Monday, May 26, 2014

What is "world class"?

Clinton Yates wrote a great piece in the Post today: "Officials who want 'world class' need to look no further than D.C.'s Fish Market." Yates has looked at the plans for the Wharf, a $2 billion project to redevelop the SW waterfront, which, in Yates' words, "would gut the quaint grittiness of the waterfront and replace it with amenities that sound like they've been created in a college marketing class." 'World class' is a phrase used to draw in international investors "and inflate the egos of those involved in the courting." It is clear that 'world class' developments look a lot like other 'world class' developments. Take a look at the plans for the SW waterfront:

Every aspect of the development plan refers to some other city, especially Seattle around Pike Place Market, San Francisco around Ghirardelli Square, and Baltimore around the Inner Harbor (including the tall ships). Thus, the design refers to or speaks the international language of the 'world class.' As many sociologists have noted, since the urban fiscal crises of the 1970s, cities around the world are in competition with each other for international investors' funds and use all sorts of strategies to lure investors. Surprisingly, sociologists have found that entrepreneurs are a pretty risk-averse bunch, which Malcolm Gladwell has discussed in detail. For example, based on a survey with new entrepreneurs, INSEAD entrepreneurship professor Hongwei Xu and Duke University sociology professor Martin Ruef found that "nascent entrepreneurs are more risk-averse than non-entrepreneurs." Many entrepreneurs are interested in assured profits, which might explain the unimaginative developments around DC. For example, compare the current fascinating and much enjoyed McMillan Park (two photos on left) and the development plans by Vision McMillan Park that have almost nothing to do with the fascinating nature of the space (photo on right):
Current McMillan Park, Friends of McMillan Park

Current McMillan Park, Friends of McMillan Park

Plan by Vision McMillan ParkFriends of McMillan Park
NYU anthropologist Tom Looser has noticed that professionals moving through global cities or supposed 'world class' cities tend to be indifferent to their local surroundings, local history, and local culture, and to feel little responsibility for others and for local government in these cities. At the same time, as Richard Florida has argued, many of these professionals also demand "unique," "authentic," "local" experiences. So, they would not desire a dinner at a McDonalds or other chain restaurants. However, many restaurants, cafes, and events appear locally distinct, when, in fact, they are owned by major global investors and reflect the global demand of the "creative classes." As a result, we see similar "local" events all around the world -- outdoor movies, gallery walks, business district food fairs, ferris wheels, etc.

Yates quoted someone else stating that the SW waterfront plan "unites the whole waterfront into a kind of singular amenity that is going to really be great for Washington, D.C." As a result D.C.'s Fish Market -- according to Yates, "the oldest still-running fish market in the United States" -- is swept up into this singular amenity, into this uniform controlled space of the waterfront, rather than building the waterfront plans on the Fish Market, the uber-modernist buildings of the 1970s, the monuments, the houseboats, the seafood restaurants, Westminster Church, and so on.

One commenter on the a Post article on the SW development wrote: "As a SW resident, I am so happy this is finally getting done! There has been virtually nothing in the area and the current wharf is a dump." Developers and city governments let places deteriorate for decades as they wait for investors. Decades of deterioration also undermine and delegitimize opposition to even uninspired development projects. In Jane Jacobs' words, these investors bring "cataclysmic" money, which is used to wipe out the existing buildings and the people and create a whole new community. Planners sought to do exactly the same thing during 1970s urban renewal in SW DC. Jane Jacobs would have called for "gradual" money, which maintains and builds on what is there.

Another commenter on the same Post article criticized the new plans for SW, "The DC metro has hundreds of franchised Ye Fake Olde Irish Guinness Pubs and bland upscale apartments and movie theaters. We only have one place where you can go buy crabs unloaded from boats in an open air stand under an overpass." The standardization involved with creating 'world class' cities might make cities...boring.

P.S. DC has many examples of communities, which have fought this boring, expensive, and exclusionary uniformity. Such as residents of Adams Morgan (see this interesting report by former GWU political science professor Jeffrey Henig) and the current-day Friends of McMillan Park. Consider helping the Friends of McMillan Park save this remarkable park! 

1 comment:

  1. this is sort of interesting. (i'm familiar with the mcmillan reservoir issue (eg tony norman); it may be a lost cause unless you think donald trump and such are the beaers of good tidings.) i note you mention 'gentrification in adams morgan' and cite jeffrey henig of GWU. who cites me in in his paper (in school i did a project with other students about gentrification in a-m in the 70's, most of the people were kicked out (including me eventually so i live still in dc but my area is now going the same way but people are holding on ). Nowadays adams morgan is sort of like georgetown. I'd also say the new residents often are 'for diversity' but they actually aren't. they want 'world class' cookie cutter walmarts, starbucks, non-profits (funded by progressive millionaires) (and we got a walmart a few blocks from where i stay) and people who look and think like them (meaning they don't think past their paycheck and 'lifestyle').

    harris tweeter, yeah. that area used to be like a shantytown.

    as chuck brown said (who i used to see on u st before it was the 'new u' ) dc dont stand for dodge city, but maybe it stands for divided and conquered if not damage control. ( one show at masonic temple on u i went to ended up with a drive by shooting with alot of people hit but not me) . 'ishi' or 'mart'


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