As an undergraduate at Brown University, Tyler Denmead founded New Urban Arts, a nationally recognized arts and humanities program primarily for young people of color in Providence, Rhode Island. Along with its positive impact, New Urban Arts, under his leadership, became entangled in Providence's urban renewal efforts that harmed the very youth it served. As in many deindustrialized cities, Providence's leaders viewed arts, culture, and creativity as a means to drive property development and attract young, educated, and affluent white people, such as Denmead, to economically and culturally kick-start the city. In The Creative Underclass, Denmead critically examines how New Urban Arts and similar organizations can become enmeshed in circumstances where young people, including himself, become visible once the city can leverage their creativity to benefit economic revitalization and gentrification. He points to the creative cultural practices that young people of color from low-income communities use to resist their subjectification as members of an underclass, which, along with redistributive economic policies, can be deployed as an effective means with which to both oppose gentrification and better serve the youth who have become emblematic of urban creativity.
If you're sad that the word "creative" has been co-opted by the business world or the way that education seems overly concerned with objectives, this book will make you very happy. Artists, art educators, social practice artists, urban planners, young people wanting to change the world, anti-gentrifiers: this book is for you! A remarkable narrative about Denmead's unmooring from thinking of himself as supporting youth arts program in Provincetown to recognizing his role in "revitalizing" the neighborhood and contributing to the eviction of his students. While the program he started-New Urban Arts-had these unintended consequences, it also (intentionally) offered urban youth a place for freedom, play, and real creativity, and an antidote to formal education that's become overly structured and goal-oriented. This book should officially knock Richard Florida's a-political, race-blind The Rise of the Creative Class off its throne and into the mud. The Creative Underclass has no ambitions to take over the reins.
The Creative City, From Providence, Rhode Island, to Hanoi, Vietnam
I want to use Tyler Denmead’s book as an opportunity to reflect on my past experience as director of Institut Français du Vietnam, a network of four cultural centers supported by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Danang, and Hue. On the face of it, our situations could not have been more different. I was a mid-career diplomat posted as cultural counsellor at the French Embassy in Hanoi for a four-year assignment. My roadmap for managing the culture centers was simple and laid down in a few words: engage youth, be creative, and balance your budget. Tyler Denmead was the founder and director of New Urban Arts, an arts and humanities studio primarily for your people of color from working-class and low-income backgrounds in Providence, Rhode Island. Coming back to the arts studio as a PhD student doing participatory observation, he comes to realize he has been a mere instrument in the city’s program of revitalization through culture, unwittingly supporting a process of gentrification and eviction of the ethnic minorities he was supposed to empower through cultural activities and economic opportunities in the creative economy. No two cities can be further apart than Hanoi, Vietnam, and Providence, Rhode Island. And yet there are some commonalities between the two. They were both labelled “Creative Cities” and implemented strategies of economic revitalization through cultural activities. They both faced the forces of gentrification, land speculation, urban renewal, and the challenge of dealing with former industrial facilities and brownfields. New Urban Arts and the Institute Français in Hanoi were both tasked with the same missions of engaging youth, expanding access to culture, building skills, and securing public and private support. And, as directors of cultural institutions, we were both entangled in contradictions and dilemma that put our class position and ethnic privilege into question.
Revitalization through culture
Richard Florida is the urban theorist who is credited with coining the term “the creative class”. Visiting Providence in Rhode Island in 2003, he celebrated the city’s future as a creative hub. Successive mayors embarked on a program of urban renewal, rebranding Providence as a “Renaissance City” or a “Creative Capital”. Revitalizing post-industrial cities through arts, culture, and creativity has been a standard script since the 1990s. The conventional strategy includes a marketing and public relation campaign to rebrand the city’s image; supporting and promoting cultural assets including arts organizations, festivals, and cultural events; reshaping abandoned factories and warehouses into cultural spaces; and providing tax incentives to redevelop property into locations of historical, aesthetic, and economic value. According to Florida, Providence exported too much of its college-educated talent from Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design, or RISD. He thus advocated for strategies to retain young creatives from these highly selective and private universities by offering incentives to launch dynamic start-ups and host cultural events, thus attracting inward investment, tourism, and additional creative workers. In retrospect, the strategy has been a failure. In his reassessment of Providence’s future as a creative city, Florida recognized that these programs have only exacerbated urban inequalities without creating lasting economic or social value. He noted that technology has been the region weak spot and has failed to provide “real jobs” for young people in local industries. Providence’s new growth strategy now focuses on technology startups, business incubators, and quality of life. Providence now ranks as number 15 in the list of “Best Cities to Found a Startup Outside Silicon Valley and New York” and also boasts itself as one of the “10 Best Cities to Raise Kids in America.”
