What comes after Hudson Yards?

Looking for solidarity in the creative class

Hudson Yards officially opened last week, and the takes are flying. Michael Kimmelman did an interactive smackdown for the NYT. The Real Deal looked intothe kiosk surveillance situation (quote from the developer: “We can do with what we want with our data.”) Jeremiah Moss even snagged a comparison pic of the V****l next to a halal cart shawarma. What a time to be alive.

While the urbanism on the far west side does seem like a nightmare, I’m finding myself thinking more about the political structures that produce this kind of mega-project. I’m especially interested in the ways that cultural programs justify development. With its brand-new museum, its connection to the High Line, and its roots in Bloomberg’s larger development visions, Hudson Yards seems like a good place to connect some dots between real estate politics and the arts. 

Culture and the “real estate state”

The Shed is the brand-new cultural center at the heart of the development. It’s a truly glaring example of institution-as-investment-cronyism: Bloomberg used $75 million in city funds to help build it, without any advance vision about the needs it might fill or who would visit. Hudson Yards master planner Dan Doctoroff, who directed nearly $6 billion in subsidies to the Related Companies for the rest of Hudson Yards, is now the Chairman of the Board. Everything about it seems designed to make the developer’s property more valuable rather than to actually offer a public amenity.

You’d think that giving so much money to a potemkin museum in a fake neighborhood might raise eyebrows in the art world, since plenty of other institutions are barely scraping by. (For context, $75 million is about 12 times the total assets of the Studio Museum in 2015.) But what’s slowly sinking in to me is that cultural affairs and gentrification are two sides of the policy agenda. This is at the heart of what planner Sam Stein calls the “real estate state.” As he argues in his very excellent new book, Capital City, planners and other city officials are explicitly tasked with raising land values in order to boost investment and property tax revenue. Cultural institutions have benefitted generously along the way, so it’s in their interest to play along.

The High Line is a perfect example of how these policies shape the fabric of the city on a larger scale. Sold to the public as a new park filled with free arts and culture, it was largely supported by billionaires like Barry Diller and Diane Von Furstenburg, who stood to profit by owning adjacent property. The Bloomberg administration rezoned much of Chelsea in order to juice speculation even further and encourage the creation of an ultra-luxury tourist destination in the ashes of the meatpacking district. While the park’s founders have since apologized for alienating and displacing its low-income neighbors, the Whitney Museum got a prime propertyfrom the city and now enjoys a never-ending pipeline of swanky visitors.

The same story is repeating itself all over the city as Bloomberg-era plans come to fruition. The 2012 Olympics plan that anticipated Hudson Yards also acted as a blueprint for other transformations: the new Williamsburg waterfront, the new Yankee Stadium, the new towers in Long Island City, and so on. Each of these deals involved some kind of public amenity with a cultural dimension (the pricey new Hunters Point library by Steven Holl, the public “park” at the Domino Sugar site), but they also handed public land and other subsidies to developers like Related whose business is displacement.

Solidarity in the culture industry

In some ways, it feels like the right moment for pushback. The Amazon conflict has made it harder for politicians to defend a luxury playground built with public money. Having a criminal developer for a president is shedding light on what exactly goes on in the industry. And even if you don’t follow city politics or the art world, it’s easy to see how new kinds of cultural amenities are accelerating gentrification.

I think it’s even more important that cultural workers are building solidarity around their labor, since they’re in the uncomfortable position of helping create the spaces and marketing campaigns and monetized experiences that will indirectly price them out. Young people are especially sheepish about admitting our role in gentrification, both out of guilt and because we’ve learned to see every dimension of our economic life as an expression of individual identity. But if we had a better sense of our collective participation in structures that extract value from our cultural capital, maybe we’d be able to find a way out of the real-estate industrial complex.

I’m still super excited about the unionization campaign at the New Museum this winter because it drew this connection very boldly. New Museum Union organizer Lily Bartle told Jacobin that “while the museum is capable of raising a huge amount of money in a short amount of time, they’re only willing to do it for the sake of expansion, not for the sake of their employees.” In other words: as people put in longer hours for worse pay in order to make New York a cultural paradise, who’s reaping the benefits? Will anyone but millionaires still be around to enjoy it?

Jillian Steinhauer wrote a great story recently about how other institutions are also squeezing their employees so they can spend huge sums on property. MoMA’s $400 million renovation comes on the heels of public protests by its art handlers and office staff (not to mention the destruction of the much smaller, architecturally significant American Folk Art Museum next door). Steinhauer writes that “Just after the Vancouver Art Gallery revealed the final design for a new $350m building, almost 200 of its unionised employees went on strike over wages and working conditions.” I hope this same kind of energy spreads not only to museums all over the country, but to all kinds of creative and cultural workers whose livelihood presents such a double-edged sword.

This letter has rambled a bit but I want to end with a question that’s been rattling around my brain: What do we actually get when we buy into hegemonic cultural structures sustained by the creative industries, mainstream art institutions, and so on? These organizations are part of a cultural sphere whose politics not only exacerbate inequality, but work implicitly to exploit their own employees. It’s something to sit with as that reality becomes harder to ignore. 

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