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Inequality in the Creative City

As you may know from my previous post, last week I attended the Experience the Creative Economy Conference in Toronto. One topic of the “Small Group Chats,” — four 30-minute open-ended discussions repeated on two consecutive mornings — was on “Inequality and the Right to the City.”

During the session, I alluded to one of my favorite quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor who broke from the German Lutheran Church over opposition to the Nazi regime, and who ultimately was executed for his role in a failed assassination plot on Hitler. In his essay “The Church and the Jewish Question,” he said that our role

“is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.”

As biographer Eric Metaxas1 notes, this is an awkward translation, but it is generally understood to mean that we must stop the wheel of injustice by jamming a stick in it, which is a pretty radical way to stop a wheel, as you know if you’re a cyclist like me (does anyone else remember that harrowing race scene in the 1979 classic Breaking Away?). My interpretation is that the two approaches are not either/or, but both/and. It is not enough to merely bandage the victims, nor should we ignore the victims while we continue in the larger task of spoking that wheel of injustice.

Applied to the issue of inequality, this means battling it at both the micro and macro levels. Much of the criticism of the move toward more creative work is that it seems inevitably tied to increased levels of inequality. First, it is important to note that to some extent, the increase in wage inequality is a statistical problem; if incomes rise for some, even if all do not benefit, those at the lower end of the income scale are not worse off in absolute terms because others are doing better. Income is not a zero-sum game, after all, but I do not wish to get bogged down in the debate about relative vs. absolute poverty today, though it is a legitimate debate.

Another realm of urban inequality is spatial. Gentrification and the resulting displacement of economically disadvantaged residents is a common outgrowth of an increase in creative workers, especially in the central cities of the U.S. where a blend of federal housing and transportation policies and private market forces led to “white flight” and the great suburbanization of the post-war period. But as Jane Jacobs and others have pointed out, the city is a constantly changing organism, and displacements are an inevitable result of the spatial equivalent of Schumpeterian “creative destruction.” Here is where I want to revisit Bonhoeffer: rather than blindly battling urban redevelopment, we should be fighting the root causes of inequality, while simultaneously aiding those victimized by a broken system.

From a policy perspective, this means seriously addressing the issue of residential displacement by both slowing down the sometimes rapid rates of neighborhood transitions with strong laws protecting both renters and owner-occupiers such as rent-controls and property tax relief for owners and landlords catering to the long-term residents. At the same time we need to work on the causes of increasing inequality and decreasing social mobility.

In part two of this topic I will discuss why I think that creative work is not the problem, but rather at least a part of the solution to the larger trends toward wage inequality in the U.S. and elsewhere.

1Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), p. 154.

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