Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Arts-based commercial district revitalization vs. raising the circumstances of the seriously impoverished

There is a very long article ("After the riots, Baltimore’s best shot at redemption may be its arts community") about arts-based revitalization in Baltimore for the Washington Post Magazine.  I am not sure if the piece has run yet or not.

The article does an excellent job of capturing the state of the field in Baltimore, with a focus on the Station North Arts district, the Central Baltimore Partnership, and the Maryland Institute College of Arts, etc., calling attention the various amazing groups there like Jubilee Housing Baltimore.

Incremental improvements year-after-year there are finally resulting in very significant and visible improvements.

It discusses these successes in the context of Baltimore's crushing poverty and the recent unrest in response to the killing of Freddie Gray while in police custody.

Interestingly, I went to a conference years ago in Baltimore too (the writer's being at an arts conference in Baltimore starts the Post piece) and afterwards wrote a piece about the difference between (1) arts-related commercial and neighborhood revitalization and (2) community building.

Mural created as part of a special event in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, Baltimore.

There are differences.  They can be interlinked, but community building artistic endeavors typically don't lead to commercial and neighborhood revitalization.  Public art activities, especially murals, are a good example of community building.

-- You Gotta Have Community Building (2007)
--  Art, culture districts and revitalization (2009)
-- Arts-based revitalization, community building, network strengthening, commodification, and Artomatic (2009)
--  Naturally occurring innovation districts (2014)
-- More on arts districts (2009)

And then there is the third expectation, that of (3) raising the economic circumstances of the impoverished.

I don't see how to develop a significant structural connection between the arts, revitalization, and the economic improvement of the extremely impoverished.

It's not unlike the expectations put on biking in terms of equity, when biking as a means of transportation is still very much in the innovator and early adopter phases, where new technologies and behaviors are taken up by people of means. From a discussion of Diffusion of Innovation theory:
Innovators - These are people who want to be the first to try the innovation. They are venturesome and interested in new ideas. These people are very willing to take risks, and are often the first to develop new ideas. Very little, if anything, needs to be done to appeal to this population.
Early Adopters - These are people who represent opinion leaders. They enjoy leadership roles, and embrace change opportunities. They are already aware of the need to change and so are very comfortable adopting new ideas. Strategies to appeal to this population include how-to manuals and information sheets on implementation. They do not need information to convince them to change.
Early Majority - These people are rarely leaders, but they do adopt new ideas before the average person. That said, they typically need to see evidence that the innovation works before they are willing to adopt it. Strategies to appeal to this population include success stories and evidence of the innovation's effectiveness.
Late Majority - These people are skeptical of change, and will only adopt an innovation after it has been tried by the majority. Strategies to appeal to this population include information on how many other people have tried the innovation and have adopted it successfully.
Laggards - These people are bound by tradition and very conservative. They are very skeptical of change and are the hardest group to bring on board. Strategies to appeal to this population include statistics, fear appeals, and pressure from people in the other adopter groups.
Given how unsuccessful we have been as a country at interdicting poverty in systemic and structural ways, it is unreasonable to expect somehow a bunch of artists can figure it out (or that biking will do it).

On the other hand, attracting artists, creating spaces where artists of all types can do their work, and attract paying audiences is a way to create economic demand of all types in places where otherwise there is limited economic demand.

I wrote about Baltimore's art districts in this piece at the Europe in Baltimore website.

I made a number of recommendations, but other than improving the metropolitan area's transit network and merging the city and county, I don't see those recommendations having much impact on poverty interdiction.

As Jane Jacobs said, if you want to get rid of rats, focus on getting rid of rats rather than using rat interdiction as a justification of urban renewal.

Lights Out! but somebody's home: art is the vanguard of gentrificationStencil graffiti on a vacant bricked up rowhouse in the vicinity of North and Greenmount Avenues, Baltimore.

Arts-based revitalization is a commercial district and neighborhood revitalization strategy designed to improve micro-economies.

And even though many consider this "gentrification," I don't think cities need to be apologetic about it, because after all, cities are in the business of working to improve the economic circumstances of their various sub-districts.

I don't think "the arts" has a lot to offer for poverty interdiction, other than its role in community building, which while important, isn't workforce development, job training, and a particularly great source of jobs for the unskilled.

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At 4:19 PM, Anonymous Christopher said...

I'm surprised you didn't mention Rick Lowe in this piece. His Project Row Houses is definitely a piece that has tried to bridge that gap between economic and community development and artist training. I know there are other examples and even the way that a lot of food justice programs are being structured here in NYC and Philadelphia are in that space where artists are acknowledging that a mural isn't going to fix the community. Art needs to think bigger about their potential impact.

At 7:52 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

that's the Houston project? It's been a long time since I've looked at it. I'll have to go back to it.

But I am more talking about at the large scale of an entire impoverished neighborhood.

At 12:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

again I see a big time split between stuffy old people on historic preservation boards and younger or dynamic artists who could and would go into a distressed area and remake it. The old people will fight to leave a structure abandoned in order to preserve some idealized view of what once was whereas a visionary artist such as Isaih Zagar in Philadelphia Magic Gardens will do nothing but anger the preservationist hard liners. There comes a point where you can no longer treat a living city like some damned museum frozen in time- and then again- which time period do we choose from- who is the final arbiter of which or what is historic? When I see HP maniacs calling the MLK Library or that FUGLY theatre in Baltimore or that awful concrete round house police barracks in Philly "historic" I want to run for the hills

At 10:27 AM, Anonymous Christopher said...

It is the Houston project, I believe he was involved with a project in Philly too. He just won a Macarthur award last year. I'm coming from a graduate school ideal that starting small is often the best way to take on complex problems. You might enjoy Ezio Manzini's new book "Design, When Everybody Designs". He's sort of the founder of the design for social innovation movement.


For anonymous, I'm huge fan of adaptive re-use and the idea that buildings should evolve with contemporary uses. I'm a conservationist not a preservationist. That being said, my favorite architectural style is Brutalism and mid-century modernism is a close second. I think Brutalism follows in the gothic sublime tradition and gorgeously powerful in the way it evokes the struggle between man and environment.

It's good to remember that we are almost incapable of appreciating those structures that are less than 50-60 years in the past. So we have to be careful not to let personal taste get in the way. My hometown in Illinois skipped almost all of the victorian era because it was considered distasteful. Somehow we went from a very extended Greek Revival to late Queen Anne. Mansard roofs were banned outright. I always find these matters of taste quite interesting. But that doesn't mean those buildings don't have value both in terms of aesthetics and architecture.


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