent shockwaves through the philanthropic structures of patronage that supported high culture in the city:
Historically, most arts funding has, of course, come from older people, for the simple reason that they tend to be wealthier. But San Francisco's moneyed generation is now significantly younger than ever before. And the swath of twenties- and thirties-aged guys — they are almost entirely guys — that represents the fattest part of San Francisco's financial bell curve is, by and large, simply not interested.
"If you're talking the symphony or other classical old-man shit, I would say [interest] is very low," an employee at a smallish San Francisco startup recently told me. "The amount of people I know that give a shit about the symphony as opposed to the amount of people I know who would look at a cool stencil on the street ... is really small."And not only the content of philanthropy has changed, but so have the mechanisms. Just handing over money to a museum, without any strings, no longer cuts it to a generation of techies raised on test-driven development and the market-oriented philosophy of Ayn Rand, and believing in fast iteration, continuous feedback and quantifiable results. Consequently, donations to old-fashioned arts institutions have declined with the decline of the old money, but have largely been replaced by the rise of crowdfunding, with measurable results:
(Kickstarter) The self-described "world's largest funding platform for creative projects" has, in its three-year existence, raised more than half a billion dollars for more than 90,000 projects and is getting more popular by the day; at this point, it metes out roughly twice as much money as the National Endowment for the Arts. And though hard statistics are difficult to come by, it's clear that this is a funding model that's taken particular hold in the tech world, even over traditional mechanisms of philanthropy. "Arts patronage is definitely very low," one tech employee said. "But it's like, Kickstarters? Oh, off the map." Which makes sense — Kickstarter is entirely in and of the web, and possibly for that reason, it tends to attract people who are interested in starting and funding projects that are oriented toward DIY and nerd culture. But it represents a tectonic shift in the way we — and more specifically, the local elite, the people with means — relate to art.
"A lot of this is about the difference between consuming culture and supporting culture," a startup-world refugee told me a few weeks ago: If Old Money is investing in season tickets to the symphony and writing checks to the Legion of Honor, New Money is buying ultra-limited-edition indie-rock LPs and contributing to art projects on IndieGoGo in exchange for early prints. And if the old conception of art and philanthropy was about, essentially, building a civilization — about funding institutions without expecting anything in return, simply because they present an inherent, sometimes ineffable, sometimes free market-defying value to society, present and future, because they help us understand ourselves and our world in a way that can occasionally transcend popular opinion— the new one is, for better or for worse, about voting with your dollars.Which suggests the idea of the societal equivalent of the philosopher's zombie, a society radically restructured by a post-Reaganite, market-essentialist worldview, in which all the inefficient, inflexible bits of the old society, from philanthropic foundations in support of a greater Civilisation to senses of civic values and community, have been replaced by the effects of market forces: a world where, if society is assumed to be nothing but the aggregation of huge numbers of self-interested agents interacting in markets, things work as they did before, perhaps more efficiently in a lot of ways, and to the casual observer it looks like a society or a civilisation, only at its core, there's nothing there. Or perhaps there is one supreme value transcending market forces, the value of lulz, an affectation of nihilistic nonchalance for the new no-hierarchy hierarchies.
The article goes on to describe the changes to other things in San Francisco, such as the attire by which the elite identify one another and measure status (the old preppie brands of the East Coast are out, and in their place are luxury denim and “dress pants sweatpants” costing upwards of $100 a pair–a way of looking casual and unaffected, in the classic Californian-dude style, to the outside observer, whilst signalling one's status to those in the know as meticulously as a Brooks Brothers suit would in old Manhattan), the dining scene (which has become more technical and artisanal; third-wave coffee is mentioned) and an economy of internet-disintermediated personal services which has cropped up to tend to the needs of the new masters of the online universe:
And then there are companies like TaskRabbit and Exec, both of which serve as sort of informal, paid marketplaces for personal assistant-style tasks like laundry, grocery shopping, and household chores. (Workers who use TaskRabbit bid on projects in a race-to-the-bottom model, while Execs are paid a uniform $20 per hour, regardless of the work.) According to Molly Rabinowitz, a San Franciscan in her early twenties who briefly made a living doing this kind of work — though she declined to reveal which service she used — many tech companies give their employees a set amount of credit for these tasks a month or year, and that's in addition to the people using the services privately. "There's no way this would exist without tech," she said. "No way." At one point, Rabinowitz was hired for several hours by a pair of young Googlers to launder and iron their clothes while they worked from home. ("It was ridiculous. They didn't want to iron anything, but they wanted everything, including their T-shirts, to be ironed.") Another user had her buy 3,000 cans of Diet Coke and stack them in a pyramid in the lobby of a startup "because they thought it would be fun and quirky." Including labor, gas, and the cost of the actual soda, Rabinowitz estimated the entire project must have cost at least several hundred dollars. "It's like ... you don't care," she said. "It doesn't mean anything because it's not your money. Or there's just so much money that it doesn't matter what you spend it on."
Berliners are protesting against the tearing down of what's left of the Berlin Wall, as a section decorated with murals and known as the East Side Gallery is demolished to make room for—wait for it—luxury apartments.
About 120 international artists were invited to plaster it with colourful murals, as the strip of wall carried none of the colourful graffiti that had covered the western side. In 2009 the murals were renovated at a cost of €2m (£1.7m).So as Berlin is gentrified, the artists and bohemians are priced out and replaced by wealthy yuppies drawn to the city's aura of cool, and the schicki-mickis as they're called start voting with their euros to have more luxurious accommodation built. And so, yuppie apartment complexes are built, and everything from art squats like Tacheles to sections of the Berlin Wall is demolished to make room for the city's new owners. And soon, Berlin will be a city of prestigious apartment towers, luxury shops and expensive champagne bars, a sort of Dubai with worse weather; the remainders of the city's rough history, artistic ferment and unkempt, boisterous underground culture will be represented by a few curated exhibits that don't interfere with the business of making and spending vast amounts of money.
