Home Theory Delivering the City into the Arms of Capital: Gentrification and the Harmlessness of Art in Bucharest.

Delivering the City into the Arms of Capital: Gentrification and the Harmlessness of Art in Bucharest.

by Gazeta de Artă Politică

By Veda Popovici

Gentrification is defined as the dislocation of low-income populations from urban areas through economic and social pressures exercised by a privileged class looking for new (real-estate) markets to create surplus value. Therefore, it represents the new boundary of conflict between social classes, a boundary which is important to reveal in order to understand the mechanisms of contemporary capitalism.

Like any political phenomenon, gentrification has a specific geography. Launched in the centers of Western modernity, it was propagated together with the capitalist colonization and urbanization of other geographic areas. In Eastern Europe, gentrification comes alongside the import of the capitalist ethos which followed the collapse of real socialism. The 90s and the 2000s belong to the third phase of gentrification[1], characterized by an even greater involvement of the authorities working with transnational corporations (real-estate agencies, urban planning, property funds etc.) in order to create ample zoning regulations coded with terms such as “urban regeneration”, “reconversion”, “development” or “well-being”. […]

The Romanian context is especially familiar with the third wave of gentrification, which is visible in Bucharest in the Old Center. Here, however, the focus will be on a less intricate phenomenon, but one which I feel is representative for what appears to be a future process of active coupling of the art scene to the interests of real estate capital: Train Delivery and Rahova Delivery. The two episodes of the Street Delivery franchise are a potential testing sample for future gentrification attempts. Artists, by making use of their symbolic and social capital, as well as their ability to translate the cultural phenomena of underprivileged groups for the middle class, are the first who can indicate to investors and the said middle class that areas such as Gara de Nord or Rahova have a certain something which can be converted into capital with very little investment.

The area around Gara de Nord – a heterogeneous neighborhood with complex social phenomena which produce (among other things) class oppression (poverty, trafficking, drug dealing, a large community of adult homeless persons etc.) – has been a space of social and political tensions typical for Bucharest in recent years. A relevant example would be the debates surrounding the resistance to the urban project Berzei-Buzesti, but the key element in this situation is proximity to Piata Victoriei, a political center (the Government building) as well as an economic one (several big banks are located there). The controversial Berzei-Buzesti project offers a great opportunity to demolish a couple of dozen houses associated with poverty and provincialism[2] and “clean up” the area. Buzesti Street had previously been the most revealing expression of the social tensions in the neighborhood: office buildings at one end, with small houses and an international bus station around them, and Hala Matache, the heart of the neighborhood, at the other end. After the conversion, the street becomes the waiting room of the gentrification process and of the slow, but steady march of the office buildings towards Gara de Nord.

In this context, the Street Delivery franchise expanded to other areas: the Train Delivery festival, about “creative people reinventing Gara de Nord”[3], a complex place where “many people began their love (or hate) affair with Bucharest”. The symmetrical love and contempt objectify local phenomena, the festival excluding the local community completely. That is, unless we count out three events: a “workshop” organized by local law enforcement[4], a workshop aimed at children, held by the social services and a discussion with the Group of Volunteer Architects pertaining to “the alternative solution to the Berzei-Buzesti highway” – one of the leading manifestations of the discourse emphasizing heritage. The program also included events typical for the “creative class”, such as handmade workshops , “creative” merchandise or discussions/presentations on heritage issues. The latter is an event which has the role of infusing the aesthetics of optimism and harmlessness into the three problematic events mentioned above. Their deeply political character is obscured by the bohemianism and avant-gardism of the others.

The workshop with law enforcement officers – about “how to avoid pickpockets and be safe wherever you go” – clearly outlines the position of the festival. The “pickpockets” are symbolic representations of the local population: a poor one, plagued by lawlessness. The middle-class, led by its “creative” avant-garde, “the citizens”, will learn how to guard their possessions once they venture into the area. […]

[1] Smith, Neil, „Gentrification generalized: from local anomaly to urban ‘regeneration’ as global urban strategy” în Fisher, M. S. and Downey, G., (ed.) Frontiers of capital: ethnographic reflections on the new economy. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006, pp. 191–208.

[2] The population in this area, as in other urban spaces, has been brought over during the regimes of Dej and Ceausescu in order to socially and ethnically balance urban areas dominated by a middle-class ethos and ethnic diversity. Today, these groups of people have become useless in the logic of post-Fordist capitalism. One can make an analogy with Rosalynd Deutsche’s observations on dislocated populations in New York’s Lower East Side: “Immigrants accepted into the country from the middle of the 19th century up to World War 1 belong to a dislocated, fluid workforce, which follows capital […]. The current inhabitants of the area do not have a corresponding role in today’s economy.” In Deutsche and Ryan, The Fine Art of Gentrification, October 31, 1984, p. 100.

[3] The 2-day festival was the result of a partnership between an agent of social entrepreneurship (Carturesti Foundation), a state-owned company (The Romanian Railways), a multinational corporation (Sony) and a public entity which finances independent culture (AFCN). This combination is a textbook example of neoliberal hegemony on urban living. All the quotes come from the description of the event, available here https://www.facebook.com/events/499291786811949/

[4] An event which seemed to complete the photo exhibit depicting “anti-government protests” in Turkey.


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