Standing on Federal Hill in Baltimore, looking down at the development of the inner harbor, one is struck by many things. Perhaps the most obvious thing, regardless of what one thinks of the process that led to its development, is that the buildings and their arrangement are rather ugly. Not just in the way downtown looks, but even more so in what it does: how the city operates as a factory, isolating people from each other, channeling social relations into prescribed routes, and preventing others from forming.
David Harvey, standing on the hill looking down at the inner city to revisit the arguments he made in an essay on the development of the area, responded to this observation with the comment that it was “really quite a strange thing that the bourgeois has no imagination.” That is, it has no sense of creativity that can devise anything more appealing in its domination and transformation of the social space and the urban environment. This may seem like a minor point or a trite observation. What does it matter how aesthetically appealing or how well-designed an area is when there are more crucial questions and ongoing issues of communities being displaced, workers being exploited, and the nature of social life being shaped by the needs of capital? This question is a valid one to a degree. But what is interesting about such an observation is the process it hints at and what this can tell us about the development of capitalism in today’s post-industrial cities.
Whether or not the bourgeois has any creativity is debatable (Marx himself marveled at the inventiveness of the ruling class in transforming social reality, albeit usually for the worse). However, regardless of such a debate, what can be said with certainty is that the bourgeoisie is skilled at stealing the imagination and creativity of others. And this is precisely what the history of the transformations of the city generally shows us. As soon as social/political movements and new artistic developments arise, they are seized upon by real estate developers, urban planners, and policy makers to create the image of a new ‘hip’ district that will boost real estate prices, attract “more desirable” residents, and so forth in a perpetual spiral of capitalist development. Read the rest of this entry »