There's a petition against the demolition of the East Side Gallery here.
The ongoing gentrification of Berlin is now making a linguistic mark on the city: Prenzlauer Berg, the chic inner eastern neighbourhood popular at first with squatting artists, and then with trendy schmicki-micki couples with children in sports-utility prams, is now facing an influx of affluent new residents from Swabia, a wealthy, conservative region of southern Germany adjoining Bavaria, resulting in the Swabian dialect of German replacing the Berlin dialect in parts of the neighbourhood:
"The positive side of the changes, is that literally everything looks nice now," he said. But he then thundered, "I get angry when I'm in the bakers, and there are no Schrippen (the Berlin slang for white rolls) only Weckern (the Swabian term). And its exactly the same for plum cake," he went on, which the relative newcomers call Pflumendatschi (a Swabian term.) "That makes me really the last defender of the Berlin dialect."
Thierse added: "I hope the Swabians realize they are now in Berlin. And not in their little towns, with their spring cleaning. They come here because it's all so colorful and adventurous and lively, but after a while, they want to make it like it is back home. You can't have both."
More on the Pirate Party's recent electoral success in Berlin: Der Spiegel asks who the Pirate Party are (spoiler: they're the new Greens):
Voter analysis from Sunday would seem to back up that assessment. The survey group Infratest established that 17,000 former Green Party supporters switched their votes to the Pirate Party on Sunday, more than came from any other party. The SPD lost 14,000 voters to the Pirates and the far-left Left Party 13,000.
The party's largest coup, however, came from its ability to attract fully 23,000 people to the polls who had never voted before. More votes came from former East Berlin, where the party secured 10.1 percent of the vote, than from former West Berlin. Most of the party's supporters are young, well-educated men -- as are 14 of the 15 Pirates who will now take their seats in the Berlin city-state parliament.And a Spiegel survey of editorials from various German newspapers (conveniently annotated with their political slants) links the Pirate vote to the rise of the laptop-and-latte generation in Berlin, a city now said to be Europe's IT start-up hub. Which raises the question of whether the Pirates are a progressive party for an age of gentrification.
Meanwhile, the Grauniad asks whether something like that could happen in Britain. (Spoiler: not in a first-past-the-post system, and Britain's politicians also seem less technologically clueful, and more beholden to the old-media powerbrokers, than Germany's:)
The German government was one of the first to decide that national-security systems should not be based on proprietary software. In such a climate it's predictable that a campaigning political party with a radical online agenda would find a ready audience. The bovine way in which the last House of Commons passed Lord Mandelson's digital economy bill, with its clueless 'anti-piracy' provisions, does not exactly engender confidence in the British political class's understanding of these matters.
Web design webzine Smashing Magazine has an interesting article on Berlin's street-art heritage:
After the few East Germans who crossed the Berlin Wall in the ’80s blinked and pinched themselves, what do you think was the first thing they saw? They saw big bubbly letters, spelling out words in German, English and French. They saw political slogans, either carved indelibly into the concrete or sprayed temporarily onto surfaces, commenting not only on the situation in Germany, but on the whole political world: “God Ble$$,” “Concrete Makes You Happy,” “Death to Tyrants.” As far as they could see, covering every inch of wall, was layer upon layer of zest, life and color.
After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the graffiti artists marched straight into East Germany. Mitte, Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg — all of the areas that the military had occupied became a new playground for the Western artists and became a new world for the Eastern artists who joined them. Few doubted that the East Germans’ work was weightier. It wasn’t that they were better artists, but that they could express — with authority — the one concept close to the hearts of all people now living in the city: what it meant to be free.
The article briefly profiles and analyses the work of a number of Berlin street artists, including XOOOOX (who does impeccably drawn black-and-white stencils of glamorous fashion models, sometimes relieving themselves), Mein Lieber Prost (whose sketches of jolly cartoon homunculi have become immediately recognisable) and the curious case of Linda's Ex, an artist who, in 2003, put up hand-drawn posters imploring someone named Linda to take him back, engaging others to debate whether the object of the unknown artist's affections should return to him, before revealing that Linda never existed, and the whole thing was an art project, sort of like a web soap implemented in wheatpaste.
At first, people either ignored the posters or were mildly curious. But as both the pictures and messages increased in intensity, they had no choice but to take notice. On one poster, Linda’s ex told his estranged lover that he would be waiting to speak to her at a certain bar every Saturday and Tuesday night. People were starting to believe that his suffering was real. And if his suffering was real, then they did not doubt that he needed help.
People enjoy XOOOOX’s approach because of his objective treatment of his subjects, presenting each model as neither happy nor sad, neither warm nor cold. He even draws one model urinating on the ground; while some might interpret the piece as a sign of arrogance, XOOOOX’s signature, flowing from her head like a thought bubble, persuades sensitive observers to judge her on a more humane level. She is, he suggests, just like everyone else.The article also mentions the peculiar status of street art in Berlin. Graffiti is, of course, an outlaw activity and subculture, and gets its vitality from its fraught, illegal status. Berlin (the capital of Germany, a country not known for its citizens' cavalier disdain of regulation, no less), however, gets a lot of its buzz (and, indirectly, tourist revenue) from this underground culture. Berlin's police insist that graffiti is a crime, whilst focussing their enforcement efforts on gang-related tagging. Meanwhile, having dodged the threat of prosecution, street art arguably faces the threat of legitimacy, of being turned into just another cultural consumable in a gentrified playground for the affluent:
Today, such work has made the street art a tourist attraction. Kunsthaus Tacheles, once an artists’ squat and still a focal point of the scene, holds disco nights downstairs and sells urban art books upstairs — its bar is as expensive as anywhere in the city. Artists such as XOOOOX, Mein Lieber Prost and Alias have started to exhibit and sell in galleries. They still work on the street, but they are no longer impoverished artists — if they ever were. They can afford to travel and work in countries across the world.
