A book review of The Creative Underclass: Youth, Race, and the Gentrifying City by Tyler Denmead
In his book The Creative Underclass: Youth, Race, and the Gentrifying City, professor, artist, and author Tyler Denmead draws upon his own experience as an undergraduate at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island – when he founded an organization called New Urban Arts in 1997 – to problematize an all-too-common scheme: cities utilizing the arts, culture, and creativity to revitalize their dormant post-war economies. In this effort’s early days, the organization’s staff – young, affluent outsiders who came to Providence to attend university – comprise the city’s much-desired and newly minted arts and culture “community.” Under the banner of New Urban Arts, they mentor and work with local youth from parts of the population that have long suffered from economic stagnation. What Denmead dubs the “creative underclass” comprises the youth – by turns labeled “underprivileged,” “troubled,” or “economically disadvantaged” – who desire to achieve in the arts what their mentors already have, but whose inherent creativity is rarely acknowledged or valued. In so doing, Denmead exposes how something like “creativity” can not only be exploited for profit, but also managed – the implications of which are compelling, fascinating, even disturbing. However relatively narrow in scope this may seem at first, Denmead’s experience and concerns are indicative of macro-processes crucial to understanding certain social and geographic developments currently taking shape across the United States.
Denmead begins The Creative Underclass by reflecting on why he decided to found New Urban Arts. He furthermore explains that while this program “helped create the pedagogic conditions for young people to develop and to theorize creative cultural practices that have troubled their subjectification as culturally deprived members of an underclass,” he nonetheless was also a “gentrifying force…who helped reconfigure Providence at the expense of these youth participants” (1). Crucially, as he continues, “[t]his irreconcilable record unfolded as the city transformed itself, through the discourses of youth and creativity, from a depressed postindustrial city into a young and hip, affluent and white lifestyle destination” (2). As such, as Denmead explains, a “new kind of citizen-subject” was emerging, what he would call the “creative underclass” – defined as
minoritized and marginalized young people who have grown up in cities before they were branded creative but are summoned to enact cultural performances that become legible within the context of creative-led urban renewal as creative. These performances become enmeshed in the reproduction of their subordinate class futures and the reconfiguration of urban space for the economic and cultural benefit of whiteness (3).
In the introduction, Denmead touches upon such issues as Providence’s history of immigration and discrimination, as well as its most recent urban-renewal initiative called “Creative Capital,” which will loom throughout the text. He also details his own struggles with his position as a privileged White man, the defunding of the arts even as they were promoted in urban-renewal projects, and the tethering of such programming to governmental whims and agendas. Notably, he also introduces a binary between those considered “troubled youth” and “creative youth,” which is key to grasping the mindset of the progenitors of the city’s urban-renewal project. Programs and organizations such as New Urban Arts, under the banner of Creative Capital, were meant to transform underprivileged youth from the former to the latter. However, Denmead’s critique of this binary serves as a major theme throughout the text; not only does he unpack the racist and classist assumptions behind the word “troubled,” he also exposes the powerlessness that many creatives suffer as municipal arts funding stagnates or even declines.
The first three chapters of The Creative Underclass focus on practices that Denmead documents in his ethnographic fieldwork. The chapters are named after their respective practices: “Troublemaking,” “The Hot Mess,” and “Chillaxing.” From his interviews with Gabriela, a former student and later mentor at New Urban Arts, Denmead identifies what she refers to as “troublemaking” as a common occurrence in the studio. Building upon Gabriela’s “theorizing,” Denmead believes that the space allows the participants to engage in the mischief that they would otherwise be unable, due to the threat of punishment and their subaltern backgrounds. Based upon his own impressions of the bustling studio space, filled with energetic young art-makers, Denmead interprets the chaos as a “Hot Mess” – a “popular slang term that refers to someone or something that is in obvious disarray but remains enchanting and attractive in spite of it, or perhaps because of it” (46). Speaking to the program’s staff, he gathers that this chaos worked, in that the young people stayed and made art, and that there was actually a structure present, just not one either the staff or the young participants readily recognized. In “Chillaxing,” Denmead lifts the veil on popular notions of what it is like to be an artist, or “creative” in today’s parlance. Even during his tenure at New Urban Arts, Denmead was exposed to the pressures and expectations already pushed upon the young artists-to-be. While urban-renewal initiatives such as Creative Capital may have nurtured such aspirations, however, the youth still faced a dearth of jobs and other opportunities. “Chillaxing” is identified as a practice whereby youth can not only unburden themselves from but also consciously defy such concerns, taking that inestimable time they may need for themselves but find ever more difficult to afford.
After explaining and lauding the agentic potential of the above practices, Denmead devotes the following three chapters to detail the social, political, racial, cultural, and economic ramifications of urban-renewal projects in Providence and elsewhere. The chapter titled “Why the Creative Underclass Doesn’t Get Creative Class Jobs” is especially enlightening; in it, Denmead recalls observing an applicant interview for an artist-mentor position at New Urban Arts and duly notes the applicant’s dress and their chosen lifestyle – below the means that their far-away parents can afford and in alternative to the mainstream. The applicant, Denmead explains, is representative of a creative ideal type whom the backers of the urban-renewal project will exploit for profit. In fact, many of the young people whom Denmead encounters aspire to this creative-yet-precarious status. As Denmead states, “[a] creative underclass does not demand economic mobility and at the same time contributes to the street-level cultural scene that is so key to the city’s new gentrifying-enabling brand” (4).
In the chapter titled “Autoethnography of a ‘Gentrifying Force,’” Denmead lays out how the urban renewal/gentrification dynamic is celebrated in the media through the example of a mural featured in a New York Times article on a local artist’s neighborhood – implicating not only her, but her work, New Urban Arts, and Denmead. The amusingly titled chapter “Is This Really What White People Do in the Creative Capital?” considers the aesthetics of gentrification when this process is underway, from themed restaurants to gimmicky attractions. Yet in the conclusion, Denmead reiterates that he still believes in what New Urban Arts has done and continues to do, while offering alternatives both for people like him and for the so-called “creative underclass,” primarily inspired by the practices of “Troublemaking,” “The Hot Mess,” and “Chillaxing.”
Denmead confesses that The Creative Underclass is a reflection in the form of a reckoning. He mainly draws upon his own experiences, as a teacher-mentor and later a visitor at New Urban Arts. In other words, Denmead primarily references his own professional and work experience, his observations of young people active in the program, and his data gathered from interviewing the program’s participants, past and present. Denmead could be a subject of his own ethnography, after all – as he lived through part of the larger narrative, and it is also his voice doing the narrating.
American cities, responding to decades of post-war stagnation, have enacted urban-renewal initiatives in order to revitalize their economies. Central to this effort have been programs promoting the arts and culture. As a student at Brown, Denmead answered the call of these programs, not only staying to be part of a desired arts and culture community, but also to help transform local “troubled” youth into “creatives.” Throughout this process, however, local youth have never and will never reap the true benefits of the initiative. Even their more artistically inclined efforts have never been duly acknowledged, and what awaits them in the arts and culture community of the city is largely a severe lack of funding and opportunities. Many will thus be rendered politically and economically powerless, reinforcing their status as a “creative underclass.” Denmead is nonetheless successful in at least hinting at the vast implications of this unfortunate outcome. Within the literature on urban renewal and gentrification, Denmead’s contribution is important for the personal dimension of his analysis as well as for its consideration of how creativity, a perceived innately human ability, can be channeled and managed by economic elites to serve the end goal of gentrification.
Arthur Ivan Bravo is a writer and educator based in New York City. He holds an MA in Anthropology from the New School for Social Research, and an MS in Education from Long Island University.