Cultural Vibrancy

Thomas Frank wonders what’s so vibrant about cultural vibrancy, and posits that “vibrant” is the creative class’ code for urban gentrification.

| March/April 2013

My hometown is vibrant. Its status as such is certified, official, stamped on both sides. There was a time, though, when it wasn’t, when my friends and I would laugh at Kansas City’s blandness: its harmless theater productions, its pretentious suburbs, its private country clubs, its eternal taste for classic rock. We called it “Cupcake Land,” after a favorite Richard Rhodes essay from the ’80s. The city knew nothing of the bold ideas of our robust generation, we thought: it had virtually no music subculture; it was deaf to irony; hell, it actually tried to drive out of business the last surviving club from its jazz-age glory days.

Maybe that was the sort of criticism everybody made of their Midwestern hometowns back then. Well, those hometowns have certainly turned the tables on us today. Our enthusiasm for music is a dead thing now in these post-alternative decades, a mere record collection that we occasionally cue up after one Scotch too many to help remember the time when art seemed to matter.

But Kansas City doesn’t need any reminders. The place fairly quivers with vitality now. It is swarming with artists; its traffic islands are bedecked with the colorful products of their studios. It boasts a spectacular new performing arts center designed by one of those spectacular new celebrity architects. It even has an indie-rock festival to call its own. And while much of the city’s flowering has been organic and spontaneous, other parts of its renaissance were engineered by the very class of civic leaders we used to deride for their impotence and cluelessness. At that Kansas City indie-rock festival, for example, the mayor himself made a presentation this year, as did numerous local professionals and business leaders.

Besides, as everyone knows, cupcakes are cool nowadays, like yoga or something—the consummate expression of the baker’s artisanal vibrancy.

Your hometown is probably vibrant, too. Every city is either vibrant these days or is working on a plan to attain vibrancy soon. The reason is simple: a city isn’t successful—isn’t even a city, really—unless it can lay claim to being “vibrant.” Cultural vibrancy is so universally desirable, so totemic in its powers, that even though we aren’t sure what the word means, we know the quality it designates must be cultivated. The vibrant, we believe, is what makes certain cities flourish. The absence of vibrancy, by contrast, is what allows the diseases of depopulation and blight to set in.

This formulation sounded ridiculous to me when I first encountered it. Whatever the word meant, “vibrancy” was surely an outcome of civic prosperity, not its cause. Putting it the other way round was like reasoning that, since sidewalks get wet when it rains, we can encourage rainfall by wetting the sidewalks. But to others, the vibrancy mantra is profoundly persuasive. The pursuit of the vibrant seems to be the universal job description of the nation’s city planners nowadays. It is also part of the Obama administration’s economic recovery strategy for the nation. In the fall of 2011, the National Endowment for the Arts launched “ArtPlace,” a joint project with the nation’s largest banks and foundations, and ArtPlace immediately began generating a cloud of glowing euphemisms around the central, hallowed cliché: