In his latest Baffler piece, “Dead End on Shakin’ Street”, journalist and author Thomas Frank focuses on a word Miamians should know well.
“Every city is either vibrant these days or is working on a plan to attain vibrancy soon,” Frank writes. “The reason is simple: a city isn’t successful — isn’t even a city, really — unless it can lay claim to being ‘vibrant.’ 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.”
Even though he never mentions Miami in his piece, Frank, a native Kansan, comes across as a keen observer of the Magic City, which, as much as any American city, is in vigorous, well-funded pursuit of “the big V”, thanks in large part to the good intentions of the Knight Foundation. Indeed, Frank traces the general pursuit of urban vibrancy to the nation’s various charitable foundations. “For organized philanthropy,” he writes, “‘vibrant’ seems to have become the one-stop solution for all that ails the American polis.” To Frank, however, it is a solution deserving of ridicule. “Whatever the word mean[s], ‘vibrancy’ [is] surely an outcome of civic prosperity, not its cause. Putting it the other way round [is] like reasoning that, since sidewalks get wet when it rains, we can encourage rainfall by wetting the sidewalks.”
Frank’s piece resonated with me on a number of levels. First, it made me wonder exactly what I meant all the times I had used the word “vibrant” in this blog. A site-wide search turns up 13 posts that contain the word (compared with 150+ results on miamiherald.com and 130 results on the Knight Foundation website, both of which, to be fair, have more overall content than Beached Miami does). For example, in a piece I wrote in June about LeBron James’s notorious “taking my talents to South Beach” quote, I mentioned “the rise of Wynwood as a vibrant arts district” (emphasis added). In that piece, I was making a case that much of the media coverage of the Heat’s NBA-championship run misdefined Miami as a shallow, sun-and-fun-postcard city. Wynwood’s vibrancy, I argued, challenged that stereotype.
Now, I still believe that Wynwood’s emergence as a gallery district and the setting for all manner of creative output pushes against tired cliches about Miami. But Frank’s Baffler piece forces me to ask a crucial follow-up question: Is the vibrancy emanating from Wynwood’s galleries and artist lofts and creative co-ops and artisanal eateries and overrun art walks and variegated graffiti murals — is this vibrancy an end in itself?
Frank’s answer, it seems, would be an emphatic NO. “… foundations have been selling the vibrant, under one label or another, for decades; all they’ve done this time is repackage it as a sort of prosperity gospel for Ivy League art students. As the name of a suburban St. Louis street festival puts it, without the smallest detectable trace of irony, ‘Let them eat art.'”
The clear implication is that art and culture on their own cannot nourish a populace, that they cannot — moreover, should not — be enlisted to drive economic growth. The strategy of building “prosperity by mobilizing art-people as vibrancy shock troops and counting on them to … gentrify formerly bedraggled parts of town” in order to unleash “vibrancy multipliers” is a foolish one, Frank believes.
Which is not to suggest Frank views artists as expendable in the city hierarchy. In fact, in the piece he sympathizes with artists for the burden the votaries of vibrancy place on their shoulders.
Vibrancy is a sort of performance that artists or musicians are expected to put on, either directly or indirectly, for the corporate class. These are the ones we aim to reassure of our city’s vibrancy, so that they never choose to move their millions (of dollars) to some more vibrant burg. An artist who keeps to herself, who works in her room all day, who wears unremarkable clothes and goes without tattoos — by definition she brings almost nothing to this project, adds little to the economic prospects of a given area. She inspires no one. She offers no lessons in creativity. She is not vibrant, not remunerative, not investment-grade.
In his anti-vibrancy vitriol Frank comes across as a curmudgeon, but that doesn’t make him wrong. When he bemoans the erection of Frank Gehry-designed monuments to high culture in response to the violent collapse of the Midwestern manufacturing economy, an aware local can’t help but think of Miami’s own new Gehry building, the new New World Center, and wonder how it or the Arsht Center or a new bay-side building for the Miami Art Museum will improve the basic wellbeing of Miami’s many struggling residents one iota.
In the context of the Midwest, Frank comes to a grim conclusion about the “vibrancy Ponzi scheme”: “The bombed-out heartland must learn to resist the urgings of the foundation grandees and fix its gaze instead on the far less beguiling reverie of durable, productive enterprise.”
I’m not sure the same prescription applies to Miami, whose history as a tourist town is fundamentally different from that of the Midwest’s moribund manufacturing Meccas. Miami may have much to gain economically, and of course culturally, from a (dare I say) “vibrant” arts “scene” (another word Frank lashes out at as meaningless in his piece). But vibrancy will only take us so far. It won’t end our poverty or fix our schools or untangle our roads or repair our environment. At best, it will illuminate the deep flaws that mar our city and embolden us to correct them.
At worst, it will distract us from these flaws altogether.
To read Frank’s piece in full, visit thebaffler.com.