The concept of the creative city, which has become something of a directive for ambitious city councils throughout the Netherlands, does not necessarily lead to a prosperous future for art and culture. The writers’ team, BAVO, describes the city politics of Rotterdam as a form of self-colonization being forced on all its inhabitants. They sketch an image of a city whose unstoppable creative appetite is alienating it from itself.
Rotterdam, the Creative Capital: a Case of Self-Colonization
In its effort to win itself the title of ‘Creative Capital of the Netherlands’, Rotterdam has pulled out all the stops. Whole neighbourhoods are being brushed aside, pilot projects launched, international events hosted, top talents drawn in, et cetera. Does this perhaps have something to do with Mr. J.P. Balkenende’s call to cultivate a new Dutch East India Company mentality? The fuss about creative cities in any case demonstrates how a renewed urge to colonize is currently manifesting itself on our own urban terrain. In the creative age, it is the Dutch city that is colonizing itself: ‘uncreative’ population groups are being moved out of familiar environments and new ‘creative’ groups of citizens are being imported with an eye to their serving as role models. Each neighbourhood is seen as a potential source of creativity that must be exploited to the full.
It is evident that the current makeover of a city like Rotterdam into a creative ‘top city’ owes a debt to the current neoliberal discourse and the competitive model. One of the difficulties that we encounter here is the fact that this project is attempting to encompass the entire societal domain. It not only integrates economic players – by way of public and private collaborations –, it moreover absorbs the socially activist and cultural sectors by utilizing such terms as creativity, bottom-up, participation, authenticity, self-organization and the like.
In our opinion, the ‘holy alliance’ of the creative city project can only be dismantled by revealing the contradictions that it produces. This way, the unspoken conditions of the current hype about the creative city can be brought to light: that it is about siphoning off a specific kind of creativity, of specific groups in society and for specific objectives. In this article, we ask how we can think about an alternative interpretation of ‘creativity’, one that is worthy of being called ‘progressive’.
While Rotterdam preaches that it can look after itself, it pampers the creative class
An initial contradiction that creative cities cannot gloss over is the combination of a philosophy of ‘doing nothing’ and a renewed belief in the ideology of manipulability. Take, for example, the way that Rotterdam completely delegated the initiative of a project such as ‘Groeibriljanten’ (Growing Diamonds). For this project, all Rotterdammers were called upon to inventory the ‘opportunities’ in their neighbourhoods and formulate them in terms of projects that people could vote on. For the most popular projects, such as the Deliplein or the Katendrecht, an attractive burst of funding was reserved to give the local partners (including the Rotterdam Development Corporation, the district government and local artists) the ability to actually cash in on these opportunities. In addition, the city of Rotterdam made empty properties available for temporary cultural initiatives at negligible expense. Organizations such as WORM@VOC and Now & Wow took up residence in old warehouses on the condition that they facilitated neighbourhood activities. In short, the city of Rotterdam is increasingly leaving urban development in the hands of spontaneous initiatives generated from the bottom up.
What makes this very far-reaching ‘spatial emancipation’ so questionable is that it is taking place in the margins of unequivocal city politics, in which the Rotterdam government takes on whole chunks of the city with ready-made total solutions. As part of the ‘Dichterlijke Vrijheid’ (Poetic Freedom) project, for example, the city of Rotterdam donated an entire block of buildings, the Wallisblok, to young, creative individuals. This gift to the greenhorn homeowners – who were expected to fix up the property and bring new élan to the neighbourhood – was possible only after the original owners were bought out. Another example is the new Lloyd neighbourhood, currently under construction. It is intended to become a living and working oasis with an estimated 2000 residences in the more expensive housing market bracket, as well as the future home base for a yet to be imported film industry, to which the city administrators attribute the magical power of being able to recover the lost equilibrium of the long downtrodden Delfshaven.
