We live in a world of collapsing roles, collapsing economies, and proliferating sub-identities. At an extreme, obscure YouTube stars of every ilk get tens of millions of views, but in fact each of us have first-hand experience shaping our branded public image through carefully selected images and status updates, instantly shared to ever-widening networks. In this Age of Information, the collapsing of product, consumer, producer and marketer has resulted in the utter domination of every aspect of our lives by culture, infecting our homes, livelihoods, and every corner of our urban landscapes. This new economic and social reality has dramatically shifted the character of the post-industrial city.

In his book Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the 21st Century, Nato Thompson begins his analysis of contemporary activism and art by illustrating the influence “the culture industry” has over our lives, and how it has become the new face of capitalism. “What we like, what we do, what we listen to, the world we hope for—even the terms by which we define ourselves and world around us—is increasingly controlled by huge and complex economic forces.”[1] Frederic Jameson somewhat presciently agreed, positing in the early 1990s that our notion of “culture” has infested “the social realm, to the point at which everything in our social life—from economic value and state power to social and political practices and the very structure of the psyche itself—can be said to have become ‘cultural.’”[2] The proliferation of sub-cultures on the heels of this paradigm shift, each with their political concerns, lifestyle choices, and fashion preferences (and tribe of like-minded folks, easily accessed via social web platform) have led to the rise of the micro-niche service economy. In fact, the central role of the creative industry is to enthusiastically translate new social identities into new economies, monetizing our need to telegraph our lifestyles through our personalized self-branding vehicles. We proclaim: I am organic, gluten-free, non-GMO, I go to pop-up $40 dinners, I go to secret beer gardens in vacant lots, I garden, I live sustainably, I craft, I hack IKEA furniture, I’m a feminist, I’m a post-feminist, I’m a brony.

Meanwhile, as we adjust our selfie sticks and squint into the sun, governmental infrastructures that traditionally provided social support in urban centers are silently being dismantled all around us, and replaced with new cultural infrastructures. This is not coincidence – French philosopher Michel Foucault observed the marked shift of services from the state to cultural sectors under neoliberalism, and “governmentality,” in his estimation, became more concerned with the management of populations and their behaviors than with providing services.[3] Large-scale urban renewal efforts, a symptom of the situation we find ourselves in, tout new cultural assets, housing, and amenities, with not one apparent shred of concern about the widespread displacement (largely of communities of color), homogenization, and erasure of the emotional fabric of a place that inevitably follows. Urban renewal, after all, can be effective population management. In an economy dominated by culture, why not “renew”[4] urban centers in order to better determine who lives where and who buys what?

Nowhere are the homogenizing and displacing consequences of systematic gentrification felt more extremely than in university-adjacent neighborhoods. Near Drexel University in West Philadelphia, an area historically known as “The Black Bottom,”[5] university expansion and accompanying renewal plans for a so-called “University City District” have already catalyzed massive displacement of the neighborhood’s largely African-American and working-class residents.[6]

Close nearby, a small art project sprung up on Lancaster Avenue, the main commercial corridor which links rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods to the east with more poverty-stricken neighborhoods further west. The result of the efforts of multiple partners, including an established local arts institution (Mural Arts Program), a community development corporation (Peoples’ Emergency Center), a Canadian artist collective (Broken City Lab), and the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, Neighborhood Time Exchange sought to become a space of engagement in a neighborhood threatened simultaneously by subsumption and the dismantling of its character—and by overwhelming social and infrastructural needs.

second friday

The lead curator and instigator of Neighborhood Time Exchange, Broken City Lab’s co-founder Justin Langlois has had ample on-the-ground experience with entering sites slated for urban transformation and crafting critical organizational forms that open up spaces of exchange. For this project, Broken City Lab built on their methods and proposed an idea based on the concept of time banking, “in which artists and community members work together for mutual benefit through the exchange of temporal resources…demonstrated and enacted in a highly public setting.”[7] The idea was to ask artists to provide their skills and time to members of the community, in exchange for studio space and a stipend. The organizers describe the project as such:

Through Neighborhood Time Exchange, artists will be invited from across the neighborhood and around the world to take part in months-long residencies along Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia. In exchange for access to the neighborhood, a studio space, and a living stipend, artists will provide skills and time-based resources for the community. For every hour artists spend working in their studio on their own projects, they will in turn provide an hour of volunteer effort and service back into the community. This service will be informed by community members’ interests in relation to the Make Your Mark planning document’s identified strategies towards a range of priorities…[8]

