Part of last week I was attending the Creative Placemaking Leadership Summit for the South and Appalachian region.
I am sorry to say that one of the biggest impressions I came away with is that poverty is the rule rather than the exception in this country. Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me. I grew up in a rural town and spent a good part of my youth consuming government cheese, rice and powdered milk. I worked in an Appalachian community that was notorious for pill mills and opioid addiction nearly 20 years ago before it was considered so much a crisis that organizations started refusing donations from pharmaceutical companies.
But these all seemed to be generally isolated instances compared to the whole of the country. More and more I am not so sure.
I spent three days last week listening to the majority of the presenters talk about the great projects they have enacted in communities where the median income for a household of four hovers between $19,000 and $32,000 a year.
One of the questions in the first session I attended was about whether placemaking was happening predominantly in rural and impoverished communities. At the time I was thinking about all the urban gentrification that has been going on so I didn’t think that was the case, but by the time I got to the end of conference, I started to wonder if anyone was using creative placemaking as a tool in affluent urban communities. More and more it seemed like Creative Placemaking is something people turn to in order to improve economically depressed communities.
I began to suspect the effort to improve in big cities it is just termed development. If there is any creative element that emerges, it is in compliance with percent for art requirements forcing projects to add artistic elements.
Most of the presenters and attendees seemed to be from small communities. There were some people from Miami and Alameda County, CA at the conference but they talked about how their projects were improving lives in impoverished neighborhoods and creating more positive relationships with the police. No one was talking about projects on the scale of New York City’s Highline or Hudson Yards
I will confess that this is a large chunk of cynicism talking right now. So much of what is accomplished in smaller communities is definitely due to governments, developers and community advocates entering in conversations to find innovative solutions that improve the status of the entire community. Maybe bigger cities aren’t attending these conferences because they don’t feel the need to participate since they already have developers salivating to build something. As a result, I am hearing the stories of communities with fewer resources.
At the same time I listen to people talk about all small projects they bootstrapped into being viewed as a vast improvement because it added a small walking trail and pole barn pavilion. The fact that this trail is touted as something people can use to spend time with their families after a 10 day of work almost has undertones of those commercials telling us we can improve the lives of people overseas “for pennies a day.” Except that it isn’t overseas. It is kinda dispiriting.
I don’t have to tell those of you in the arts community that even when a project clearly has improved conditions, it isn’t necessarily valued. Germaine Jenkins talked about the farm she and her colleagues at Fresh Future Farm created in North Charleston, SC, transforming an empty lot into a garden with a store that charges people on a sliding scale according to their need. Her lease is up in September with no indication of whether it will be renewed.
There was a time when people were criticizing the superficial understanding of Richard Florida’s observations of the relationship between Creative Class and vibrant communities. There was a sense that you just needed to attract creative people to place and they would take care of the rest. I feel like Creative Placemaking reflects a more sophisticated understanding that a complex mix of factors from public policy, community dynamics, business and cultural resources, etc need to be in place and requires constant attention and balancing.
Yet I am starting to wonder if people see the success of creative placemaking efforts elsewhere and perceive it to be the panacea for the problems that plague their communities.
Yet, perhaps this is what is needed at this juncture– the example of success elsewhere as a model of what should be done locally. Last week Notre Dame cathedral burned down and people apparently recognized that there was a spate of recent church burning in the US that had not received the attention and support that the cathedral did and started donating toward the restoration of those US churches. The people who are undertaking these project understand that there is a lot of hard work and consensus building required. Maybe the examples of others will bring a positive result in the long run.