polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Film Review: ‘Creativity and the Capitalist City’

by Alex Schafran

The subtitle for "Creativity and the Capitalist City: The Struggle for Affordable Space in Amsterdam" is critical for understanding the focus of this interesting new independent release from German filmmaker and urbanist Tino Buchholz. At its core, the movie is about the struggle to keep Amsterdam affordable in the face of steady gentrification. Policymakers there have taken to heart Richard Florida's famed maxim about the link between the so-called "creative class" and regional economic development, transforming it into housing, redevelopment and cultural economic policy. But Buchholz realizes that this is only one piece of Amsterdam's transformation.

Buchholz spends much of the film digging at core social movements and housing-related practices, including Amsterdam's famed but fading squatters movement, as well as the bizarre practice of "anti-squatting," whereby real-estate owners essentially pay people to squat in their buildings to prevent them from actually being squatted.

On one hand, this approach gives a holistic view of the existential question of Amsterdam, with which I have grappled here in Polis and which is at the core of our inaugural podcast (beta version) debuting in two weeks. Jan Willem Duyvendak and Justus Uitermark frame the discussion of Amsterdam's transformation as a debate between those who see a "hard" gentrification, with rampant displacement, or a "soft" gentrification, more in line with Chicago-school theories of succession.

However, few would argue that the city is not becoming more middle- and upper-class, more bourgeois, more glass and steel, more corporate money. Buchholz captures incredibly well the angst this transformation has engendered among housing activists and artists, both of whom struggle with perhaps having been co-opted through anti-squatting and "creative class" policies that favor creative types but leave little space for the broader working masses.

Another strength of the film is that Buchholz found policymakers willing to talk about their "incubator" policies and the official policies aimed at building a particular type of city. As Uitermark discusses in the upcoming podcast, one never sees overly anti-poor language in policy documents. Everything seems benign — a "banalization of injustice." Many of these policies, incubator spaces and creative city concepts may promote economic growth, but with rising inequality and the clear reshaping of cities for certain classes, one has to read between the lines and look for what, and who, is missing.

The film struggles somewhat with the question of creative-class and creative-city policy at the broader level, a subject of numerous past Polis posts. Despite the presence of Jamie Peck, whose "Struggling with the Creative Class" is a classic, and an explicit desire by the filmmaker to build a non-Amsterdam story, the idea of the creative city, and how precisely it is deployed and used, plays a backseat role to the larger question of space in Amsterdam.

Part of this gap stems from the inherent tension between trying to make a movie in a city but not entirely about the city. Cities like Amsterdam dominate the screen, asserting themselves as main characters despite our intentions. Yet, it also speaks to the sheer difficulty of communicating complicated ideas through new media. Buchholz, who like many of us is an academic in his spare time, deserves credit for taking on a difficult subject that does not reduce easily to sound bytes and platitudes. This is not a film about global warming or poverty, issues with either clear science or clear morals; rather, it is about the intersection of two things that we know matter — creativity and a vibrant urban economy — with widening inequality and the growing importance of urban space at a global scale. It speaks in part to the need for quality forums for creative ventures like Buchholz's, where we can create, critique and broadcast new ways of talking about complicated urban subjects.

Credits: Photo by Alex Schafran. Embedded videos from Creative Capitalist City.

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