Review: Sharon Zukin, Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change (1989)

A few years ago, the New York Times ran a feature story on the “Bohemians” of that city, understanding, by that term, the denizens of Soho. The Times asked what differentiated the post-modern artists of Soho from the bohemians of a generation ago, the practicioners of “genteel poverty” in the cold-water flats of Greenwich Village and Little Italy in the 1950’s. The basic difference, the Times discovered and reported straight-facedly, between the “garrets and pretenders” of yesteryear and their ostensible successors of the 1980’s was that the latter-day “Bohemians” had incomes averaging $150,000 per year. Genteel poverty, in a word, had given way to gentrification. Or, as a Paris wall slogan put it succintly, “culture is the commodity that sells all the others”. There was a time, up to the end of the 1960’s, when a certain kind of cultural radicalism seemed to many people to offer a “space” for opposition to the dominant social order. Indeed, prior to the onset of the world economic crisis of the 1970’s, many people drawn to such cultural opposition believed themselves to be at ground zero of the “contested terrain” of a capitalism that had relegated “economic issues” to the museum. By the early 1980’s, 10 or 15 years later, it turned out that most people in America were getting poorer, not richer, and that 1960’s “cultural radicalism” and its contemporary “post-modern” successor had been a way of recycling “lifestyles” to accomodate social austerity. Oblivious to economic reality, cultural radicalism had been, among other things, a school for accomodation to conditions of the sharply contracted material reproduction of society as a whole. Marginal bohemians and industrial workers were driven from cities like Manhattan and were replaced by gentrified yuppies and the homeless Lumpenproletariat. In recent years, a number of books have appeared that have begun to connect Bohemia and the cultural avant-garde to the recycling of bourgeois ideology in general and to changes in patterns of consumption in particular. Serge Guilbaut’s study of abstract expressionism, T.J. Clark’s study of impressionism, and Jerrold Seigel’s study of Paris Bohemia have all in different ways contributed to a demonstration that the cultural radicals were not quite so radical, and that the alternatives to the dominant order they seemed to embody were not so freely chosen as they or their admirers might have thought. Sharon Zukin, in contrast to these authors (all art or intellectual historians) has brought to this problematic the tools of the urban economist. The result, Loft Living, is a study in the relationship between “cultural production” and its social and economic context which is exemplary in its rejection of any reductionist relationship between one and the other. As an economist, Zukin is less interested than Guilbaut, Clark or Seigel in connecting the content of the artistic production she describes to the economic transformation of urban middle-class “lifestyles” (and in reality the “lifestyles” as a total package of consumption are more important than the art works that give them their panache). But she provides the overwhelming compensation of an economist’s skepticism that the content of ideologies is the key to their meaning in total social practice. Indeed, Zukin may have written the first book about post-modernism that is entirely free of post-modernism’s stultifying, and pretentious jargon. She may also have written the first book connecting post-modernism to de-industrialization and economic austerity. Whatever the case, her densely-argued book will interest readers of many backgrounds and should become a model for studies in how ideologies are materialized in real social relations and practice. Let us attempt to summarize the story Zukin has to tell. As early as the 1920’s, New York’s patrician elite had dreamed of emptying Manhattan of its working-class population and the thousands of small factories–many of them in lofts–in which they worked. The purpose of this plan was multiple, but its most important goal was opening up valuable inner-city land for more profitable real estate investment in office space and luxury apartments. The patricians also planned to get the small manufacturers and the workers both coming and going, by driving them out of Manhattan and by selling or, renting them land the banks bought up cheaply in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens. The Depression and World War II interrupted these plans for a couple of decades. But by the early 1950’s a process was underway in which both light industry and the working class it employed were being steadily expelled from the inner city. The initial result, which worked itself out into the early 1970’s, was the creation of depressed and under-utilized urban factory space and run-down residential areas. Most of Zukin’s analysis focuses on Manhattan, which she rightly identifies as an intenational vanguard in this conversion. She points out, however, that the same process was occuring in many other industrial cities in both the U.S. and Europe. Zukin nonetheless emphasizes that the de-industrialization of Manhattan was no mere economic process. Politics, and ultimately the politics of culture, were involved. The plans of the patrician elite could not proceed smoothly while the small manufacturers and the inner-city work force wielded political clout through the Democratic Party clubhouse; only with the election of patrician member John Lindsay in 1965 was the old machine pushed aside, and the process accelerated. But something else of fundamental importance also occured in the post-war period: the patrician elite itself had discovered modern art and the state promotion of art as an important tool. This discovery took place on many levels. There are the obvious ones of private collectors and tax breaks for certain kinds of cultural promotion (Zukin alludes only briefly, in the footnotes, to the lesser-known use, by the CIA, of abstract expressionism to combat Stalinist “social realism”, particularly in Europe). But by the 1960’s, the patricians had become aware of what a large institutional constituency “cultural production” had become in Manhattan, estimated