This single-minded devotion to the creative class is defended under the guise of recovering equal distribution of various income groups in Rotterdam, but in practice, the opposite is the case. Each and every one of the projects provides exclusive living and working environments for specific target groups, such as artists, designers, ICT nerds, managers, yuppies and even CEO’s – each according to their own format and taste. The new Lloyd neighbourhood will undoubtedly jack up the socio-economic profile statistics for the Delfshaven, but that does nothing to eliminate the fact that it remains a monolithic enclave for the privileged creative class, alongside the ever-isolated working-class district of Schiemond. At a different level, the same is true for the ‘Dichterlijke Vrijheid’ project. Although the project has differentiated a specific income profile for the Spangen neighbourhood, it was ultimately limited to the Wallisblok and was marketed in such a way that in terms of profession, income and social circumstances, it appealed exclusively to a specific segment.
If we are to speak of Rotterdam making a new start as the cultural capital of the Netherlands, we must not forget that it is unilaterally focusing on specific, favoured forms of creativity. This gives advantages – attractive and inexpensive living and working oases, for example – to specific groups, which moreover generally require no further guidance, while the majority are forced into the marketplace or into a severely reduced public housing system in order to meet their housing needs. One can hardly get around the fact that all the trendy talk about the benefits and the advantages to the city of creative, self-satisfied citizens hides the reality that municipal practice once again presumes a city that moves in ‘two different gears’. To put it differently, under the pretext of the creative city, a model based on class distinctions is being made palatable.
The more Rotterdam wants to radiate authenticity, the more it is alienated from itself
A second contradiction inherent to Rotterdam's creative revolution is that the self-actualization it preaches leads to a form of alienation. In the imperative of its urge to raise its score as a creative city, Rotterdam has for some time been inundated by a virtually morbid proliferation of city events. It began in 2001 with the European soccer championship and Rotterdam as European Cultural Capital, followed by all kinds of one-day events, including the Volvo Ocean Race, the Heineken Dance Parade, the Fortis Rotterdam Marathon, Bavaria City Racing and many more. The success of this offensive must primarily be assessed against the background of the city’s ambition to stimulate the local economy. This would make Rotterdam less dependent on its harbour, whose activity is based on the global flow of capital and goods: an unreliable source of income. The events seem in fact to have had the opposite effect. The creative miracle formula that Rotterdam has pulled out of its hat is not generated by its own potential, but is being copied from other world metropolises. These events do not make Rotterdam capable of separating itself from global processes, but just reinforces and intensifies the urban competition in which it has entangled itself.
More hopeful events include the Summer Carnival, in which Rotterdam takes advantage of one of its own character traits: the significant presence of residents of Antillean backgrounds. We can also consider the way the city is trying to strengthen the multicultural potential of its working-class neighbourhoods as something 'positive'. Entrepreneurs of non-Dutch heritage on the Kruiskade and Middellandstraat, for example, have for some years now received support and advice from the city in order to exploit their multicultural image as an added value, rather than a negative stigma. In short, the Rotterdam Development Corporation considers authenticity very important: each subculture is given ample room to remain itself and, in doing so, to win a place of its own on the urban podium.
The city government’s emphasis on authenticity and identity seems primarily motivated by a promotion of what is perceived by its detractors as something negative (large numbers of residents of allochtone heritage) as something special that gives the city an advantage in its urban competition. Rotterdammers of allochtone backgrounds are consequently being treated as ‘multicultural capital’. This in fact means that the assistance offered multicultural initiatives in Rotterdam is not so much a sign of disinterested altruism: It is more a question of ‘disinterested interest’. The city expects the multicultural entrepreneurs to behave in an ‘authentic’ manner. If they don't, they are given a helping hand.
Here we encounter a paradox: because Rotterdam is striving for authenticity in such a cramped and forced manner, and even believes it can create it, the city is becoming more removed from itself than ever before. We are not only thinking of Rotterdam’s multicultural enterprises, but also its creative entrepreneurs. The more these subcultures take advantage of the imperative to be and remain authentic, the more they become tangled up in the politics of identity that Rotterdam is today mercilessly imposing on them. While the city of Rotterdam dearly wants us to believe that they are 'giving back' the city to the Rotterdammers by way of all these activities, it is evident that it in fact is a superficial engagement with the city.