While these artists believe that street art needs to appeal to a wider audience, the local, more traditional artists, such as the tagging crews, disagree. They argue that street art derives its power from being on the margins of society; only from the outside can they address problems within it. That difference of opinion is opening a space in the scene that can be filled only by the mainstream. In the next few years, street art has the potential to become a social movement as inclusive as anything from the ’50s and ’60s.Does it make sense to talk of tagging crews as "artists", though?
The Tote, Melbourne's iconic, recently resurrected music venue, makes it into this year's April Fool's Day stories twice, both in the context of gentrification and the changing character of the formerly bohemian inner city. Mess+Noise has it launching a new house-music night, complete with giveaways and Vodka Cruiser specials, to "cater for the area's changing demographic". Meanwhile, an article elsewhere has the Tote becoming a child care centre.
A spokesperson for the applicant, Exotic Rites Early Childhood Learning Pty Ltd, which also runs child care and early learning centres in Brunswick and Thornbury, said in an email to Tone Deaf yesterday ‘while we recognise that the venue has had an important role in Melbourne’s music community; with the number of young professionals with young children now living in the area, the land and location are far more appropriately used as an Early Learning Centre’.Which points at two models of gentrification: the cashed-up-bogan-driven Brunswick St. model (house music, pre-mixed vodka) and the more traditional yuppies-with-children model seen not just in Melbourne but everywhere.
Another milestone in the sterilisation of New York: the Chelsea Hotel, a long-term residence of many artists (some of whom paid their rent in artworks), including the likes of Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, and epicentre of the old bohemian New York which has almost entirely vanished, is up for sale. The hotel's veteran former owner, Stanley Bard, is holding out hope that the new buyer will keep the hotel as is, allowing its bohemian residents to stay, though it looks more likely that it'll be transformed into another Chateau Marmont-style luxury theme hotel, trading off its name.
But among possible buyers mentioned is Andre Balazs, who owns the trendy Standard Hotel chain and the luxury Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. There are rumors that developer extraordinaire Donald Trump has shown interest. Future owners may dream of cashing in on the Chelsea name, while transforming the quirky set-up into something more resembling a straightforward hotel.
The latest flashpoint of the culture war: whether or not a street or square in Berlin should be renamed after Ronald Reagan. Germany's conservative ruling party wants one, though the idea is not popular with Berlin's more left-leaning residents, or the city's Social Democratic local government:
That's why many in Berlin see Reagan, who would have turned 100 last Sunday, as a trailblazer for German reunification. Indeed, some would like to see the city do more to publicly honor the man. In December, German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg tabled the idea on behalf of his party, the conservative Christian Social Union, of placing an official commemorative plaque honoring Reagan on Pariser Platz, the square in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Guttenberg's CSU is the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union. The Berlin branch of the CDU, for its part, is calling for the renaming of a public square or a street in Reagan's honor. But so far nothing has happened.
And is there not a slight whiff of truth to claims that the city's leftist government has trouble with Ronald Reagan as a person? The Republican, who since his death from Alzheimer's in 2004 has become the most popular US president ever, was considered by the German left during his two terms in office from 1980 to 1988 to be the personification of the Cold War. Reagan's appearance in West Berlin in 1987 was not without risks. In adddition to the Cold War aspects, his message of Reagonomics was deeply unpopular with the city's anti-capitalism movement.They could always wait a few years, until the left-wing Berliners have been gentrified out, and replaced by affluent schmicki-mickis who are a bit more fond of winner-takes-all capitalism, by virtue of being the winners. Perhaps then, with the vanquishment of Communism as an ideology, and the second ongoing vanquishment of "poor but sexy" anti-capitalist Berlin by the forces of gentrification, they could rename various streets named by the DDR after famous Communists after NATO hawks and prophets of the free market. Karl-Marx-Allee could become Milton-Friedman-Allee, Karl-Liebknecht-Straße Reaganstraße and Rosa-Luxembourg-Platz Thatcherplatz.
The Hummingbirds, arguably the greatest Australian indiepop band of the 1990s, are reforming for a one-off set at Sydney's Big Day Out on the 27th of January. Well, so far it's a one-off set; perhaps they'll do some other Australian shows. I imagine that them playing Indie Tracks or the Gothenburg Popfest would be a bit of a stretch, though.
Meanwhile, Mess+Noise also has a two-part retrospective on the Punter's Club, the legendary Fitzroy music venue which closed its doors in 2002 (1, 2), interviewing many of the people involved, who went on to work in other Melbourne live music institutions.
The Punters Club closing was so final, though. We knew it was going to happen and that another business was going to move into the building, so it couldn’t be saved. It might have indirectly inspired the SLAM rally and all the outrage about The Tote, because it proved that people actually give a shit about music venues closing. I actually think The Punters Club was more loved than The Tote, but over the years, people came to realise that they didn’t want to lose another venue.
In hindsight it’s sad, and we miss that venue, but Brunswick Street really sucks these days anyway. I’m pleased that I don’t have to go and see gigs in that area anymore. Johnston Street and The Old Bar is about as close as I want to get. I don’t want to be with all the hipsters there. It’s like the gentrification of St Kilda. I remember when Brunswick Street only had three or four cafes: Bakers, Rhumbarella’s, Mario’s and The Fitz. That said, Melbourne has an extremely strong live music scene, so for every venue that closes, a new one opens somewhere.This weekend, for those in Melbourne, there is a series of Punter's Club reunion shows at the Corner Hotel in Richmond.
The spectre of closure, usually driven by gentrification and the increased rents coming from it, is seldom far away from live music venues; recently, Melbourne's favoured ex-neo-Nazi haunt turned band venue, Birmingham Hotel ceased putting on gigs, due to it losing money. Meanwhile, in London, increasing costs have forced the Luminaire to close at the end of the year. The Luminaire was one of London's better medium-sized venues; it will be fondly remembered, particularly the hand-painted signs on the walls informing punters in no uncertain terms that it is a music venue not a pub, and instructing those who wish to talk to their mates to leave.
