Tyler Denmead is author of The Creative Underclass: Youth, Race, and the Gentrifying City (2019). He teaches in the Faculty of Education and Queens’ College at the University of Cambridge. As the pandemic cut short his planned travel to discuss the book with audiences in both the UK and US, Denmead is now planning an online tour. Below he discusses how the book came to be and announces the tour dates.
The Creative Underclass is not the book I planned to write when I returned to New Urban Arts in 2012 as an educational ethnographer. It had been 5 years since I left the studio in Providence, Rhode Island as its founding director. I wanted to return to the studio, however, because I was still puzzled by the studio’s pedagogic conditions, or “the magic” as so many youth participants and artists put it. It was still unclear to me what this magic was, why this magic mattered, or how this magic might be useful to community arts programs elsewhere.
The Center for Public Humanities at Brown University provided me the opportunity to return to New Urban Arts as a post-doctoral fellow to study this magic. Rather than raising money and facilitating committee meetings, I had the the privilege of hanging out with teenagers and the artists that supported them. I could participate in their collective artmaking and the studio’s vibrant social life. I could talk to them about why their artmaking mattered to them and how they interpreted the studio’s pedagogic conditions.
Several unexpected events happened that prevented me from writing that familiar book. First, in my ethnographic encounters, I confronted a double bind reported by some former youth participants. Some noted the transformational power of New Urban Arts in their own lives, while also expressing their concern that the studio functioned as a gentrifying force in their neighborhood. This insight forced me to consider what role educational institutions (and therefore my educational leadership) play in white gentrification.
As I turned my attention to this analysis, anti-gentrification protests erupted across the United States as a prominent feature of Black Lives Matter protests. These protests targeted the threats that whiteness pose to Black life through policing, mass incarceration, neighborhood displacement, and state-led urban renewal projects.
With these protests, as well as constructive criticism of readers and friends, I started to write a reflexive book that begins from my position as the urban problem. I thus situated the magic of New Urban Arts in relation to racializing discourses that positioned me as a good white creative and youth of color as urban problems in need of transformation through creativity. I formulated the concept of the creative underclass to not only illuminate this problematic discourse and its role in mobilising white gentrification, but also how young people contested it through their creative disobedience, through the magic of New Urban Arts.
The concept of the creative underclass is clearly in conversation with Richard Florida’s creative class. Florida’s influential ideas were discussed and critiqued exhaustively in and beyond the academy in the 1990s and 2000s. Not surprisingly, the perspectives, experiences, and practices of young people of color were largely absent from those debates. Since then, attention on this topic have ebbed. After the 2007 financial crisis and Ferguson, vague commitments to creativity as a panacea for social and economic problems can no longer succeed like it used to in mobilizing a political bloc with diverging ideological interests.
Nonetheless, the troubling nexus of urban property development, arts and culture, and educational institutions was not new in the 1990s and it continues today. In the United States, this nexus is central to the expansive and possessive logics of whiteness itself. I hope The Creative Underclass accounts for the creative and critical practices of young people at New Urban Arts in ways that make us better equipped to engage directly with, and potentially transform, ongoing racial and economic injustices in the city.
Read the introduction to The Creative Underclass and save 30% on the paperback with coupon E19DENMD. Denmead has launched a virtual book tour beginning in March 2021, presenting ethnographic snapshots from The Creative Underclass in public lectures and student seminars. If you are interested in hosting a private class talk or public lecture, please contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Upcoming public events:
24 March 2021, 5pm EDT
Hosted by the Centre for Study of Learning and Performance at Concordia University
Register in advance: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-creative-underclass-youth-race-and-the-gentrifying-city-tickets-145093591839
25th March 2021, 12:30 pm GMT
Hosted by the Critical Childhood Studies Research Group at University College London
Register in advance for this talk: https://ucl.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJYlcOCsqDkrEtxjyOwn3Tlyd_qzHW1SVsRg
16 April 2021, 11 am EDT
Hosted by the Barnett Symposium Virtual Speaker Series at the Department of Arts Education, Administration, and Policy at Ohio State University
See www.tylerdenmead.org for registration details.
April 21, 2021 12:30 pm EDT
Hosted by Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia
Register in advance for this talk: https://art.uga.edu/events/tyler-denmead-book-talk-creative-underclass-youth-race-and-gentrifying-city