Tyler Denmead uses critical race theory to show that the color blindness of “creativity” dissimulates the ways in which the creative city reproduces and reinforces racial and class inequality. There is a long tradition of criticizing urban policies by exposing their racial underpinnings. James Baldwin in the 1960s described “urban renewal” as just another word for state-sponsored “negro removal” as he examined change in San Francisco at the time. And bell hooks, writing in the 1990s, described these urban renewal projects as “state-orchestrated, racialized class warfare (which) is taking place all around the United States.” Denmead’s expression, the “creative underclass”, is meant as a bridge between Florida’s “creative class” and the term “underclass”, which in the American context has often been used to explain poverty through cultural deprivation. His mission in New Urban Arts was to transform Providence’s “troubled youth,” meaning young people from ethnic minorities and low-income backgrounds, into “creative youth” equipped with the skills and talent to seize job opportunities in the creative economy. He leveraged public support for engaging teenagers and young adults in cultural activities such as art mentoring and poetry writing, even while arts education was being suppressed from the curriculum of Providence’s public schools and welfare support to poor families was being eroded. Most of the state subsidies under the creative city program were channelled toward real estate development and the restoration of old industrial buildings, fueling land speculation and gentrification. Through the promotion of a bohemian lifestyle, young people from the creative underclass were encouraged to choose to live in poverty, inhabiting abandoned warehouses and taking low-wage service jobs in the hope of gaining popularity and recognition in the white hipster scene. But there were very few “real job” opportunities for those who did not want to become “starving artists,” and public efforts to attract media companies or high-tech business activities proved ineffective. In the end, according to the author, the creative city only supports “a brand of capitalism that has legitimized the erosion of support for those who are poor.”
The Creative City
Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, also stakes its future development on culture and the creative economy. It has been admitted in 2019 in UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network, and has identified creativity as a strategic element for sustainable urban development. Home to 7.9 million people, the political capital of Vietnam has gone through several attempts to rebrand itself. It was granted the “City of Peace” title by UNESCO in 1999, and has built on this image to position itself as a hub for international political events, such as the APEC Summit in 2006, the East Asia Summit in 2010, the World Economic Forum on ASEAN in 2018, and the second DPRK-US Summit in February 2019. The thousandth anniversary of the foundation of the capital (then named Thang Long) by the emperor Ly Thai To was the occasion of major celebrations in 2010, insisting on the city’s long history and its tradition of resistance against foreign aggression. Faced with the economic might of Ho Chi Minh City (former Saigon) in the south and the entrepreneurial spirit of Danang in central Vietnam, Hanoi can play on its distinctiveness as an ancient capital of culture, national politics, and higher education. The Creative City strategy insists on several dimensions: architecture and urban heritage, handicraft and craft villages, traditional cuisine and gastronomy, and ancient arts preserved and performed with new style. The main French cultural center in Vietnam was located in Hanoi. The French institutes in Danang and Hue were of smaller scale and focused mostly on teaching French, while the French institute in Ho Chi Minh City operated from the precinct of the French Consulate General, using outside facilities (including a residence for artists, Villa Saigon) to stage cultural events and festivals.
L’Espace, the flagship building of the French cultural presence in Hanoi, was located in the historic central district that was at the core of the city’s urban renewal strategy. Only one block away from the early twentieth century’s opera house, next to the five-star Hôtel Métropole that attracted rich tourists through a cultivated image of colonial chic, the French cultural center was a landmark location in Hanoi’s cultural life. Artists remembered having given their first concert on its stage or displayed their first solo exhibition in its art gallery. They also kept a fond memory of the lectures and intellectual debates organized in its book library, or of the French language classes that offered a window to the outside world and a prized ticket for studying abroad. When I became cultural counsellor at the French Embassy, the Hanoi center was still very active: its language classes were fully packed, its concerts and cultural events well frequented, and its aura as a showcase of French culture and lifestyle still intact. New activities such as pop concerts, hip-hop tournaments, street art exhibitions, or technology displays attracted a younger generation and encouraged collaborations between French and Vietnamese artists. But its finance were in dire straits: the yearly rental charge was regularly adjusted upward to keep pace with the rise in the property market; advertising events through Facebook and other communication channels cost money; and salaries had to be paid to the dedicated local staff and the native teachers of French. A vast public of middle-class families coming to the central district for their weekend stroll just passed us by, with little interest for French culture and low budgets to devote to cultural or educational activities. For L’Espace, the Covid epidemic was the coup de grâce: priced out of the real estate market, the center was forced to relocate its French language classes and student orientation offices in a less prestigious location, and lost its ability to host cultural events on its own stage or gallery.