The New York Times (registration required) has a convincing essay by one Mark Greif on what the word "hipster" actually means in a social/cultural context. It's a largely pejorative word nobody will admit to applying to them, though many of those using it derogatorily to refer to others look suspiciously like the stereotypical description of a hipster. The key, it seems, is in the writings of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, whose thesis was that taste (in everything from diet to dress to the various arts) is neither arbitrary nor objective, but correlates rigidly to one's social stratum, and serves a competitive role in jockeying for position in the social hierarchy. And this is where hipsters come in.
According to Greif, what people might classify as "hipsters" are three different groups: upper-middle-class, university-educated "culture workers" (i.e., Richard Florida's "Creative Class"), upper-class "trust fund hipsters", the scions of the aristocracy seeking to convert financial capital into cultural capital, and the old-guard, lower-middle-class hipsters, wearing thrift-shop clothes they acquired before they became expensively trendy, serving the aforementioned two categories in dive bars and boutiques and then repairing to crappy bedsits or borrowed couches. These may be the most authentic, but are looked down upon by the others for their lower standing, with only their unpurchased cultural authenticity giving them a form of superiority which doesn't afford them economic mobility. These three categories use the H-word as a weapon in an ongoing cultural jousting match, to knock each other down, belittling each other's cultural standing by denying its authenticity:
All hipsters play at being the inventors or first adopters of novelties: pride comes from knowing, and deciding, what’s cool in advance of the rest of the world. Yet the habits of hatred and accusation are endemic to hipsters because they feel the weakness of everyone’s position — including their own. Proving that someone is trying desperately to boost himself instantly undoes him as an opponent. He’s a fake, while you are a natural aristocrat of taste. That’s why “He’s not for real, he’s just a hipster” is a potent insult among all the people identifiable as hipsters themselves.
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I recently read an interesting article in the September issue of Exberliner (though not on the web site yet, it seems) about the state of the music industry in Berlin. According to it, the clubs of Berlin still draw in the "Easyjet set" who fly in for weekends (apparently a significant proportion of Berlin's clubbers are tourists), though the club market is saturated, to the point where door charges have dropped dramatically. Meanwhile, gentrification is threatening a lot of long-established clubs, as apartments are built next door, yuppies move in, and the clubs' licenses are not renewed due to the newly bourgeois, residential nature of their environs. (Which all sounds familiar.) Though, according to the article, the real area of growth in Berlin is not so much clubbing or music performance as music technology; the article pointed to the growth of Berlin-based music software firms like Ableton and Native Instruments, and also mentioned SoundCloud's Swedish founders having relocated to Berlin to establish the firm. Which seems to tie in with what I've heard elsewhere about Berlin being Europe's IT startup hub these days.
Anyway, while that article is not online, here's an earlier one about the rise of "place consumers" and "post-tourism tourists", foreign "hipster nomads" who move to Berlin temporarily to enjoy and participate in the lifestyle before moving on.
An article in the Graun asks whether the internet and the rise of music blogs has killed the idea of a local music scene, replacing a world of local scenes from Merseybeat to Madchester to the Seattle Sound with something a lot less connected to geography:
The idea of the local scene has always been an attractive prospect, playing on tribal mentalities and a very human desire for order. It has helped define emerging music, and in so doing, endowed places with certain musical characteristics that come to be seen as inalienable (play musical word association, and see what comes after Seattle). But recently, local scenes seem to be dying out. With the advent of the internet, the way we consume and create music has changed. We still turn to genres to help define sound, but these days these scenes are often built on artists who share nothing in terms of geography – disparate bedroom artists such as Washed Out, Toro Y Moi and Memory Tapes find themselves lumped together under the "chillwave" banner by bloggers and internet communities drawing parallels in sound, though their bedrooms are hundreds of miles apart.There have been non-local scenes before the rise of the blogs; the Messthetics DIY cassette scene of the 1980s, with geeky sorts making casiopunk jams in sheds all over the third-tier provincial towns of Britain and mailing them out on cassettes, was one; if you haven't heard of it, that probably says more about the impact the internet has made than anything else. Before the internet, finding like-minded individuals outside of one's own area was prohibitively difficult; a few isolated individuals may have struggled, mailing zines and cassettes (and, for a while, CD-Rs) to each other, but their numbers dropped every time one of them either managed to move to a culturally active area and became too busy going to gigs and jamming in bands to keep up or just stopped bothering and instead decided to watch TV or build model train sets, or else traded in one's studio and music-making time for the responsibilities of parenthood or one's career.
Now, of course, with music blogs at one end, self-publishing services like SoundCloud and Basecamp at the other and sites like Facebook and last.fm tying it together, participating online is not a sign of loserdom, a poor substitute for the real thing for those too far from the action, but is itself part of the action. (A similar destigmatization happened in the area of online dating over the past decade, and one could argue that a similar phenomenon is at work in online gaming; compare the mainstream social acceptability of FarmVille to that of traditional MMORPGs.) Even the cool kids in Williamsburg or Prenzlauerberg post their MP3s and animations online (not to mention Hipstamatic photos of them being ironically drunk-faced at the latest art party); and when it comes to making art, promising voices from outside aren't automatically shut out.
The other side of the coin is, of course, the ongoing process of gentrification. Music scenes become established in places which are geographically compact and cheap, and as they thrive, they attract hipsters, then non-creative but fashion-following trendies, and then purely materialistic yuppies, until finally the original artists are priced out, and the area soon belonging only to those with the means of buying their way in (look at Brooklyn, for example; according to Patti Smith, this renowned hipster mecca has closed itself off to the young and struggling and, if Gavin McInnes is to be believed, today's Williamsburg hipsterati are pretty much exclusively the scions of America's top stratum, doing a sort of combination grand tour/rumspringa of the artistic/bohemian lifestyle before taking their rightful places as captains of industry; Vampire Weekend are unique only in the extent to which they make this explicit in their lyrics and attire). As focussed inner cities become more attractive and expensive, pricing artists out, and technology obviates the need for proximity, is the future of art looking more atomised? Will creativity move out of the physical world and into networks of alienated bedrooms in impoverished dormitory suburbs or small towns, and the distribution of artists (by which I mean active contributors to artistic discourse, not creatively-attired scenesters and poseurs) spread out more uniformly over the landscape, in the way that, say, open-source programmers (also contributors to the creative economy, though not as likely to parlay that into social status or sexual success) are?
One good thing coming from this, though, is that, with the decline of geographically delimited scenes, bedroom musicians are freed of pressure to conform to local norms; when one's scene is a network of blogs, it's easier to move to a different scene (or be discovered by one). Physical scenes, however, tend to impose their values, and often exclude or actively scorn those who don't conform. Take, for example, the blues-rock monoculture in 1970s Australia, or the vaguely homophobic anti-synthesizer backlash of the early 1980s there; one could, indeed, adapt another Australian term to apply to this phenomenon, and call it the Tyranny of Proximity.
Kev Kharas of the influential blog No Pain in Pop believes that new music is purer as a result. "There is no pressure to conform to any kind of scene etiquette," he says. "It frees up people to get closer to something they want to do, rather than making music that's responding to staid ideas." While the music industry has been panicking over lost record sales from file-sharing and free downloads, a quiet creative revolution has been taking place behind the scenes.Of course, not everybody's happy with this. Some grumpy old men don't like it one bit:
"When we were kids, we'd give our eye's teeth for a bootleg of an early Bo Diddley track," says Billy Childish, who has championed localism in north Kent as part of the Medway scene of garage rock bands and the Medway Poets. "Now, you can have everything you want just when you want it. We've got this massive problem where it's Christmas every day. It's difficult to find the edges."
New York Magazine has an interesting piece on tensions between hipsters and hasidim in Williamsburg, which began when hipsters started moving to the staunchly Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of Brooklyn in the 1990s and came to a head with a dispute over a bike lane which, the hasidim complained, funnelled a steady stream of immodestly-clad nonbelievers through the core of their devoutly observant community:
But after a while, says one Hasidic real-estate developer, “People started talking to the rabbis—‘Hey, something’s happening, all these young white people are moving in.’ ” When the Satmars realized that the Artisten—the Yiddish name they used for the bewildering newcomers—were there to stay, something like panic set in. Rabbis exhorted landlords not to rent to the Artisten, builders not to build for them. One flyer asked God to “please remove from upon us the plague of the artists, so that we shall not drown in evil waters, and so that they shall not come to our residence to ruin it.’’ Rabbi Zalman Leib Fulop announced that the Artisten were “a bitter decree from Heaven,” a biblical trial.While there is an element of conservative-old-timers-vs.-offensive-newcomers to the story, it is (as most things are) more complex than that. Most of the property rented out to the artisten was done so by Hasidic owners, who have mostly kept the hipsters out of the core of their community. Meanwhile, there is more interplay between the ultra-conservative community and the newcomers, with some fence-sitters putting a foot in both camps:
For South Williamsburg’s Hasids, Traif Bike Gesheft functions as a semi-secret window onto the larger world and a clubhouse of mild transgressions. Herzfeld rents bikes to Hasids at no cost, just to get them to venture beyond the neighborhood. (Among Satmars, bicycles are not specifically disallowed but are considered taboo nonetheless.) Inside the shop, otherwise righteous men let down their guard. Tongues loosen. “The men, they don’t know how to have a conversation with a woman,” Herzfeld explains, talking a mile a minute. “Whenever they come to the bike shop, the first thing they ask me to find them a prostitute. I tell them, look, you’re searching for answers. You’re not going to find them in the vagina of a woman you’re paying $200 an hour. If you want to meet somebody, you need to step outside of the community, you need to get a hobby. Come over, and I’ll teach you how to fix a bike. So the bike shop is a kind of outreach program.” A friend of Herzfeld’s also uses the shop to slip Hasids traif books like The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby.
If hipster Williamsburg has a social architect, it is Schwartz. His first project, in 1999, became the mini-mall that redefined Bedford Avenue. The retail collection he developed was both a parody of the American mall and a startling improvement on it. It housed an artisanal-cheese shop, a wine store, a bookseller with Guy Debord window displays, a Tibetan tchotchke store, a vinyl-heavy indie-record emporium, a Mac-friendly computer shop, and, of course, a coffeehouse. Many of these businesses later grew to take up their own storefronts on what became the hipster side of Bedford. Schwartz followed it up with Opera House Lofts, another ambitious development targeted squarely at the Artisten. His latest and largest project—Castle Braid, a 144-unit complex so named after the factory in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—is borderline hipster pandering. The game room has foosball and air hockey. On my arrival, the PA system in the lobby was softly playing Beck’s “Nobody’s Fault But My Own.” The building holds its own film festival (the first prize is six rent-free months) and a tenant-compiled library with Erotica and Gay-and-Lesbian sections. “It is totally kosher,” explains Schwartz, a devout Hasid. “I’ve been joking that I do this to make sure the Artisten stay on the other side!”
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Not even bohemian Berlin is immune from the forces of gentrification; luxury apartments are going up where the Wall stood, and the city's legendary bars and clubs are threatened with closure by rising rents and noise complaints. The city's non-yuppie residents are fighting back in a number of ways; some are torching luxury cars, while others are uglifying their areas with yuppie-repelling camouflage:
A recent meeting at SO36 discussed non-violent ways to keep out "unwanted" residents. Erwin Riedmann, a sociologist, proposed an "uglification strategy" – to "go around wearing a ripped vest and hang food in Lidl bags from the balcony so that it looks like you don't have a fridge". The suggestion drew laughs, but is a strategy being adopted.
An "anti-schicki micki" website, esregnetkaviar.de (it's raining caviar), offers the following tips to make a neighbourhood unattractive for newcomers: "Don't repair broken windows; put foreign names on the doorbell, and install satellite dishes."
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Veteran Australian pop satirist New Waver has a new album, Bohemian Suburb Rhapsody, out.
New Waver's usual stock-in-trade in the past has been a relentlessly bleak neo-Darwinian pessimism, extrapolating the principles of neo-Darwinist evolution into a viciously competitive world, seen from the loser's perspective, and resulting in records like The Defeated and Darwin Junior High. Bohemian Suburb Rhapsody veers from this theme into an examination of the modern post-industrial age, casting a jaundiced eye over Richard Florida's concept of the "Creative Class" from the unaffordably gentrified inner north of Melbourne.
In the thesis of Bohemian Suburb Rhapsody, several phenomena of the past few decades (the shifting of industrial production to China, the move to a post-industrial economy and the rise of DIY art/music and internet-based user-generated content lowering the barriers to artistic creativity) have created a glut of "artists", with exhibitions and indie bands and bedroom music projects all over the inner suburbs. Artists have, as many have observed, congregated in undesirable suburbs hollowed out by deindustrialisation (at least in Melbourne; in Berlin, the collapse of Communism had the same effect), attracting hipsters, trendies, yuppies and ultimately the wealthy, aesthetically conservative haute-bourgeoisie, by then the artists having been forced out by rising rents. (In the words of a famous graffito in 1990s San Francisco, "artists are the shock troops of gentrification"; though it may make more sense to think of them as a sort of baker's yeast, whose job is to make the bread rise and then perish.) Meanwhile, the ease of creating (and copying) art, and indeed any sort of intellectual products, in the digital age has led to a rise in supply exceeding demand; not only is it harder to survive making art, but it is harder to get people to devote time to looking at your creations.
As with many of his previous recordings, New Waver expresses this thesis through the medium of cover versions of popular songs, assembled using General MIDI files. The opening track, Lugging For Nothing turns Dire Straits' anthem of the rock'n'roll dream on its head; in New Waver's acerbically realistic reworking, the people to be envied are the tradesmen, high-school drop-outs and cashed-up bogans, doing lucratively uncopiable physical work and spending their money on material luxuries. Like neo-Rousseauvian ignoble savages, impervious to the siren song of cultural engagement, they're happy to take the money of those afflicted by it (by renting them rehearsal rooms and such), while aspiring musicians infected by the rock'n'roll dream pack into small rooms and toil doing shitwork to pay off records and tours. The idea of cultural enagement as a parasitic replicator reemerges behind Media, I Gave You The Best Years Of My Life, which recounts the lot of the culturally engaged, struggling to afford to rent enough space to store their record collections and spending their spare hours discussing music and arthouse films on social websites; it is not difficult to square this with author Greg Wadley's well-documented interest in evolutionary psychology and conclude that the culturally engaged are the victims of parasitic memes, deprived of the chance to live a comfortable existence in a McMansion in suburbia, watching junk TV on their plasma screen and listening to whatever's on the radio by the terrible compulsion to impoverish themselves playing in bands, exhibiting art or otherwise trading time, wealth and effort for arbitrary signifiers of status, all the while helping to reproduce these memes.
Other songs touch on different, but related, themes; Party Like It's 1979 (a Prince cover, of course) looks at the resurgence of retro-styled indie music genres, from White Stripes-like garage bands to post-punk ("Fleetwood Mac's probably the most influential band today", "I got some classic rock released six months ago, some psychedelic folk, some white guys playing disco"), and the fetishisation of the vinyl format, reframing it as a cargo-cult commodity fetish, a subconscious belief that imitating one's idols will bring one their fame, wealth and sexual success. Inner City Drug Use, one of New Waver's older songs, is Queen's You're My Best Friend rewritten about the dependence on coffee, and My Memory Stick Weighs A Ton (a cover of a song by Melburnian 1980s post-punk turned suave crooner Dave Graney) about the glut of media produced by those who can be loosely categorised as "white-collar", and the declining likelihood of any of those items finding a willing audience. The closing track, The Cars That Ate Melbourne returns to the uncultured bogan "other", and this time to their habit of cruising around the inner cities in souped-up cars with blaring stereos; it does this by combining a house/commercial-dance beat, car engine noise and a porn dialogue sample; it is somewhat reminiscent of New Waver's 1990s commercial-dance track, "We're Gonna Get You After School".
The standout track, in my opinion, is "Hey Dude"; here, New Waver has taken the famous Beatles song and turned it into a missive from property developers and landlords to artists, hipsters and the creative classes, urging them to take a sad suburb and make it better by putting on exhibitions, opening cafés, organising events and looking hip, and reminding them that they carry investments on their shoulders. As commentary on gentrification, it is perfect. For what it's worth, there is a video here.
Consistent with its thesis, Bohemian Suburb Rhapsody is not being manufactured on CD or offered in shops (though there are rumours of a limited-edition memory-stick release), but is available for free downloading from New Waver's website. Which is not at all a bad deal for what will undoubtedly be one of the most apposite pieces of social commentary committed to the format of music this year.
Another nail in the coffin of the notion of Shoreditch as an artistic area: The Foundry, a bar and underground art gallery, is to be demolished, and replaced with a boutique hotel and shopping complex. Hackney Council has refused to designate the area as an "artistic space", which would have required them to seek to resettle it elsewhere; however, before it is demolished, a section of wall containing a Banksy stencil will be preserved, for later inclusion in Park Plaza's new hotel complex.
"If you go there you realise that it's not like any other space in London," said Turk. "Shoreditch has become so commercialised, like the new West End, and there isn't really anywhere that runs like the Foundry does."If the owners of the Foundry do relocate, I wonder where they'll go; whether they'll stay in the east end, moving outward to Dalston or Bethnal Green, or whether they'll leap the Thames and set up in Peckham, said to be the new "blank canvas" for up-and-coming artists in London.
Half a decade ago, I lived in North Fitzroy. On weekends, I would spend my afternoons sitting in a local café, the Tin Pot, with my laptop. The Tin Pot was a groovy sort of place, taking up two Victorian shop units; its walls were plastered with gig flyers, the staff were young and hip, and the music (which, more often than not, the staff brought in) was an edgy and eclectic mix of what was cool, ranging from PJ Harvey to Prince to local indie and hip-hop. The Tin Pot soon became my Moon Under Water of cafés, the ur-café to define the experience of the café as an agreeable place to spend time, an ideal for one part of living.
This afternoon, being in Melbourne, I made my way back to North Fitzroy, laptop in my backpack, with a view of spending an hour or so in the old haunt. I had heard various rumours of it having been gentrified somewhat, but was still shocked at what I found.
It's still there, and still named the Tin Pot, but is a different place. Gone are the flyers, the 1950s laminate tables, the funky décor and cool music. The walls are now whitewashed, unsullied by the evidence of urban life, the rooms filled with wooden dining tables that underscore that this is a place for respectable grownups with busy lives to eat, not a place to hang out. The stereo plays, at a respectably sedate volume, a music which could be best described as "contemporary easy listening"; a combination of the most unthreateningly obvious end of 1960s soul, of the sort one might find on a K-Tel compilation, and imitations thereof (I counted two Bee Gees songs); it had a mildly anaesthetic quality to it, chosen to soothe and reassure, never stimulate. The staff are attired in uniform black, and what clientele there was was north of the mid-30s, with nobody anyone could accuse of being a "hipster" or "coolsie". It looked like a genteel tea room near Hampstead Heath, or perhaps in one of the faux-English parts of the Dandenongs.
In retrospect, the signs were there in February, when I last visited; while the tables and flyers were still there, the fruit-shaped lights were gone from the window, the music was a bit more generic, and the clientele were a bit older, often with babies in tow. I wasn't expecting such a complete metamorphosis, though.
Farewell, Tin Pot; it was nice knowing you.
The city of Detroit has seen more than its share of misfortune; hollowed out by the slow decline of the US car industry, it has already been synonymous with post-industrial urban decline, even before the oil crunch and the Great Recession. Now, however, the economically depressed conditions are apparently bringing in artists, drawn to Detroit by the rock-bottom real-estate prices (think $100 houses, albeit in need of work), faded grandeur of near-mythical proportions and potential for experimentation and regeneration:
Buying that first house had a snowball effect. Almost immediately, Mitch and Gina bought two adjacent lots for even less and, with the help of friends and local youngsters, dug in a garden. Then they bought the house next door for $500, reselling it to a pair of local artists for a $50 profit. When they heard about the $100 place down the street, they called their friends Jon and Sarah.
Admittedly, the $100 home needed some work, a hole patched, some windows replaced. But Mitch plans to connect their home to his mini-green grid and a neighborhood is slowly coming together.
But the city offers a much greater attraction for artists than $100 houses. Detroit right now is just this vast, enormous canvas where anything imaginable can be accomplished. From Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project (think of a neighborhood covered in shoes and stuffed animals and you’re close) to Matthew Barney’s “Ancient Evenings” project (think Egyptian gods reincarnated as Ford Mustangs and you’re kind of close), local and international artists are already leveraging Detroit’s complex textures and landscapes to their own surreal ends.It'll be interesting to see what happens; will Detroit's new artist-settlers find their dreams foundering, turn tail and run, or will they succeed? Will Detroit become a new East Berlin, attracting artists and then scenesters, then showing up in boutique tourist guidebooks as the new hip destination, until eventually the process is completed and the well-off and aspirational move in, most of the artists are priced out of it and move on in search of another locus?
The Age has an article about how, thanks to some two decades of thoughtful urban planning, Melbourne has advanced ahead of Sydney in terms of creative culture:
Melburnians had gained more public open space and access to waterfront lost for decades and, since 1991, thousands had been to encouraged to live in the "central activities district", creating demand for bars, restaurants and footpath cafes. Melbourne's laneways had been protected through height regulations and, between 1983 and 2004, active arcade frontage had increased from 300 metres to 3 kilometres, Adams said. And only bluestone paving is now allowed in the city.
The City of Melbourne had also invested in public art to improve the public domain, determined by an independent artists' panel.
The Sydney envy at hearing of Melbourne's leadership in city planning, architecture and art spilled into newsprint. Sydney University adjunct associate professor of architecture Elizabeth Farrelly lamented Sydney's developers had erased a plethora of laneways and back streets with skyscrapers, while much of Sydney's character had been "Botoxed away".
Farrelly declared that the biggest difference between the two cities is Sydney's "sheer cultural timidity - from fashion to cafes and from public art to architecture - compared with Melbourne's cultural courage".A big part of the difference is in affordability, with Sydney's property prices, cost of living (Sydney is the fifth most "severely unaffordable" city in the affluent English-speaking countries, while Melbourne is the 23rd) and hypercompetitive, status-obsessed culture choking local creativity, putting pressure on artists to get a real job to keep up or otherwise leave for somewhere less sharky.
Of course, affluenza is hitting Melbourne as well; property prices are skyrocketing, and the young creative people who filled up the inner cities are being displaced further and further out, making room for moneyed yuppies with a taste for boutique lifestyles. Perhaps one of these days we will find that Springvale or Sunshine has become Melbourne's Neukölln, sufficiently populated with thrifty creatives and bohemians to have a vibrant local culture but insufficiently "funkified" (in the words of estate agents) to have attracted the yuppies?
The blanding of St Kilda, once the sleazy, dangerous and vital epicentre of Melbourne underground culture and now safely homogeneous chrome-plated playground of the affluent, continues apace; now local independent record shop Raoul Records is closing down at the end of the month. Which means one fewer reason to venture south of the Yarra. I guess the Porsche-owners of the new St Kilda don't care much for weird little post-punk/garage-rock/psychobilly/country-and-Preston bands.
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Famous New York rock venue CBGB may soon be forced to close by rising property rents. Now where have I heard that before? (via bOING bOING)
As yuppification and noise complaints force venues in Melbourne's traditional live music heartland (Fitzroy and environs) to close, go all-acoustic or become wine bars or boutique apartments, the scene is moving further out, and is apparently about to cross the barrier into Northcote; the people who run the Corner Hotel in Richmond are opening a new venue there next year, and looking for a name for it. Which could be a good sign for Northcote, which has mostly been a folk/roots/blues/feral-techno sort of place until now, though should have the demographics to support a live rock scene. I wonder whether it'll be the seed of a new local scene, or just an isolated venue like the ones which opened up in other "one-further-out" areas (Preston, Footscray, Sydney Rd. and such).
Hip-hop is going adult (not to be confused with adult-contemporary), with rappers releasing porn videos, usually starring themselves as masters of ceremonies rather than actors.
Meanwhile, a LA Times article excerpted here on FmH asserts that the reason why the superlatively bland "jazz" singer Norah Jones is so popular is as a reaction against the domination of the charts by hip-hop. (It appears that there's nothing more safe and comforting than the bourgeois, ossified, whitebread contemporary form of what was once regarded as a scary and dangerous (and very black) musical genre; remember the infamous scare quotes from 1930s marijuana prohibition hearings linking the evil weed with "Satanic" jazz music and interracial sex?)
Which all ties in with Ben Butler's assertion that classical traning and codification are killing rock, as they did jazz, using the example of George being the worst band in Australia as a Terrible Example.
Your Humble Narrator spent this New Year's Eve at the Cue Bar, seeing Dandelion Wine and The Beautiful Few (who combine sardonic social commentary with an Australian New Wave aesthetic, like some cross between Pulp and The Models). All in all, a fairly typical NYE.
On the way back, walking up Brunswick St., I realised that Fitzroy has turned into Prahran; everywhere I went, I could hear the muscular thump of house music. Mind you, we're probably behind the curve here; in Prahran, they're probably into more fashionable things than house music, like NME '70s-Revival Rock or daggy 1980s top-40 hits or cunnilingus-themed rap songs or something.
Not that long after Melbourne community radio station PBS-FM was forced out of yuppified St Kilda, it's 3RRR's turn to move. 3RRR's lease on its Fitzroy premises (right off the trendy Brunswick St. latte strip) is coming to an end, and the landlord has told them to move on. They're hoping to find a place in "Fitzroy, Collingwood or Carlton", though with the yuppification of inner-city areas, that sounds a bit optimistic. An industrial park in Lalor or Thomastown or somewhere sounds more likely. Or they could always look around Footscray; it's becoming trendy, but still grimy enough to be cheap.
You know Brunswick St. is past its use-by date when the funky alternative clothing and bauble shops start opening childrenswear shops. The funky kids who hung out there in years gone by, back when it was "cool" and "alternative", are now in their 30s, married, mortgaged and with children of their own, and so the groovy boutiques have moved with the times and opened babywear boutiques, and the cycle continues. Though it makes one wonder what kids whose parents dressed them in Brunswick St. alternative clothes from the day they were born will do when they reach adolescence and need to individuate themselves.
Local community radio station 3RRR has rejected a sponsorship/advertising deal from the DJ bar opening where the Punters Club used to be, on the grounds that the name "Bimbo Deluxe" is offensive. The owners deny any offense intended, claiming that it is named after an Italian café. Are 3RRR being PC nazis? Or would opening a bar named Bimbo Deluxe feed the rise of a Chapel St.-style "show-us-ya-tits" hoon culture in the formerly countercultural, bohemian Brunswick St?
(I wonder how long 3RRR will stick around there; for one, the culture of the area is now a lot more Nova FM than 3RRR, and secondly, the yuppie apartments being built in the former Universal Theatre next door to the station could put a damper on rooftop live-to-air events. It wouldn't surprise me if, within the decade, they relocate to Northcote/Thornbury or some place.)
Anyway, I'm sure Bimbo Deluxe will find that Nova FM/Fox/MMM will be more than happy to take their money and run promotional campaigns for them. And their clientele probably don't listen to weird community stations like 3RRR anyway.
The Death of Brunswick St. (an ongoing saga): This week's issue of the Melbourne Times has a section on the transformation of Brunswick St. into an upmarket gated community and shopping mall. There is an article about a plan to dig a tunnel from the housing commission blocks to Sunshine, to provide residents with "access to affordable consumables and appropriate social activities"; the article has a photograph of the public housing block surrounded by a high wall, keeping all the riff-raff in. Then there is the section on the "bigger, brighter and better" Brunswick St., with photographs of the Punters Club Photoshopped into a Country Road, the new Planet Hollywood, and a Starbucks.
Planet Hollywood, which replaced Flowers Vasette in December, is now the hottest nightspot in town. "It is amazing. The young professionals from their designer apartments, and even people from the eastern and southern suburbs, are flocking to this vibrant venue," Ome said.
Yes, it's a parody issue, but it's (unfortunately) too close to the truth.
A piece on public radio station PBS, which has been forced out of St Kilda by rising rents and yuppie pinks who don't like that noisy weird shit taking over, and is moving to Collingwood. (Collingwood? They'll probably have to move on from there within 10 years once yuppification takes hold. And anyone want to bet on how long 3RRR will stay in Fitzroy (just off Brunswick Street latté-land, where the Punters Club won't be for much longer), before being moved on to an industrial park in Lalor or someplace?)
In St Kilda, street prostitution is a major problem for the BMW-driving latte-sipping ad-exec residents, with kerb-crawling johns cruising their streets at night searching for bootywhang, consummating the transactions in their yards and dumping used condoms in their designer letterboxes. Professor Marcia Neave, architect of brothel legalisation in the 1980s, suggests that the answer may lie in legal street prostitution precincts, safely away from residential areas. Though given the rapid gentrification of St Kilda, a more practical answer may be to drive the prostitutes out to Brunswick or Coburg, as was done with artists, students, ferals and other non-yuppies formerly indigenous to the ritzy bayside area.
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