by Citibank in 1980 to have brought $1.5 billion into the city’s economy, not least of all in tourism. Also by the 1960’s, the art market in Manhattan’s galleries had begun to generate previously. unheard-of prices for modern art works. New York’s postwar displacement of Paris as the metropolis of world culture had become a major economic fact of life. Thus, in Zukin’s view, with accelerating de-industrialization and the patrician discovery of modernism, two essential pieces of the puzzle were in place. But a further essential ingredient was the emergence of the artists themselves, fighting a protracted war with landlords, city agencies and zoning laws for state recognition and support of their alternative “lifestyle”. Only when this happened could the aesthetic, and then economic “revalorization” of abandoned factory and warehouse districts take place. The artist’s studio, as a combined work and living space, had become, by the 1960’s, an object of fascination for middle-class and patrician tastes; in the larger context of growing cultural sophistication and consumption of such groups over the postwar period. This fascination was also part of a larger shift in cultural attitudes, toward the “smaller, more human” scale of a vanished phase of industrialism, a sensibility toward former sweatshops that an earlier generation of workers could hardly have developed. The decaying ex-industrial environment and the new taste for modernist culture among both the patrician elite and the broader middle class were cathected into an “object of desire” by pioneer artists living illegally, for years, in lofts converted to residential and studio space at initially very low rents. By the 1970’s, loft dwellers had won legal recognition of their right to reside in loft space in key sections of lower Manhattan and loftlords and real estate developers had discovered a potential gold mine. By the end of the 1970’s, the less-affluent sector of the cultural proletariat had been priced out of the areas it had helped to revalorize, and presumably left to begin the cycle anew in Brooklyn, Jersey City and Perth Amboy. What Zukin has done, in short, is to present an ideology in the making, refusing to attribute its creation to faceless economic forces or unilateral actions by ruling elites, but rather insisting on the multi-sided agency of different groups in shaping it and institutionalizing what was an unforeseeable result of many conflicting trends and actors. This is not the least of her book’s merits. Stepping back from the immediate focus of Manhattan and its analogues elsewhere, I will conclude with some secondary criticisms of Loft Living. These criticisms spring perhaps less from internal flaws of Zukin’s book than from less-developed sides of her analysis. Loft Living would be even stronger than it is if it located, if only briefly, the recycling of Manhattan’s industrial space in at least a national context of the changing relationship between the service and manufacturing sectors of the U.S. economy. Zukin refers on occasion to a distinction between productive and unproductive labor which is not developed. She refers in passing to the way in which international financial flows, through the mediation of New York’s banks, have a direct impact on real estate and the housing market in Manhattan. These are all, like the real weight of de-industrialization in the U.S. economy, controversial questions in economics which could hardly be solved in a monograph as focused as Zukin’s. But I bring them up because they are crucial in determining something fundamental about the phenomenon she is describing: the material reproduction of American society as a whole, more popularly known by the slippery concept of “living standards”, and its expression in the sphere of culture. Zukin points out that de-industrialization is a disaster for the workers it displaces, and also sees that a lot of workers in the new service economy are unproductive. She sees a deep connection between post-modern loft living and economic hardship, at least for some people. But she does not ask the question, critical in my own mind, of what it represents for the “middle classes” themselves who are caught up in it. Zukin points out the steady rise over the past two decades of the percentage of personal incomes in Manhattan (and, obviously, in most of America) that go for housing. But she does not discuss, for example, the significant numbers of middle-class people who have financed their return to the inner city, not with their own (insufficient) incomes, but with help from their parents who, 40 years ago, paid only 10 or 15% of their incomes for housing in the suburbs. She does not discuss the number of households which require two (or more) “professional” incomes to sustain a “loft lifestyle” whose real material content is probably no higher, and may be lower, than what one “middle” or “upper middle” class income could pay for in 1950’s suburbia. She does not discuss the vastly increased cost of raising children at a level comparable to that of a generation ago. I doubt that the “loft lifestyle” has room for very many. These are, as I said, big questions and are largely beyond the pale of Zukin’s book. But I raise them because I have a hunch that an investigation of them would clinch Zukin’s argument. There is no more powerful ideology than one that wraps contracted social reproduction and reduced horizons in the aura of avant-garde lifestyle. (Christopher Lasch, for one, has written some memorable works on this subject.) Zukin, as I said earlier, devotes little attention to the formal aesthetic side of the production of the New York art world since World War II. Nor does she explore the impact on that world of the social explosion of the 1960’s, an impact that still keeps neo-conservative critics like Hilton Kramer up late. To have done so adequately, would undoubtedly have required a second volume. But had she made the attempt, even as a contextual argument, I think she would have shown definitively what she has admirably shown only very suggestively: that “post-modernism” moved to center-stage in very late capitalism because it captures the deeply Malthusian mood of the times, a mood which grows like luxuriant tropical foliage nowhere more abundantly than in Soho lofts.