The “Make Your Mark” plan (also known as the Lower Lancaster Revitalization Plan) that the project description cites was published in June 2012 and developed by People’s Emergency Center (PEC) over the course of 16 months with input from over 1,000 local community members, business owners, and other neighborhood stakeholders. Strategies such as “turning up the volume” on the local arts scene and enhancing Lancaster Avenue have been identified by neighbors as important components for successful community development. The plan has two main goals – 1) to immediately remedy some of the existing material and infrastructural needs of the residents, and 2) to ultimately transform Lancaster Corridor into a thriving center for economic development that will connect to the rapidly expanding business district further east.[9]

In the summary and critical written analysis of the Make Your Mark plan, Broken City Lab acknowledges that artists are prominently represented in the plan – both as agents of revitalization and as existing local residents. Though BCL acknowledges that the plan recommends affordable workspace for artists and the bolstering of arts infrastructure (including a central arts space “hub”) that would be beneficial to all residents, BCL expresses concern about its functional consequences. Though the Make Your Mark plan seems “keenly aware of the symptomatic consequences of gentrification in terms of displacement,” BCL writes, “it’s apparent that the strategies laid out are…intended to attract new investment, new homeowners, new businesses, and new consumers to the area.” Moreover, the specific arts-related beautification strategies described in the plan (such as façade improvement and artist-designed streetscapes) may provide “meaningful relief” to residents, but if done without a critical approach, could end up doing “little more than preparing this neighborhood for some future buyer.”[10]

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Broken City Lab’s concern echoes the critics of creative industry as a driver for economic and urban renewal, a theory popularized in Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class. Many other theorists before and after Florida (like Richard Lloyd, Peter Drucker, and economist Robert Reich) have found that artists and other “knowledge workers”[11] gentrify postindustrial neighborhoods, seeding businesses not only through their consumption habits but also through their casual, freelance labor. The gentrification itself is often desirable, bringing with it infrastructural improvements, economic opportunities and cultural assets—but the concomitant rise in real estate prices and property speculation has the effect of pushing out the artists, small businesses, and residents that catalyzed revitalization in the first place.

The authors of the Make Your Mark plan and a partner on Neighborhood Time Exchange, the People’s Emergency Center, acknowledge that although some of these improvement activities can indeed lead to increased land speculation and potential displacement, the strategies they undertake as an on-the-ground community organization seek to bolster the health and economic capacity of existing residents. These include an array of activities that address goals like developing affordable housing, increasing home ownership rates, and improving financial skills and opportunities through job training, digital inclusion, and commercial corridor beautification.

Because of this, the Make Your Mark plan arises from a very different context than many city-sponsored revitalization plans and is enacted in part by the daily efforts of an effective and embedded social service organization. Even so, it presents a potential double bind—the strong desire from both institutions and residents to improve their community through arts and culture might actually result in some alteration of the character of the neighborhood and lead to undesirable outcomes. The organizers of Neighborhood Time Exchange were aware of this potentiality, so carefully and critically considered how the project should be implemented. One way the organizing entities addressed this paradox was by leaning on alternative economic modalities; the history of time banking, for instance.

Conceived in 1980 by Professor Edgar Cahn, time banking was a direct response to the gutting of social welfare programs by the Reagan Administration. He founded the first time bank in 1995 on principles of redefining work, reciprocity, social capital, and respect for the self-definition of asset (what an individual can contribute and what the community feels is valuable). Time Banks are based on a credit system in which the exchange of “personal services” (babysitting, shopping, repair) is rewarded with time “credits” for similar such services in the future.[12]

This system is also heavily informed by concepts of mutual aid, first theorized by nineteenth century anarchist Peter Kropotkin and later adopted by anarcho-communists. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” as the Marxist slogan goes. Marxists and anarcho-communists both value service labor toward the formation of healthy, resilient, and supportive communities rather than in service of capital.[13]

Structures like time-banking are among the very few viable alternative exchange systems left in the advanced capitalist state of our urban centers in the United States, with decades of neoliberal policies effectively erasing traditional social support systems. Rather than functioning as a standard time bank, however, Neighborhood Time Exchange leverages that organizational principle as a way to subvert the speculative and homogenizing consequences of specifically “creative” labor in low-income communities of color, while still asserting artists as a value proposition themselves. In exchange for the community’s investment in artistic labor as a social good (providing studio space, a living stipend, and hours to spend in the studio), artists are expected to then contribute an equivalent number of hours investing back into the community, in the form of service labor. Residents who request artistic services are then expected to likewise “deposit” volunteer hours of their own back into the time bank.[14] This three-way exchange fosters, as the project design document describes, “a new dynamic and role for creativity and reciprocity in the revitalization of a neighborhood,” as well as an opportunity to build “volunteer capacity” among residents.[15] This is in stark contrast to the way urban renewal projects are currently conceived of—community input usually occurs only in the beginning of a planning process, and the finalized plan is then funded by the city or developers (and increasingly, a mix of these private and public monies). Finally, the plan is implemented, or not, regardless of a continued investment of time or input on the part of the target area’s current residents.

