Your Ideas Don’t Matter, or, The Death of Independence

Published 8/15/13
Image: Damon Winter/The New York Times

Last week, The New York Times chronicled the hardships of an artist and his wife who are fighting for their rent-stabilized loft following Superstorm Sandy. They’ve lived in TriBeCa for 45 years. The building in question, a victim of structural damage before the storm, was deemed uninhabitable by the City after 28 inches of water damaged it further, prompting the landlord to weigh its worth against the cost of repair. It’s now a source of controversy with a lawsuit to boot.

The significance of the word “loft” has evolved considerably for New Yorkers since lower Manhattan first piqued our interest, then over time became more inhabitable, more developed, more desirable and as a result, out of reach. Early loft tenants built their spaces from scratch, in some cases installing kitchens and bathrooms where there weren’t any.

What’s interesting is how the story calls into question the viability of artistry as a means to make ends meet in the city. It hints of a time, generations past, when options were more than stocks and creativity was a steel-toed wedge in the door. “But the building also carries signs of the city’s newest reality piled on the floor—paintings rolled up, smudged and molded, ruined by floodwater.” Between the lines, a telling statement.

By 2050 two thirds of the global population will live in cities. This mass migration and the swell of cities represents a sea change in the way we live and interact. Gentrification will have to keep up. But as they gentrify, our cities send the wrong message to the creative class whose job is to transform them.

If gentrification represents the conformity of consumer taste—that which is seldom adhered to by truly independent artists—then gentrification, by definition, discourages individuality. Despite that jingles and tag lines and anthems want us to “be individuals,” there is nothing individual about consuming what millions of others consume. This is why many artists by default find consumerism unpalatable. As creatives, they seek the spark of asymmetry—the uniqueness of exploration and discovery that consumerism lacks with its fleeting sensibilities of the moment. To thrive, the brands breaking ground on every block are required to master the art of exploitation. Prices increase to accommodate supply and demand—or perhaps, to drive it. Housing seems wise to keep up.

True, the city’s artistic flair is no longer its sinew. I have seen this city molt and change color several times. But it isn’t business that drives the artists out; it’s us—our consumptive habits, our choices. We want so badly to feel unique that digging deeper into our pockets means reaching higher, over the masses, to the trinkets no one else can afford. In lieu of fame (and often as a result of it) displaying our wealth becomes a ticket to individuality, when in fact we are stomping on lives in a race to the top, to the edge of loneliness.

Independent artists then become undervalued, disrespected, forgotten—or worse, seen as enemy combatants, a threat to the status quo, to consumerism itself. In a world where conformity is king, individuality seems an innocent bystander to its own demise. And in the end, it’s our vicious engagement to be better, stronger, more beautiful and successful than “the other” which may in fact be the cause.

Science provides a way out—a connection back to the environment, to our senses—through a conceptual framework of networks and ecosystems. Life is filled with a slew of elements contributing to systems in their own unique way. Urban planners can learn from the natural world, creating and arranging communities in ways that speak to how we naturally live and interact with each other. Life doesn’t have to be all about competition.

Author Jim Collins puts it in terms of what he calls a hedgehog concept, which for companies “isn’t a goal to be the best, but an understanding of what you can be best at.” Consider the implications of applying the hedgehog concept to professions and urban planning. Since artists are an integral part of the future city vision, we should make it a priority to include them in city planning, especially considering how gentrification has so much to do with preserving both independence and the arts. Independent locally-owned businesses will follow.

Of course, this won’t be possible without certain regulations. But it’s a start.

Urban innovation must be grounded in complex ecological thinking. I can’t think of a better way to achieve this than by merging scientific and artistic sensibilities. What we need is for science and art to make a home together.