Who Pays the Piper? Artwashing and the Planned Social Cleansing of Leith
Marxist geographer Neil Smith wrote about new urban frontiers, rent gaps and the vengeful nature of uneven development and gentrification. The intense redevelopment of Leith exhibits many of the classic elements of this form of capital-driven economic expansionism. The town has been undergoing gentrification since the 1980s, but more recently has become known (and has marketed itself) as a hip and cool place – an independent place. Artists, hipsters and other “creatives” have flocked to the area, further fuelling its gentrification. Yet, it is planned development – and this means planned dispossession and displacement of working-class people, ethnic communities, small businesses, etc. – that is responsible for the social and ethnic cleansing of Leith. At its heart are economics and politics, not artists. Neil Smith was clear that gentrification resulted from the marriage of capitalism and global corporate and financial interests. It’s therefore rather ironic that Smith was born in Leith – he was a Leither – because most people fighting gentrification in the town have never heard of him, even though what’s happening there mimics the case studies in his earlier work.
Yet, whilst the decisions to sell-off Leith to the highest bidders were taken by political leaders at local and national level, so were the decisions to use art and the creative industries to support the state-led, planned gentrification of the town. This article explores how Leith’s relatively small creative scene has been and is continuing to be seduced into working with the state and corporate developers as a form of political soft power that leads to a collective artwashing of the town; to the notion that art and its sinister twin “creative placemaking” can “Make Leith Better”. Make Leith better for who? For local people, or for corporate interests? Why anoint artists and creatives as the missionaries of placemaking, of improvement, and, ultimately, of uneven capitalist development driven by accumulation by dispossession. For, as Smith wrote, gentrification is all about “‘making cities livable’ … for the middle class” even though “they have always been ‘livable’ for the working class”.
Regeneration is frequently sold as bringing benefits to everyone – existing working-class residents and middle-class incomers alike – but this is usually untrue. Although it doesn’t and shouldn’t be this way, regeneration in a neoliberal state is all about profit in its most primitive form: profit achieved from theft; from land-grabs. Leith has suffered from a lack of investment – from disinvestment – for a very long time. But that too was planned. The middle-class is now wreaking its revenge on Leith’s working-class – on the town’s communities that have remained incredibly strong throughout numerous hardships. First gentrify the waterfront, then increase tourism; earmark gap sites along Leith Walk for development; encourage arts organisations and artists to use “meanwhile” spaces and the town itself as a canvas; develop gap sites; redeploy the arts to new sites; send in the trams. This is not the end some imagine. Rather, it is the beginning of a vengeful political plan to turn Leith into Edinburgh’s new middle-class quarter.
Once the Leith Walk “corridor” – a route that connects the Michelin Star restaurants at the port with the centre of Edinburgh – is gentrified, “sites” to each side of it will be targeted as new “opportunity areas” – and that means council estates and green spaces. Artists’ studios are already simultaneously moving outward and occupying gap sites. To new sites like, in the case of Edinburgh Palette, an empty office block on Ferry Road and a pop-up box park in Portobello. And to gap sites like, in the case of Out of the Blue, at 165 Leith Walk and the site of the now demolished old tram depot behind it. The role of artists and the creative industries is, as Smith explains, to convert “urban dilapidation into ultra chic” as “block by block” and “building by building”. This is as Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Ryan described it in 1984, “the fine art of gentrification” – and street art, murals, shutter art, art walks, outdoor film events, etc. are all part of art’s role as the commodifier of urban space.
Art functions here to cast Leith as Edinburgh’s “cultural mecca” – a place of consumption; for tourists, art-lovers, hipsters and, finally, for developers and their middle-class clientele (whether buyers of new apartments or temporal residents in student accommodation or hotels). Art, as Smith pointed out, serves to tame places – to create an “exotic” yet benignly dangerous façade. This is the role of creative placemaking to sanitise and normalise creativity – middle-class creativity – in an area previously considered as “dangerous” and a “no-go zone”. This is artwashing. The presence of art and artists ultimately leading to increased house prices and monthly rental costs that displace local residents and businesses and the artists and arts organisations themselves.
So, when property developers and estate agents begin to dominate boards of local arts organisations operating on and around Leith’s “gentrification frontier”, and when the Scottish Government, its agent Creative Scotland, and Edinburgh City Council begin funding most of the “meanwhile” activity around the town, it begins to look as though the planned gentrification of the area (and surrounding areas) is being artwashed. This is state-led artwashing.
The argument here is not to blame artists – an accusation many people often make about my work. Rather, I argue that the state-led artwashing of Edinburgh is (like everywhere) planned and delivered by public-private partnerships. Nevertheless, many boards of arts organisations contain people with clearly (in some instances) and potentially (in other cases) vested interests in the gentrification of Leith and other parts of Edinburgh.
Creative Placemaking duo Morvern Cunningham and Duncan Bremner provide Leith with much of its “street” vibe and its creative “blueprint” to “Make Leith Better”. They operate as Citizen Curator, Leith Creative and Leith Late, often alternating as lead partners for the same funders. They are frequently funded by the Scottish Government, Creative Scotland and Edinburgh City Council. They recently received £70,000 from the Scottish Government and Creative Scotland to develop their previously funded Blueprint into “Make Leith Better” – a series of further consultation events and design charrettes. Their A Wall is a Screen – an outdoor film screening and walk around some of Leith’s working-class areas – received a total of £13,500 for the one-night event from Glasgow 2018 and the bizarrely neoliberal local community fund £eith Chooses. The events are billed as “community engagement” and “audience development” activities but primarily serve to deliver policy outcomes for state planning initiatives as well as helping advertise Leith to fellow creatives. Board members of Citizen Curator include a senior researcher to the Scottish Government and a staff member of Out of the Blue.