So what is the hope of a project like Neighborhood Time Exchange that engages in reciprocity over a period of time, and is designed for responsiveness to community need?

The success and promise of the project relies on any of the following possibilities:

  • That a legible and radical art practice can strategically convert unused spaces to ones that promote discourse and empowerment.
  • That the artists involved will leverage their skills effectively on behalf of the neighborhood to effect real change in the social connections, infrastructure, and capabilities that make up a resilient and strengthened community
  • That the relationships formed and connections made will empower and strengthen existing community self-advocacy (even if just on a visual, signifying scale)
  • That the project itself will become a platform for social, civic, and economic revitalization for the defined project area
  • That Neighborhood Time Exchange will function as a pipeline for the flow of labor towards the health of the community as a whole, rather than in service to capital

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All of these possibilities hinge on the importance of artistic labor to society, in its multivalent forms. Not only is value placed on the more traditional, object-based work of artists (expressed through material support to those artists for the creation of such work), but also in other ways. The skills that artists pick up over time (often to support themselves professionally in ways that afford them the time and ability to make art) such as graphic design, construction, project management with extremely limited budgets, and creative innovation, are all capacities that potentially aid in urban revitalization. As well, artists participating in Time Exchange that self-identify as socially-engaged artists, who develop their work publicly through co-productive processes with participants (often with social justice goals in mind), have the potential to contribute even more directly to relationship building, discourse, and community advocacy. A project like this involving artists also brings with it resources and opportunities aside from the knowledge or skills of the individual artists—structural resources like funding dollars, access to the storefront space that Time Exchange occupies, and the political agency and authority that these organizations and individuals can collectively leverage. The negotiation of these resources and how they lead to public good form the basis of possibilities in this endeavor, and also its greatest challenge.

It is worthwhile to consider why, in a project ostensibly focused on the exchange of units of time, a chief challenge to the implementation of service projects was the lack of a long enough residency period. According to the project’s organizers, nearly every artist involved (even those who were able to stay for an entire three-month residency cycle, which was the maximum length), noted that the residency wasn’t long enough. Though the organizations involved set up neighborhood advisory councils, seminars, and orientations in an effort to maintain continuity across artists and residency cycles, much of the trust-building and relationship development needed to conceptualize and implement even relatively minor service projects was necessarily dependent on individual artists and community members. The time needed to set up these relationships meant that little time or capacity remained to address the volume of requests that flooded in from the community.[16]

Perhaps because of this scarcity, the projects that did reach completion were between artists and established community organizers in the neighborhood – individuals and institutions that already had the capacity to direct and leverage the resources that the artists had to offer. This was not necessarily a detriment to the effort – one such project, the creation of a “sensory room” for autistic and special needs children at Martha Washington Elementary prompted the Arts and Cultural Enrichment (ACE) afterschool program to consider forming their own time bank and artist-in-residence program. [17]

Another effect of this paucity of time was that the organizers of Time Exchange felt they had to put into place a formalized application processes. As a result of this, they began to slip into the language of the problematic economic systems they were gently attempting to subvert. They cited “deliverables” and the “eligibility of service requests.” One visitor likened the group’s functioning to the “legal system” – they met each week to establish precedents and logic, and proceeded to make decisions about where to allocate labor and funds.[18]

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In their article Economic Imaginaries, the economic theorists JK Gibson-Graham explain how language, and specifically the language of place, can help us understand alternative local economies of exchange, as Time Exchange aspired to be, as “places with highly specific economic identities and capacities rather than simply as nodes in a global capitalist system.”

In more broadly philosophical terms, place is that which is not fully yoked into a system of meaning, not entirely subsumed to a (global) order; it is that aspect of every site that exists as potentiality. Place is the ‘event in space’, operating as a ‘dislocation’ with respect to familiar structures and narratives. It is the unmapped and unmoored that allows for new moorings and mappings.[19]

This is not to suggest that this notion of “place,” embodied in Neighborhood Time Exchange, despite its aspirations of reciprocity and adaptive responsiveness, simply became another node in a global capitalist system. It needed to work within the existing system; the possibility for a fully resistant model did not exist (and, arguably, does not exist anywhere). Its successful interaction with the community necessitated that it adopt the Make Your Mark plan as a guiding document (even though the organizers took a critical perspective in reviewing that plan at the outset, extracting relevant guidelines where they could), and Time Exchange’s popularity necessitated a clear and transparent process for receiving and sorting service requests. These were good problems to have.