France’s cultural policy in Vietnam
We campaigned hard to convince local authorities and private sponsors that subsidizing cultural activities was in their best interest. We found a sympathetic ear in the person of the city mayor, who offered the district’s central plaza for a two-day outdoor festival of French culture and gastronomy. French culture still has a good image in Vietnam: France is seen as a romantic location for tourism, a country with a rich heritage and glamorous lifestyle, and a prime destination for studying abroad. French food and wine obtain high rankings, and French luxury brands dominate the market. But only a small minority of Vietnamese people have the financial means and educated tastes to indulge in such proclivities. For younger generations with lower budgets and more familiar longings, South Korea and its culture proves the most attractive. The Korean wave has hit Vietnam in full swing, and young Vietnamese are passionate about K-pop, Korean drama, kimchi, and K-fashion and cosmetics. France simply cannot compete with this attractiveness primarily led by private actors and mediated by the digital economy. Instead, France’s main selling point is to be found in cultural heritage. French colonial history has left a deep imprint in Vietnam, from city planning and architecture to baguette bread and loanwords taken from the French language. Vietnamese leaders are eager to solicit French expertise to help them reclaim and showcase their own cultural heritage, from the recent past to ancient history. City-to-city cooperation and French government’s support have helped preserve and promote Hanoi’s Old Quarter and its Thang Long Citadel, building on France’s long experience in heritage preservation. The same goes with the city of Hue, Vietnam’s ancient capital and the cradle of Vietnamese culture, that has been a partner of French cultural cooperation for more than thirty years. The Hue Festival, a major cultural event with an international audience, was first called the Vietnamese-French Festival and celebrated in 1992.
As a French intellectual versed in cultural studies and post-colonial theory, I was fully aware of the ambiguities and contradictions involved in promoting French culture in Vietnam. For post-colonial scholars, imperialism manifests itself not only through physical domination of geographic entities, but also through the colonization of the imaginary. But contemporary Vietnam is very forthcoming with its colonial past, and harbors no complex towards former imperial powers. After all, it has won two major wars against two dominant world powers, and has resisted more than a thousand years of Chinese imperialism. Still, the terms of cultural trade between France and Vietnam were premised on unequal exchange and an imbalance between center and periphery. As much as we sought to foster collaboration and joint projects between artists from the two countries, Vietnam was always on the receiving end, and France was always the initiator. We faced many practical dilemma in our daily activities. Could we, for instance, display the photographs of Vietnamese women from various ethnicities taken by a French artist who sold mostly to rich tourists and foreign collectors? Or should we promote the emergence of a local art scene through photography workshops and cross-exhibitions? Could we invite French intellectuals to ponder about the risks posed by Facebook and other social networks in a country where Facebook represented one rare window of free expression? How could Vietnamese historians debate with their French counterparts about the battle of Dien Bien Phu, and could they develop a common understanding of history? And how to explain the enduring success among Vietnamese audiences of the films Indochine and L’Amant that we showed repeatedly in our cinema-club? The image of colonial chic that I perceived as an expression of imperial nostalgia and ethnic prejudice among French nationals proved to be equally attractive among young Vietnamese, who had no memory of the Indochinese past but found its modern expressions romantic and glamorous.
For us, the ethnic question was raised in different terms than for Tyler Denmead. He denounces the myth of the “good white savior” who is supposed to transform “troubled youth” of color into “creative youth.” Well aware of his white privilege, he is careful to avoid “performative wokeness” and “virtue signaling” and to distinguish his auto-ethnography from a quest for redemption. He concludes his book with a series of recommendations based on the very words used by young people who hung around in the arts studio: troublemaking (or “fucking up white notions of what it means to be black or brown”), creating a hot mess (a place where they can be random, irrational, and disrespectful of authority), and chillaxing (temporarily opting out of the system). Our goal in Vietnam was not to encourage youth resistance and rebellion. And we did not understand “white privilege” in the way Tyler Denmead applies it to his own case. Still, it could be argued that our cultural policies and management practices were based on structural inequalities. Although our recruitment policy was open and nondiscriminatory, three of the four directors of the French culture centers in Vietnam were French, while their assistants were all Vietnamese. The presence of native French teachers was a major selling point for our language classes. Accordingly, most if not all full-time teachers were French nationals (of various ethnicities) while the part-time lecturers were Vietnamese. With very few exceptions, French managers and teachers could not speak Vietnamese, while all Vietnamese staff, including technicians, were required to have at least some mastery of the French language. Expat salaries exceeded the paycheck of locally hired staff by an order of magnitude. As for our public, we didn’t target the expat community for our cultural events. But France’s image was associated with elitism, and we were expected to keep a high profile and an upmarket brand image. Not unlike Tyler Denmead’s Urban Arts center in Providence, the French culture center in Hanoi was an instrument in a wider movement of gentrification, and was in the end forced to relocate due to the very forces it supported.