In Rotterdam, everybody is creative capital – some more than others
In the theory on which the creative city is founded, there is a negative correlation between creativity and working-class neighbourhoods. Richard Florida, the icon of the creative city, has statistically demonstrated that old working-class cities traditionally do badly as creative environments, because there is supposedly too much local resistance to new forms of creativity. In particular, a lack of tolerance for artists, homosexuals and bohemians – a tolerance that, along with ‘talent’ and ‘technology’, makes up part of the so-called ‘three T’s’ that Florida sees as essential for a creative city – is a shortcoming that puts the brakes on a city's move into the creative age. According to Florida's scenario, cities that are traditionally home to large groups of blue-collar workers, such as Rotterdam, would do well to break open their old, close-knit neighbourhoods and change the composition of the population.
This explains the doggedness with which a city like Rotterdam has cleaned house in its so-called problem neighbourhoods, including Hoogvliet, Spangen and soon – if all goes to plan – New Crooswijk. The strategy is threefold: the injection of broad-minded groups (as took place in the Wallisblok), facilitating circulation and social mobility within the neighbourhood (by giving preference to successful residents in acquiring homes in the neighbourhood, by rewarding successful entrepreneurs with management training and coaching programmes) and finally, the distribution of less desirable groups across the entire city landscape (in government circles, they are referred to as ‘housing nomads’: vulnerable groups that, as the restructuring continues to push forward, are shifted from one problem neighbourhood to another).
The fact that this self-colonization has not met with intense protest has been made possible because it is presented as part of Rotterdam's makeover into a creative city, which is in turn postulated as the only way Rotterdam can keep its head above water in the new global constellation of urbanized regions. The restructuring of ordinary neighbourhoods and the dubious tactics being applied to them are consequently presented as something that, however painful for some groups, is nonetheless unavoidable if Rotterdam is to find itself a durable place in the marketplace. In this fashion, it is clearly difficult for creativity to pass as a universal human value, as the proponents of the creative city would have us believe. Creativity is instead being employed to pull the plug on every possible discussion about the social costs that Rotterdam is paying in order to win its seat at the urban championship ball.
Against this background, it is not at all surprising that Rotterdam, since its new start as 'creative capital of the Netherlands', is also the bearer of the more dubious title of the 'capital of populism', and that population groups are increasingly being played out against one another. The populist dissatisfaction of the citizens of Rotterdam with all the creative initiatives that Rotterdam is inflicting on them must be taken extremely seriously, rather than being dismissed as just another upsurge of reactionary ideas, as a so-called fear of the ‘other’, the unconventional, and so on. It must be seen as a justified rebellion against the way the creative capital policy goes over the heads of Rotterdam's largest population groups in order to engineer something to which they have no access whatsoever.
A Creative Rotterdam? No, thank you
How should a progressive project relate to this creative class struggle? Given the ease with which both populist and progressive parties entangle themselves in the manipulations associated with and created by the neoliberal ‘Rotterdam creative city’ project, we think it more appropriate to raise a plea for an uncreative city. Such a movement would of course meet with fierce indignation and be roundly perceived as unconstructive, too negative and so on. Nonetheless, we argue that this is the only way to counter the ideological offensive with which the creative city is being pushed as an ideal model that must to be striven for in order to avoid all kinds of social and economic urban implosions.
Every conceivable debate about any alternative, any more democratic and not economically driven interpretation of a creative city is consequently dismissed in the most arrogant way imaginable. What about the creativity of the many semi-legal, Eastern European labourers who are keeping the construction of these living and working oases affordable; the creativity of large groups of young Dutch people of Antillean heritage who are denied all opportunity for personal development, forced into the role of the average Rotterdammer’s passive consumerism? Our argument is that only a radical gesture that repudiates today’s neoliberal manipulation of creativity can create the space needed for a progressive vision of Rotterdam as a creative city.
This article is revised version of ‘Pleidooi voor een oncreatieve stad’, an essay that was part of Neo-Beginners, an exhibition by Reinaart Vanhoe, held at the TENT. Centre for the Fine Arts, Rotterdam, September 2006.