Out of the Blue is another Leith-based arts organisation and studio provider which owns the Drill Hall and has studios at Abbeymount. It also runs the Bongo Club. It is funded by Creative Scotland and Edinburgh City Council. It is currently working as a partner in the redevelopment of 165 Leith Walk and the old tram depot behind it, turning the original building (which it used as studios) into new studios and a pop-up box park and artists’ market, amongst other things. The “meanwhile” project has received a total of £1.3 million from the Scottish Government and Edinburgh City Council for a project that will last little more than 4 years before the entire site is redeveloped with a mixed-use development which includes a significant number of new apartments but no reference to social housing at this time. The project is led by public-private partnership Hub South East. The list of directors of Hub South East includes directors of major UK property developer Galliford Try, venture capitalists, estate agents, other property developers, a senior Barclays Bank executive, members of the Scottish Futures Trust, council executives, merchant bankers, business development advisors, etc. Other project partners include NHS Lothian, the Scottish Government, Edinburgh City Council, Capital City Partnership, Reiach and Hall Architects, Morrison Construction (a company owned by Galliford Try), and more.
The trouble is that this development is opposite the currently contested space at Stead’s Place. Drum Property Group is seeking to demolish the site and displace existing businesses. Its actions led to the #SaveLeithWalk campaign which now has more than 12,000 signatories. Drum are partnering with Edinburgh University and massive Tory-supporting housing association Places for People at the site. Yet Out of the Blue have had discussions with Drum and hosted their planning consultations earlier this year. Why? Viewed together, the planned developments at Stead’s Place and at 165 Leith Walk / the old tram depot represent the total renewal of this key section of Leith Walk – its total gentrification. The sites have long been earmarked for development by Edinburgh City Council. The developers and arts organisations are only doing their jobs: the former to develop and make as much money as possible; the latter to provide a “meanwhile” cultural gloss that will artwash the gentrification process and bolster future purchase and rental prices. Drum even (unsurprisingly) suggested that both its temporary boarding of the empty spaces at Stead’s Place and the new development planned to replace them should include “community art”, murals and such like!
This is all rather unsurprising given Out of the Blue’s board of directors. Phil Denning is a senior figure in the Scottish Government’s Education Scotland and on the boards of various film festivals in Edinburgh (via his role at the Centre for the Moving Image). Vanessa Boyd has links to the Edinburgh Festival and Creative Scotland. Gregor Mair is a once-disgraced solicitor who now works for Gibson Kerr estate agents in Leith. Dr David Stevenson is a well-respected academic at Queen Margaret University Edinburgh who specialises in cultural policy and cultural management. There are others too. However, it is interesting to note the Out of the Blue director Mike Davidson is also a board member of Creative Edinburgh – a network organisation that lists many of the people mentioned here as members. Creative Edinburgh is also funded by Creative Scotland and Edinburgh City Council.
And the Out of the Blue project at the old tram depot is also a project which was set up by Stephen Oswald who was Hub South East Development Manager until 2017. He still plays a role in the development, although it is uncertain as to who he is now working for, other than his current company – none other than Places for People Scotland where he is a director and its chair. Will Places for People Scotland deliver the housing planned for the Leith tram depot site? Oswald was only appointed to the board of Places for People Scotland in April 2018. And he has also been a director of Edinburgh Palette since 2015.
Edinburgh Palette will be moving out of its long-term “meanwhile” space at St. Margaret’s House in Meadowbank in 2019 because the building has been purchased by none other than Drum Property Group. The development partner is Places for People Scotland. So, Oswald is a director for the arts organisation on the one-hand and the development agent on the other. He is also still involved in the Hub South East project on Leith Walk mentioned above. Of course, Edinburgh Palette will be moving to the two new sites to the east and west of Leith where the organisation will provide artists studios in “meanwhile” spaces whilst generating the sort of buzz that developers love – the hum of rising property prices and the widening of rent gaps.
Artwashing seems to have came relatively late to Edinburgh but the city seems to have embraced it wholeheartedly as, egged on by the Scottish Government, it sells its once neglected areas to national property developers and housing associations backed by global investors and investment funds. Artists are mere pawns. It is inevitable they will be displaced because that’s the plan. The state’s plan. Yet, at least artists have some agency and ability to move on – to ride the inevitable next wave of gentrification and displacement. Many working-class people and communities and small business owners have little chance other than to go where they can – and that is likely to be as far away as Edinburgh city centre and towns like Leith as is possible. Artists can support communities to resist and even overthrow planned gentrification, but their actions must be independent of official support or corporate backing. It’s a question of “which side are you on” and the artists and arts organisations mentioned here are clearly in no position to oppose the planned development or take real action in support of embattled community members. How can they?
Leith and its creatives must ask itself a question. It’s about time people were honest and transparent about their relationships and their ambitions. Crucially, it’s important to ask, “who pays the piper?” Clearly, the pipers here are so deeply indebted to the state, local government and, increasingly, to corporate interests and financial investors, that they will only sing one tune – the siren song of neoliberal exploitation.