Colonizing settlers in the creative city: A manifest destiny?

For the past few years, I have been reading several creative city plans from cities across the globe. While I have been reading these plans with a critical eye, none of this reading prepared me for what I encountered a few weeks ago when I read the plan for Columbus’s East Franklinton neighborhood.

For those unfamiliar, the creative city is what might be considered an urban imaginary –or how ordinary folks imagine life in their city, which in turn produces and legitimizes certain beliefs and practices in the city while casting others as inferior and illegitimate. In the creative city, creativity itself is upheld as a mechanism to reverse years of disinvestment, deterioration, and White flight. In economies destabilized by off-shored and outsourced jobs, talented people young people and their creativity are celebrated for the potential to transform the city both economically and culturally. These precocious young creatives are expected to kickstart dynamic start-ups and revitalize faded neighborhoods through their innovation, entrepreneurship, and “hip” cultural tastes.

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This vision for the creative city, associated with Richard Florida, is often critiqued for rearticulating urban space as a site for wealthier and whiter transplants, while further marginalizing racialized and low-income residents. Jamie Peck has been one of the most vociferous critics. Florida himself initially argued that the creative city would have trickle-down benefits for these residents — such as higher wages and better public services, as a result of the improved economy — but has since changed course.

Yet, the vision for creative cities remains influential globally. A recent graduate of our doctoral program, Yu-Tsu Chen, examined the influence of the creative city in Shanghai.

Given these debates and its ongoing relevance, I was shocked to find the rhetoric used in the creative city plan in Columbus, Ohio. This plan is for a neighborhood named East Franklinton, not far from where my grandfather grew up. East Franklinton’s formula for creative revitalization uses rhetoric that is seemingly unaware of its cruel irony and historically painful antecedents.

The plan describes how visual and performing artists who tend to be younger, hip, and politically progressive “colonize” an urban district with abundant cheap space, particularly buildings without market demand. Then the plan describes how these “colonizing settlers” convert old industrial buildings and raise the profile of the “pioneering community,” causing other “early adopter” settlers to arrive, who produce a “thriving neighborhood” from the “seeds they have sowed.” The plan then notes how these creatives “ironically often find themselves forced to move by rising real estate values.”

This rhetoric obviously ignores the painful history of pioneering settlerism and colonization both in the US and elsewhere, that is non-indigenous people migrating to an area and laying claim to space already owned by another group, while exploiting the local population and extracting its resources.

In this case, one of the resources that hip, cool colonizers are extracting are the image of disinvestment itself. These hip, cool colonizers are drawn to the nostalgia of old dilapidated building stock and the labor they once signified — these buildings, these neighborhoods signal their calculated taste in handcraft, manual labor, and well, manliness in contrast to the generica of big box stores and mass consumerism. (see Rebekah Modrak’s article on “bougie crap“).

Perhaps yet another image they are extracting is the image of poverty itself, which reminds me of the painful, but necessary film, by Renzo Martens “Enjoy Poverty.” In other words, these talented young people are “slumming it” by moving to East Franklinton. They are consuming space in ways intended for people below their socioeconomic status, which simultaneously disavows their own status, and the guilt associated with it, while also reasserting that status by signaling all-knowing, and therefore superior, cultural sensibility.

The fact that this plan celebrates the role of talented young people as colonizers without any mention of the colonized is disturbing, but perhaps, at this point, unsurprising. By rendering them invisible, the plan tends to sidestep the need for any public intervention in their plight once the neighborhood becomes “thriving.” Instead, the plan casts these talented young people as the victims of their own success. The plan notes how these creatives “ironically often find themselves forced to move by rising real estate values.”

The cruel irony here is that the rhetoric in the East Frankinton plan obscures the struggle and conflict inherent in this “colonization” by invoking the image of urban space as natural and unclaimed. Talented young people are positioned as individuals who “sow seeds” of coolness and redevelopment like some modern-day Johnny Appleseed. Sowing seeds attempts to persuade the reader to believe that these so-called talented young people are traversing natural, untouched, perhaps even “primitive” space.

The same image was used to mobilize and justify Manifest Destiny in the 19th century. It is disturbing to see the same image repeated today.