Kingston’s Lang Tannery is now an “Innovation District.”

Bruce Katz, Director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution thinks that 2014 will be a watershed year for Innovation Districts. The Innovation District is a cluster of R&D institutions and tech firms centralized in one urban district. Typically start-up companies and spin-offs open their offices nearby. One theory of urban innovation argues that geographical proximity makes professional networking easier and promotes the cross dissemination of ideas. These Innovation Districts are a big change for the way the technology industry works. As Katz explains, the dominant model of the past few decades has been large suburban campuses that are isolated and private. Innovation Districts combine urban revitalization efforts with a growing desire to live in urban cores (see the Google bus that picks up employees in downtown San Francisco and drives them 40 miles to the “Googleplex” near San Jose).

Innovation Districts are usually redeveloped and rebranded industrial districts. Take Kitchener’s Lang Tannery. The large tannery building was on the edge of the downtown core and down the street from several warehouse-condo conversions in the making. After redevelopment the building now houses a number of tech offices (including Google and OpenText), a pub, a Balzac’s and, oddly, several martial arts gyms. The city is now calling the former warehouse area by the railroad tracks the Innovation District. Katz touts these redevelopments as the new geography of innovation and admires the way public-private investments create public-private spaces, without considering the way the rules of consumer behaviour blur with ownership (can I sit here with impunity or do I have to buy something at Starbucks?).

The tech industry buzz words and the vaunted “collisions of ideas” seem like a smokescreen for the development of high-priced condos, luxury shops and unaffordable social spaces. Katz gives us the example of the CEO of Zappos, who moved his company from a suburban headquarters to downtown Las Vegas. Zappos’s head honcho vaunts himself for getting into the business of city-building and poses as an innovator in urban planning as much as in online retail. But the tech industry is only following a trend headed by governments and real estate developers. The factories that built these now industrial zones to begin with followed big infrastructure changes, too. First they clustered around waterfronts and canals. When the railways were built, they were located along trunks and spur lines. When the automobile came to prominence and intra-urban expressways increased access within vast suburban areas, the factories moved to huge industrial parks similar to the suburban tech campuses currently housing Google and Apple. Moving these companies into downtown cores is part of a deliberate campaign to “take back” downtown from blight, poverty, and crime, though the governments and developers who undertake these campaigns are largely responsible for the same.

Through the processes of rezoning, policing, and upscaling, cities are remodeled to create class homogeneity for the comfort of targeted customers. There will simply be nowhere that anybody not in the elite class can afford to go, while highly policed “public-private” spaces make it easier than ever to oust loiterers and the homeless from common grounds like parks and city squares. The Innovation District is a dressed-up name for a concerted effort to price out and exclude any creative freedom that exists outside of corporate business environments.

New ideas are produced by this culture of creative freedom, not chic redevelopment schemes. Tech start-up culture exists because of a desire to come up with ideas and products independent of giants like Apple and Google. Less profitable ventures that are by no means less socially valuable rely on affordable space, whether that means housing, offices, studios, or social spaces where people with ideas can afford to gather.

Why do I bring this up on a blog for a literary journal? Katz doesn’t mention it, but arts-washing goes hand-in-hand with the creation of these elite geographies. Whether it’s the inclusion of an art gallery in a new condo development, Literary Arts at the Harbourfront Centre, or just the posters at Balzac’s coffee shops, “art” is transformed into a facsimile of itself and plastered all over these sterile, corporate spaces to create an illusion of vibrancy and cultural “innovation.” The frantic scramble to invent the new app is paving over important urban districts to the exclusion of any other use. The developers that make these digital hubs remain selfish and shortsighted when it comes to city building.

To go back to Kitchener’s Innovation District, even Allied Properties’ REIT, known for repurposing old buildings, intends to knock down a nearby annex to the Tannery to expand a parking lot. Indoor space is neither abundant nor especially cheap in downtown Kitchener, although the area is gutted with surface parking lots and the city’s latest large project was building a downtown parking garage. The language of creative industries used on developments like the Lang Tannery and the imitations of artistic work space like Balzac’s coffee shops create the paper-thin image of the cities where people would like to live. Bringing well-paying jobs and new residents into the cores of cities like Kitchener, St. Louis, or Atlanta are great things, and necessary if the proliferation of parking lots and brownfield space is going to stop.

However, pretending that the Lang Tannery is the next British Museum Reading Room  only serves developers. When Kitchener needed to look creative and vibrant, it brought in two Toronto franchises to provide social space. Arts-washing uses an imaginary version of artistic production to rebrand warehouses and make them seem “cool” to the young and salaried while simultaneously evicting and excluding non-corporate artistic and social uses.

For a more local example, one could turn to Pages Bookstore on Toronto’s Queen West. It folded in 2009. For a decade it proved immune to competition from a Chapters one block south and persisted as online bookselling grew. According to Pages’ owner, the reason was the (undervalued) $235,000 he was paying in rent each year. Pages’s old storefront is now the sales centre for the nearby Picasso on Richmond Condominiums. Toronto doesn’t have an Innovation District, but the arts-washing is the same here as in the redevelopments Bruce Katz praises.

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