Panel Discussion Summary—Creative (In)Equality: Creative Class Conflict and Cooperation

By Anthony Gualtieri


Luis Peralta Del Valle Barry Farm, 2015
Image courtesy of the artist
  Solomon G. Brown pictured left and Marion Barry, Jr. pictured right with Barry Farm (no relation to the former mayor) in the background.


On Saturday October 3, 2015, students, academics, activists, and members of the media gathered at American University to discuss climate change, economic development, armed conflict, international human rights abuses, racial injustice, medical emergencies, and sexual and gender inequalities. The 12th Annual Public Anthropology Conference titled Shifting Climates: Dialogues of the Urgent and Emergent featured a number of panels discussing the role of the arts and artists played in these conversations. However one panel focused almost entirely on the role of art and artists in the remaking of the urban landscape. That panel, Creative (In)Equality: Creative Class Conflict and Cooperation, featured academics, an artist, an attorney, a resident of Barry Farm, and the publisher of a DC art review.

After noted anthropologist Dr. Brett Williams was honored for her contributions to her field and her civic activism, the panel convened to discuss the manners in which governmental and non­governmental agencies in the District of Columbia strive to attract the Creative Class. These efforts reveal that many contemporary urban development policies derive from conservative interpretations of creative economic literature. They continue to be a little more than a rebranding of existing policies associated with new urbanism. Placemaking policies and creative development programs manifest as a boon to commercial interests and certain nonprofit organizations by carefully selecting individuals in desired creative class occupations rather than existing residents or the larger creative class. This situation furthers what I call Creative Inequality. Creative Inequality is the furtherance of socioeconomic inequality through public policies designed to attract the Creative Class.

In his book The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida defines and discusses the rise of the Creative Class. They are “people who add economic value through creativity” and “engage in work whose function is to create meaningful new forms.” He divides the creative class into the Super-Creative Core and Creative Professionals. According to Florida, the Super-Creative Core includes scientists and engineers, university professors, poets and novelists, artists, entertainers, actors, designers and architects, as well as the thought leadership of modern society. Nonfiction writers, editors, cultural figures, think-tank researchers, analysts and other opinion-makers are the members of Florida’s Thought Leadership of Modern Society. These individuals engage in what Florida describes as “the highest order of creative work […] producing new forms or designs that are readily transferable and widely useful.”

Florida’s Creative Professionals “work in a wide range of knowledge-intensive industries such as high-tech sectors, financial services, the legal and health care professions, and business management. These people engage in creative problem solving, drawing on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.” Like the Super-Creative Core, Creative Professionals require “a high degree of formal education and thus a high level of human capital.” Both groups personify creative capital. It is this embodiment of creative capital in the Creative Class that necessitates a new strategy for economic growth.

Positing that “regional economic growth is driven by the location choices of […] the holders of creative capital,” Florida argues that urban redevelopment must attract and retain these creative people. He elaborates by saying that to attract creative people, generate innovation and stimulate economic growth, a place must have the following: technology, talent, and tolerance. These 3T’s denote his strategy for economic development. These factors contribute significantly policymaking across the globe, including the District of Columbia.

At American University, I opened the conversation by placing the current development projects in Ward 8 into historic, public policy, and theoretical context. I noted that each of the panelists was employed in Creative Class occupations. Further, I mentioned that the influx of the Creative Class into the District is related to the shift in racial and age demographics, like the wave of predominantly white Millennials competing with their retired parents for housing. Regardless of age, many of the new residents, especially homeowners in the Anacostia Historic District, are Creative Professionals. These individuals, like all citizens, seek to blend in with the local culture while simultaneously ensuring that it reflects their values and ideals and provides the services they deem to be significant. In Ward 8, particularly the areas around Historic Anacostia and Barry Farm, the arts, which supports Creative Class occupations, were an initial focus of creative economic development. However, that focus shifted towards technology which, along with museums & heritage, the culinary arts and professional services, is one of the four sectors addressed in the District’s creative economic development plan.

After a brief discussion defining Florida’s concepts, I introduced the panelists. The panel members had all either worked or continue to work in DC’s Ward 8, a rapidly changing part of the city. The Federal Government, the DC government and developers have invest billions of dollars this decade into Ward 8 and the area is now poised for massive redevelopment begging the question “who will have access to the ‘new’ Ward 8 in the coming years?”

Panelist Phil Hutinet followed my introduction with a discussion of his work as the Chief Operating Officer of ARCH Development Corporation, where he aided in the transformation of Anacostia into an arts district. Next, Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association Attorney Aristotle Theresa, Esq., a resident of Historic Anacostia, described his work providing pro bono legal support to residents in his community and Barry Farm. He also commented on placemaking efforts to rebrand neighborhoods in his community, even the entire all of East of the River as “River East”, by other creatives who are new to the area.

Placemaking, as defined by the Project for Public Spaces, is a grassroots process for “building both the settlement patterns, and the communal capacity, for people to thrive with each other and our natural world.” It involves “the planning, design, management and programming of public spaces” and “facilitates creative patterns of activities and connections (cultural, economic, social, and ecological) that define a place and support its ongoing evolution.”

However, Placemaking tends to displace. Artist, entrepreneur and President of the Ward 8 Arts and Culture Council Tendani Mpulubusi El detailed this tension and his struggle to ensure cultural competency in the representation of Ward 8 and the provision of contracts to local artists.

My research and that of David Vine, Cloning Culture in the City: Cultural Development and Gentrification, and Jason Hackworth and Neil Smith, The Changing State of Gentrification, show that the arts, by supporting Placemaking, make an area attractive for investment, particularly for the white middle class and young professionals. In the process, the residents and artists whose professional endeavors attracted investment in the first place are priced out of the area. Consider the U Street Corridor—once known as the Black Broadway—where gentrification has displaced almost all of the original black residents.

The panel discussion ended with a discussion by Kalfani Nyerere Ture, a Visiting Assistant Professor at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York, who discussed his research on Barry Farm, one of the least affluent neighborhoods in Ward 8. Unfortunately, invited panelist Ms. Paulette Matthews was absent due to illness and was naturally unable to discuss her organizing efforts with Empower DC related to her ongoing trials with the District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA).

According to Ture and Matthews, DCHA and Baltimore-based A&R Development are attempting to coerce Barry Farm residents, many of whom live in public housing, to leave their homes and live elsewhere. Professor Ture, who lived in Barry Farm to conduct his participatory research for his doctoral dissertation, discussed the establishment of RUGs (Racialized Urban Ghettos) in the US. He characterized Barry Farm as a RUG, adding that creative economic policies are veiled attempts to articulate a post-racial society. This stands in contrast to what he believes is the reality that these and other existing policies which do little to address the underlying problems found in black communities.

In the end, the audience fielded questions from Tendani and professor Ture and engaged in a thoughtful and provocative dialogue on both the topic of the Creative Class and the experiences of the panelists. As members of the Creative Class they were able to understand their place within the social framework of Creative Inequality. More significantly all in attendance, me included, were able to enrich their understanding of creative sector development, the intersection of culture and commerce and the impact that it has on the urban fabric in places like Barry Farm and Ward 8 in general.

About Anthony Gualtieri. After retiring from the Smithsonian Institution Anacostia Community Museum in 2012, Gualtieri completed the final requirements for doctoral candidacy at the American University Department of Anthropology. His research challenges creative class theorist Richard Florida through an examination of the impact of creative economic development on the residents of the Anacostia Historic District and Barry Farm. Today he works with local residents and nonprofits to fight against displacement and socioeconomic inequality.

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