The city that has eaten itself up

US sociologist Saskia Sassen explains how finance deprives cities of their livability.

Saskia Sassen Foto: Alexander Chitsazan
Sociologist Saskia Sassen was the first researcher to point out the negative consequences of gentrification.
25 years later she is regarded as one of the most influential scholars in the fields of globalization, immigration, and the impact of economic development on cities and their inhabitants. In her latest book “expulsions,” Sassen deals with the problems resulting from the growing inequality and unemployment in our society. In her talk with the VIENNA ART WEEK magazine she explains why the current situation is more drastic than it has ever been before, how we can make a difference and what role artists play in making a city livable.

Expulsions can increasingly be noticed in Europe: in Spain, half of the teenagers are excluded from the educational or workpath, thousands of Austrian kids don’t have proper access to healthcare. These are just a few examples. Why are more and more people expelled from the common good?
Saskia Sassen: Capitalism had its best moment in the West in the post-World War II era, when it was centered on mass consumption. Since it was connected to mass production, every person’s consumption capacity mattered. Today that has been broken. The new core dynamic that drives the economy has to do with a completely different logic: finance can reach ultimate levels of profit without dealing with consumers. It just doesn’t care about them. The result is a shrinking importance of consumption, leading to a greater number of low-wage workers, fewer unionized workers – in short: the working class is getting poorer and the middle class is on the decline. At some point, when you have been unemployed for a long time, you become invisible to the statistics and to the whole concept of joblessness. The term doesn’t capture the radicalness of being so out of the market. These are expulsions.

In your book you argue that not only people, but also pieces of land are affected by expulsion.
Saskia Sassen: I call it dead land. When a piece of land is so toxic it cannot be used, it’s out. We have huge terrains that are no longer active; they might as well not exist. So you have a shrunken operational territory. War can be a shrinker, as well as land derogation, but also massive numbers of people who simply have nothing. To call the thousands and thousands of people who managed to cross, coming from war-zones in Syria or sub-Saharan Africa, migrants, is incorrect. For them, it is not about the search for a “better” life, which is the historic definition of an immigrant – these are people in search for the bare possibility of life. Current categories and vocabularies like “inequality,” “social exclusion” and “migration” are not enough to capture these extreme conditions.

Ever fewer people can afford living in their own city. Why are so many governments “buying out” to corporates?
Saskia Sassen: As our national governments are getting poorer and national debts are increasing, politicians view investment positively. In my opinion it’s a very short-term view. They don’t see what it does to a city. After the crisis of 2008, private investors and companies started buying urban land. The numbers grow extraordinarily: Amsterdam Randstad had a 420 % increase of private investors from 2013 to 2014. For the top 100 cities, the profit of private property is around 600 billion dollars – in just one year! I think Vienna is high up in the list.

In the center of Vienna we have a big poster saying: “You don’t have to live in these apartments to love Vienna. Owning them will do.”
Saskia Sassen: Incredible. This is happening in so many cities. In London the saying goes: the city that has eaten itself up. Calling it “to buy an apartment” is just hiding the buying out of rural and urban land. Because with huge mega-projects and empty luxury apartments you eliminate life in the little streets and messy squares. The center of London to a very large extent is losing its nice neighborhoods. No one can afford living there anymore. In Brooklyn, a Chinese company bought the Atlantic Yard, once filled with little art spaces and manufacturing studios, making it the biggest foreign private investment in the US. You know, it was a huge, very alive urban tissue. And now it's going to be completely erased.

Some would argue that modern building projects and big office spaces increase a city's urbanity ...
Saskia Sassen: Let’s think about what a city is – it is not about density. What brings a city to life is that it's a really big, vibrant frontier space, where actors from different worlds are going to encounter each other. You need a flexible urban tissue, so that new activities can keep installing themselves. Once the space is filled up with mega-projects that privatize urban tissue, you’ve lost that excitement, and exchange the people-centered urbanity for a building-centered urbanity. Even if they look impressive and increase the density, these projects may in fact be deurbanizing.

What's the role of an active art scene in keeping urban tissue alive?
Saskia Sassen: Artists have always been the ones to draw average people to live in the cities. Due to them the edges of the city keep expanding and being exciting rather than turning into dead zones. They urbanize space, whereas a big corporate mega-project deurbanizes space.

Can you give an example?
Saskia Sassen: When my son, a film artist, moved to London, he and other artists squatted a building in one of those industrial zones. There was a law that gave them three months to leave, once they were expelled – well, three months was all they needed to organize a big show in the area. That is what art manages to do: a space that was dead becomes alive again. What artists want is space! They don’t need to own it; they want to do a show. So the edges of the cities become interesting again. Manhattan, a once buzzing district, today is said to only sell art. Art galleries and music producers move directly to Brooklyn. The posh new Whitney Museum left its fancy neighborhood and moved to the former Meatpacking District. At the opening, they pulled out art that hadn’t been shown for 30 years, instead of installation art. Suddenly they presented these complex paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe it was like a little revolution. I think that is the start of a whole new era in the art scene.

Why's that?
Saskia Sassen: I feel that installation art is really the phase of the curator. In the last 30 years you had a whole set of curators who are incredibly educated and amazingly good at narrating. When you see a little installation by itself, not much happens, but when you read the text, you go “Wow”. I think that this phase is coming to an end. The big galleries want stuff, so they return to big sculptures. Once you have a very big sculpture, the curator has less of a role. It's going to generate a whole different generation of curators.

Also, the next generation of artists will struggle: their average income in Austria is around 4,500 euros. Next to them, a few stars exist.
Saskia Sassen: Yes, but these stars are made. They are made by the intermediate structure that is dominating our economy. Museums or curators are judges. They discern, because they know about art. Galleries, on the other hand, they’ll make sure that someone with star material becomes famous, because then they get millions. The system of intermediaries produces stars – in Hollywood and in the art world.

With less left for the others ...
Saskia Sassen: That’s the idea of intermediation in economy. Every year the UK sells tons of milk to France. And guess what: France sells the same amount to the UK. We’re talking about milk! So you stand back and think: “Who benefits from this?” Milk farmers may get less, consumers have to pay more – but the intermediaries can’t lose. That is a very dangerous economic system. And finance is the ultimate intermediary.

How can people actively make a difference?

Saskia Sassen: We have to activate every part of the city. Relocalize instead of franchise. Open up small shops yourself! Franchise always takes part of the consumption capacity out of the community, whereas the local recirculates it. It's also about political economy: people have to feel like they are actors in their community. The notion “I matter” – from the grandmother to the child, including the homeless person – makes a huge difference. By now the economic inequality has become so extreme that the old system doesn't function anymore. Urban gardening and small cultural spaces are popping up everywhere. In New York, discovering young, small artist scenes is much cooler than being a “consumer” of a huge exhibition. You see all these shifts that relocalize the question of talent, of food, of access. It is not yet the solution, but more and more partial elements begin to build up. And in the meantime, in my view, don't worry about the corporate center. It will bring itself down.

Saskia Sassen,
“At the systemic edge: Where even the material becomes invisible”
Fri., 20 Nov. 2015
6:00 pm
KUNST HAUS WIEN, Untere Weissgerberstrasse, 1030 Vienna
in english
Artikel vonText by Salomea Krobath:
Salomea Krobath studied social and Chinese sciences in the Netherlands, China and the UK. She has been a freelance reporter with the news magazine “profil” since 2014.