The State on the Street: Visible Hands in Creative City-Making in Shanghai

Saturday, July 19, 2014: 1:15 PM
Room: Booth 67
Distributed Paper
Yifei LI , Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Xiaohua ZHONG , Sociology, Tongji University, China
Historically, cities are strategic sites for the penetration of state authority. They are critical posts for taxation, defense, and trade. It is therefore no surprise that cities bear extensive marks of the state. With the rise of creative economy, however, the literature has focused more on bottom-up, spontaneous, and community-driven forms of urban initiatives. Especially when it comes to urban culture, there is much discussion about the explosion of creativity and entrepreneurialism from below; the state seems to have disappeared from the sociological field of vision.

In this working paper, we bring the state back in. We critically interrogate the role of the state in the creation of the urban creative economy. The discussion is based on a structured comparison of three art districts in Shanghai, including Tianzifang, M50, and Bridge Eight. We develop the comparison along three dimensions. First, we situate the timing of development in the broader context of urbanization. Over the past two decades, the “norms” of urban development have gradually shifted from massive demolition towards historic preservation. The focus on timing enables us to understand how the state shapes the trajectory of creative city-making. Second, we pay particular attention to the various actors that played crucial roles in each of these projects. We attend to the contribution of different actors, as well as relations between actors. Third, we bring to light the importance of spatial attributes of each project area in constraining and facilitating the exercise of state power.

Our empirical evidence points to a more nuanced conception of the state than previously reported in the literature. We explain why, on different occasions of creative city-making, the state exhibits different levels of intervention, from tacit agreement to active support. We advance a relational conception of the state to better account for the rise of art districts.