Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Taking a culture lesson from Geneva

The grunge club L'Usine in Geneva/Delphine Rieder
By Barry Johnson

In Geneva, Switzerland, the authorities decided to "sterilize" the city, according to a Genevan quoted by Matthew Saltmarsh in the New York Times.  The bacteria they eliminated? The city's youth culture, which had become too rambunctious for one of the world's leading financial centers to tolerate.

Led by a Center-Right mayor, Geneva cracked down on squats, closed down clubs for health violations and strictly enforced noise ordinances. And in the process, the city managed to start a cultural brain drain, as theater, electronica and dance fans and artists started leaving the city. The key paragraph in the story:
“In Geneva, there’s nothing between L’Usine and the large commercial clubs,” said Marie-Avril Berthet, a dance music D.J. and sociologist. “Small clubs or bars with dancing have completely disappeared. And we’re asking: Do we want a corporate city or do we want a creative city? We think we can have both.” 
L'Usine is a city-supported alternative space, which is one of the few remaining clubs catering to the city's counter-culture.  Yes, city-supported. Geneva pours around a million dollars a year into the space, which has a restaurant, bars, a record store, theater, cinema and two large performing/dance spaces.

Does Geneva have anything to tell American cities, specifically the one Arts Dispatch calls home? On the face of it, not so much. Portland is famously the home of a thriving alt.culture. A national TV show makes fun of us for it on a weekly basis, though it's gentle fun. But a few years ago, Geneva was famous for its underground arts scene, too, especially its electronica dance scene.  A little concerted action by the City government and it started to melt away.

Now, on the face of it, Geneva and Portland have little in common, and though their metropolitan areas have about the same number of people (more than 2 million), you have to extend Geneva's far enough to include the cities of Lausanne and Bern to achieve our numbers. Geneva proper is a old, dense, rich little city of around 200,000; Portland proper is looser, poorer, younger and has a population of 580,000.

Another big difference, at least to Arts Dispatch: Geneva spends $245.7 million on direct support to the arts. That puts the $1 million to support an alternative space in context. Portland invests around $3.5 million directly into the Regional Arts and Culture Council. We would have to invest more than $500 million to reach the per capita expenditure of Geneva. I can't even imagine what an intelligent investment of $500 million per year would mean to the arts in Portland, but I'd like to see it happen. (Why do American cities experiment more with how little they can fund the arts instead of what they could do if they invested a lot?)

I do know that it would mean next to nothing without the bubbling of alternative and youth culture. Geneva has convened a committee to explore its new problem -- how to add bacteria to its sterile environment, how to re-kindle the excitement of a creative city, as opposed to that of a rich one.  You can harry and zone the kids out of existence if you want, if you're offended by their excess or their nose-thumbing, but then you're left with a sanitized culture that very closely resembles "dead."

Two issues in Portland immediately came to mind when I read this story. The first is the Rose Quarter, where the Blazers and the City seem determined to create a sanitized "entertainment district," for chain clubs and restaurants, though now they've added some suburban office-park embellishments to the original plan. I thought, "This is exactly what the Swiss would do -- program in an entertainment district that they can regulate down to the molecular level. And then American corporations would extract every cent possible from those molecules." This isn't culture; it's the death of culture. (I have written about the Rose Quarter many times now, most recently here.)

The second is Last Thursday, the art fair on NE Alberta St., the heart of alternative Portland in many ways.  Can't we solve the primary problem with some of those fancy new Portland Loo portable toilets stationed at regular intervals along the street? And shouldn't we be encouraging outlets of this sorts, for public expressions strange and even repulsive, because they are a necessary valve for the pressures (social, creative, political) that build up in a city? And if it costs the city a few thousand dollars to make sure things don't get truly out of hand and to clean up a bit afterward, isn't that money well spent? Actually, the King Neighborhood Association's suggestions (at the bottom of the link above) represent a reasonable adaptation for the event as it has grown over the years.

What makes a city vital and creative? I'm not sure there's one recipe, and certainly not one recipe for all time.  But I do think a little breathing room is necessary, some marginal space, an atmosphere that encourages consideration of the previously unthinkable. Cities need some regulation, but they can also become over-regulated. They need to work economically, but they empty of meaningful content when that's the only way they work. And that's whether they are Geneva or Portland and some city in between.

3 comments:

ID Branding said...

Thanks for this, Barry. Insightful to say the least. And a fair warning to our fair city. Everyone here parades the fact that Portland is known as an art city. Yet how many actually support that, either with buying art or with our collective city funds?

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