Posted in Vol 12 No 3 by bsaab on September 17, 2009

Imagine a Metropolis: Rotterdam’s Creative Class 1970–2000 by Patricia Van Ulzen (010 Publishers, 2007)

Imagine a Metropolis cover

Imagine a Metropolis is a gossipy book about the role of Rotterdam’s artists, planners, and impresarios in the economic and physical development of the city since 1970. Although the book delves too deeply into insider stories to appeal to most readers, this detailed account of the cultural history of Rotterdam has important lessons for capitalizing on our own post-industrial past.

Since the 1920s, artists, architects, and cultural commentators have created a robust representation of Rotterdam as the modern doppelganger to the historical capital city of Amsterdam. In the 19th century, Rotterdam’s port eclipsed Amsterdam in size and importance and, in the 20th century, it emerged as the largest in Europe. Port functions and associated industries that sprang up along the River Maas injected the city and environs with a character that was mythologized by 20th-century photographers and writers. In addition, the Rotterdam school of architecture, as exemplified by the Van Nell factory and architects like Mart Stam and J.J.P. Oud, was contrasted with the contextual brick architecture of the contemporary Amsterdam School. The bombing of Rotterdam in World War II by both the Allies and Germans (reflecting the strategic importance of the port) meant that most of the city was rebuilt in a postwar Modernist style, thus fulfilling prewar Rotterdam’s image of itself as a modern metropolis. In the early 1960s, the auto-dominant planning that characterized postwar Rotterdam was criticized by an emerging cultural elite that initiated several projects to reintroduce a pedestrian scale and natural landscape elements to the central city. But by the late 1970s, the edginess of Modernist Rotterdam was re-embraced by independent filmmakers and proponents of New Wave music who found the gritty industrial landscape the perfect backdrop to their aesthetic.

Ironically, the port authority became the biggest champion of the underground creative class by giving a group of architects and artists a former waterworks facility for use as studio and performance spaces in the late 1970s. Called Utopia, this same group implemented Ponton 010, a floating theater and bar that seated 1,100 people. Ships and cranes served as the moving backdrop for concerts and other kinds of performances. As a result, the port landscape became the galvanizing spectacle of modern Rotterdam.

While Boston is more similar to Amsterdam, there are useful comparisons between Boston and Rotterdam including the role of the underground music and arts scene in the 1970s. Like Rotterdam, Boston is also exploring strategies that reconcile the working waterfront with a revitalized urban culture and needs to consider initiatives that better coordinate official cultural policy with a vital and entrepreneurial underground culture. Van Ulzen makes a convincing case that representations of a city, even if they are amped up to the level of a stereotype, can become self-fulfilling.


Creative Economies, Creative Cities: Asian-European Perspectives by Lily Kong, Justin O’Connor, eds. (Springer, 2009)

Creative Economies, Creative Cities:   Asian-European Perspectives cover

Why are signs of urban regeneration so unevenly distributed? Some cities — Boston, for example — have reinvented themselves, while others — such as Detroit — have not. Readers of Jane Jacobs may have suspected the cause, but we needed economist Richard Florida’s seminal 2002 work The Rise of the Creative Class to validate it. Florida’s research shows that cities that host creative individuals and enterprises do better than those that don’t. It’s only a short beat from there to the thesis that cities can improve their economies by making themselves hospitable to creative industries. Seven years later, Florida has become the rock star of urban resurgence, and there is nary a beleaguered city in America that does not aspire to a creative economy.

Creative Economies, Creative Cities, an edited collection of articles by academics from Europe, the Far East and Australia, puts Florida’s thesis in global and historical context. The book mines a rich vein of debate that began long before 2002 about the effectiveness of the Creative Economy idea. It seems that Florida is less an innovator than a synthesizer and popularizer whose genius, like Henry Ford’s, is to integrate advances by others and put them into production.

The book is a kind of echo chamber for academics and policy-makers, with authors citing each other’s works and taking positions on sometimes narrow questions of economic and cultural policy. The authors worry about how to define creativity, whether it resides in the individual or in the collective enterprise, how to measure its economic impact, the effectiveness of creative clusters, how exportable creative policy is, and how to avoid homogenization and gentrification. Defining creativity broadly to encompass technological innovation encompasses videogame developers, the focus of an article that addresses why all Asian cultures except Japan are imitators rather than innovators.

Most of these pieces originate in social democracies in northern Europe or the more authoritarian national cultures of China and Singapore, where government has a big footprint and there is less debate about whose culture is being promoted. So why has the Creative Economy thesis become so popular here in the US, where we tend to rely on private philanthropy rather than government to enrich domestic life? Perhaps because it provides a pragmatic rationale for public support for cities and for the arts which overcomes the culture wars about elitism.

But the book’s many competing voices suggest that these policies may prove trickier to implement than they appear. Once you frame the goal as economic development, cultural excellence becomes secondary. And it’s hard to engineer serendipity anyway, so maybe all you can do is to create the circumstances that allow it to arise and hope for the best.


The American College Town by Blake Gumprecht (University of Massachusetts Press, 2008)

The American College Town cover

Blake Gumprecht is passionate about college towns. He has spent most of his adult life in them and has written a lively and engaging book that should be required reading for the many architects and planners in Greater Boston charged with mediating the divide between town and gown, from Berkeley to Bangor and hundreds of places in between.

A professor of geography at the University of New Hampshire, Gumprecht begins with an excellent history of the college town and why it is a uniquely American phenomenon. He focuses a keen geographer’s eye on the subject and has definitely done his legwork, traveling to dozens of places and interviewing a full range of students, faculty, administrators, politicians, and townies. He provides exhaustive — sometimes too exhaustive — details about the demographics and makeup of college towns, and how to distinguish one from a place that merely has higher education in its midst. But it’s sometimes difficult to understand why he lavishes attention on certain places at the expense of others — we hear far too much about Ithaca, New York and the Kansas towns of Lawrence and Manhattan, for example. Oddly, for a man who teaches in New England, our region is strangely underrepresented in the book, as is the South. Geographic diversity, anyone?

Gumprecht and his fellow collegetown habitués seem at times a little too satisfied with themselves: “Youthful and eclectic, unusually cosmopolitan for towns of their size, with more bookstores and bars per capita than other cities, the business districts of college towns display a free-spirited distinctiveness…”

But having provided this overly gushing description early on, he redeems himself later by pointing out how college-town residents seem to personify our national culture of contradiction. They see themselves as bastions of tolerance, eccentricity, and freedom, but don’t want rowdy student neighbors; they claim to be for the underdog, but don’t want any housing development that might attract new residents or erode their own property values. He takes to task the left-leaning residents of a major California college town as follows: “There is ample evidence to suggest that support for liberal causes in Davis has been unreliable, selective and motivated more by selfishness than concern for the greater public good.” Go Gumprecht!

The author ends on a positive note — not only are college towns not going anywhere, but they also stand to be the winners in the ongoing national competition for the “knowledge economy.” But college towns are like “artsy” neighborhoods — once they become a bit too smug and affluent, they lose the funky authenticity that made them special to begin with. It is this funkiness that Gumprecht celebrates, and he’s not afraid to point out that, sometimes, the enemies of local collegetown character are the very ones who claim to be its champions.

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