Pioneers and Gentrifiers: Rotterdam’s Creative Class 1970-2000

March 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

If the early seventies were a mythical time for New York’s art scene, it is at the end of the decade, and at the beginning of the eighties, that Rotterdam will experience the peak of a creative season whose aura has indelibly marked the next thirty years of its history – a feeling that was still very strong when I first moved here in 2007, right in time to have a taste of the good days before the 2008 crunch hit. Patricia van Ulzen describes this phenomenon in her Imagine a Metropolis: Rotterdam’s Creative Class1979-2000 (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2007), a book that draws on her PhD thesis and that somehow fluctuates between academic dissertation and journalistic report on the golden age of a city that has gone from dirty cargo port to glittering mecca of the creative industry in less than fifty years.

As an inhabitant of Rotterdam, I found van Ulzen’s  story fascinating but ultimately pretty sad. She traces the history of the most important underground venues of the city, highlighting the significance these places had as incubator of spontaneous culture. She explains how Rotterdam has been for a while one of the main centres of the New Wave and Punk movements; how a depressed, dirty, raw industrial city in decay became an ideal playground for the provocations of young artists. She makes us envious of the crazy nights organized at Hal 4 by the Utopia Collective and of the sheer energy that should have animated the working sessions of iconoclastic magazine “Hard Werken”.

But, there is always a but. The fact is, all this electrifying creativity is simply not there anymore. It is not there because in time both the public administration and the market have tended to institutionalize what was a spontaneous wave that was unavoidably dampened by being put on a pedestal. The moment that the creative class ceased to be “bad, mad, and dangerous to know” it became yet one more wheel into the well-oiled apparatus of city branding. Van Ulzen does talk about this dynamic, but she tends to give a positive appraisal to the result of a thirty-year-long process that, seen from the point of view of my generation, seems to be burdened by a much more somber judgment. As the author feels that Rotterdam is a success story, she also tends to stress the importance of the grassroots initiative without seeing that the seemingly ‘spontaneous’ scene has been artificially kept alive for decades by a mixture of public funds and corporate contributions.

What one could actually read between the lines in van Ulzen’s narrative is a textbook transition from a good-oriented industry to a service-oriented one; or, the story of how an underground current of creativity became the main engine of a market shift that repositioned Rotterdam from traditional logistic hub to centre of immaterial production. Rotterdam’s Creative Class has the clear ambition to give back the ‘alternative’ scene its deserved place in the story of the construction of Rotterdam’s urban identity. It is surely a generous pursuit but also one that runs the risk of ending in a politically correct mystification that hides the fact that, after a burst of spontaneous initiative, the so-called Creative Class has simply become the handmaiden of a market-driven economy that has canned every scrap of idea into a saleable, appealing product: Rotterdam as a brand.

(about the role of architecture in all this story, posts will follow).

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