But the language and context of place was also Time Exchange’s greatest possibility as a visible alternative model for a collective revitalization, one ethically based in the values of reciprocity and responsiveness. It grasped the potential, for a short time and collected in the various documents, conversations, and reflections symptomatic of an organizational social practice, to imagine new “mappings and moorings” in this particular neighborhood. Returning to JK Gibson-Graham: “Place, like the subject, is the site and spur of becoming, the opening for politics.”[20] Because of its specificity, and its potentialities, place can resist co-option when activated in a service exchange modality. The success of a micro-economy of place can be revolutionary when replicated on a global scale:

If we can begin to see noncapitalist activities as prevalent and viable, we may be encouraged here and now to actively build upon them to transform our local economies. Rather than ‘waiting for the revolution’ to transform a global economy and governance system at the world scale, we can engage with others to transform local economies here and now, in an everyday ethical and political practice of constructing ‘community economies’ in the face of globalization.[21]

The power of Neighborhood Time Exchange lies in its viability as a replicative model…not in its specific structural capacities, but in its existence. If allowed to expand and repeat organizationally, triangulated in different localities (as time banks have done), it could become a stream of possibility in the delta of community transformation.


This essay originally appeared in the catalogue booklet produced in conjunction with the Neighborhood Time Exchange project.

[1] Nato Thompson, Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the 21st Century, (New York: Melville Publishing House, 2015), 3.

[2] Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991), 48.

[3] Foucault’s concept of “govermentality” is here invoked by George Yúdice in The Expediency of Culture: Uses of Culture in the Global Era (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001).

[4] In this essay, I use both the terms urban “renewal” and urban “revitalization.” Though both of these overlapping terms are used in varying contexts in the research documents I have encountered, I distinguish them by using “renewal” to indicate a more top-down, developer catalyzed process that indicates a strong profit motive for the improvement of an urban district, where as “revitalization” may indicate concerted efforts on the parts of multiple community groups, coalitions, residents and partnerships to improve the infrastructure and economic opportunities of a neighborhood. These are not mutually exclusive, but do suggest different processes and valued outcomes for the planned economic and social development of a place.

[5] The following is a description of “The Black Bottom” from Dr. Walter Palmer, a Philadelphia historian: “The “Black Bottom” was the residential community that existed in the section of Philadelphia known by city planners as “Area 3”, and referred to now as “University City”. The Black Bottom was framed by 33rd and 40th Streets on the east and west, and Lancaster / Powelton and Curie Boulevard (University Avenue) on the north and south. The Black Bottom received its name from its location at the “bottom” of West Philadelphia. It was also a predominantly African American community; hence the name “Black” Bottom. (Palmer 1999).” This description was taken from a website in his honor archiving the history of this neighborhood. (https://theblackbottom.wordpress.com/communities/blackbottom/history/)

[6] This is not to say that Drexel University has not made strong community commitments, developed important local relationships, or engaged in efforts to mitigate displacement. In fact, they sponsored many of the international visas for artists and curators participating in Neighborhood Time Exchange.

[7] Justin Langlois, Neighborhood Time Exchange Project Description, internal document titled “Neighborhood Time Exchange: Project Design.” May 23, 2014.

[8] Langlois, “Neighborhood Time Exchange: Project Design.” May 23, 2014.

[9] Justin Langlois, “Summary and Analysis of Make Your Mark: Lower Lancaster Revitalization Plan (June 2012).” From Broken City Lab, written for the Time Bank/Philadelphia project. Additional information provided by Kevin Musselman of the People’s Emergency Center (PEC).

[10] Langlois, “Summary and Analysis of Make Your Mark.”

[11] According to Martha Rosler in her fantastic article “Culture Class: Art Creativity, Urbanism, Part II” written for e-flux journal #23 in March of 2011, the term “knowledge worker” was coined by Peter Drucker, the “management guru.” Its first usage traces back to 1959, when the importance of this group of workers now know as “creatives” was first recognized.

[12] History of time-banking from the official Time Bank website, https://timebankpk.wordpress.com/about/history-of-time-banking/

[13] Popularized by Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program,” 1875, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/ch01.htm.

[14] Though this last expectation was not measured nor insisted upon, it often happened organically as service projects unfolded in collaboration with artists and community members.

[15] Langlois, “Neighborhood Time Exchange: Project Design.” May 23, 2014.

[16] Details on the workings of the various service projects from a series of emails from Dave Kyu (Mural Arts Program manager on Neighborhood Time Exchange) and Justin Langlois to the author in response to a series of questions. September 13-14, 2015.

[17] Emails to the author from organizers Dave Kyu and Justin Langlois. September 13-14, 2015.

[18] Emails to the author from organizers Dave Kyu and Justin Langlois. September 13-14, 2015.

[19] JK Gibson-Graham, “Economic Imaginaries,” excerpted from JK Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), 39.

[20] JK Gibson-Graham, “Economic Imaginaries,” 39.

[21] JK Gibson-Graham, “Economic Imaginaries,” 38-39.