Little Bit Of Love For Intangible Benefits In Economic Reporting

Being a big proponent of libraries a radio story by Marketplace on the value of libraries caught my attention. Being an economics focused show, their analysis initially focused on return on investment:

Farrell: Well, there’s this recent study — this one grabbed my attention — [by] three economists [from] Montana State University, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and Miami University. And they calculate by some measures a healthy return on investment. So among their findings, library capital investment increases children’s attendance at library events by 18%, children’s checkout of items by 21% and total library visits by 21%. Now, OK, that’s interesting, but increases in library use translate into improved children’s test scores in nearby school districts.

Long time readers know that I am also a proponent of not couching the value of everything in terms of economics and test scores so I was pleased that the reporters followed with a longer discussion of the intangible contributions libraries make to social cohesion:

Brancaccio: So there are interesting, almost hard-to-quantify benefits as well?

Farrell: That’s right. And that’s, you know, really the thing that stands out to me is we’re living through an era where there’s a lack of trust in so many institutions and, you know, the sense that we have connections with each other, I mean, that’s splintering. Well, public libraries are still trustworthy, community institutions and most important, public libraries are open to everyone. It doesn’t matter your age, it doesn’t matter your race, ethnicity, social class and net worth.

[…]

Farrell: And this is why I think the return on investment, particularly as you’ve mentioned, the return on investment on the intangibles, is so important. So a lot more needs to be done to maintain buildings, update bathrooms, increase the number of hours that they’re open, and there’s a wonderful book by sociologist Eric Klinenberg, “Palaces for the People.” And you know, in that book, he persuasively argues that libraries, the people who work there, and the people who visit that they’re essential to our democracy, and to our community. So support your local library.

There Will Be More Dancing In The Streets

I saw an article on CityLab about some pretty successful Open Streets efforts that rose up during Covid.  If you aren’t familiar with the concept, Open Streets is a national effort to temporarily close streets down to traffic to allow for community use of the space.

Where I live, a local organization works to shut streets down a couple times a year in different neighborhoods around the city. Part of the local effort has been to perform different projects which help make the streets safer by making drivers slow down and become more aware of pedestrians.

I was surprised to read in the CityLab piece that one group successfully managed to shut down a 30 block span of a street in NYC for 12 hours every. single. day.  While technically that is a temporary shut down of the street, it is increasingly becoming a permanent feature.

Programming was paramount. Practically each day, there is something going on in the street. Salsa and the Colombian coin toss game of sapo on Tuesdays. Family bike rides on Friday. The avenue even has its own newsletter. “If you don’t activate the street, people won’t feel comfortable using it,” said Burke.

Alejandra Lopez, a local resident, had stopped by last week for a bike helmet, but they were all out. Instead, she found out about the English classes that are also held on the avenue, which brought her back today. The Open Street reminded Lopez of her hometown, Bogotá, and its famous weekly Ciclovía. “This is like the evolution of that,” she said, carrying a new helmet in one hand.

The daily effort is driven by 100 volunteers and is mostly funded by donations. Some of the people who teach the language and dance classes are paid a stipend, but most all the work is done by volunteers. The vision, however, is to turn it into a work training program.

The program could provide summer jobs for teens, or re-entry training for formerly incarcerated people, with transferable carpentry and landscaping skills. (Burke called for crossing guards to be hired from nearby communities.) To Maerowitz, the Open Street could be more than just a space to spread out: It could be a site where one’s community is strengthened.

“We can give neighbors ownership of the street through work,” she said.

The article talks about some of the issues and tensions that have emerged in different Open Streets projects around the country. There is always push back and anger from some drivers at having streets shutdown, but organizers have discovered some socio-economic forces at work as well. There has been criticism that Open Streets projects are often sited in wealthier neighborhoods, but some have observed that there is often resistance in poorer neighborhoods based in skepticism about broken promises of the past as well as lack of consultation and communication with residents.

Last year, the launch of Oakland’s Slow Streets program faced a barrage of criticism over lack of community input, with Black and low-income residents expressing far less enthusiasm for the traffic restrictions.

[…]

…in poorer areas, they hit resistance, highlighting disparities ingrained in traffic violence. If a neighbor in a marginalized community grumbles at a program meant to enhance safety, and the response is to scrap instead of fix, something else may be at play there.

“When you apply the layer of historical trauma that communities of color have experienced, it’s a reaction formation,” Logan said. “I’ve been so hurt from you that it’s easier to push you away than to collaborate and figure out a solution. The last time we talked about promises, you broke that.”

It Turns Out Scooby-Doo Was Combating Unprincipled Gentrification

Last week my organization was notified that we were being awarded funds for a grant we wrote to address the issue of blight in our community. The project was inspired by a comment a friend of the venue while indicating a house she felt was the place everything went wrong for her family.  We will be pulling stories together of houses that exist and no longer exist (demolished to create an industrial district that was in turn abandoned) to raise awareness that the solution to blight may not always be a bulldozer.

I say this to provide a little context for a story I saw in CityLab today that suggested that Scooby-Doo cartoons were responding in their own way to the widespread destruction of Victorian houses during the 1970s. The article notes that most of the stories in the cartoon were set in creepy Victorian era buildings, addressing a general perception of that style of architecture during that time.

Victorian neighborhoods fell prey to demolition during this period as urban renewal projects smashed through buildings that were often seen as musty, decrepit hangovers from a poorer, miserably car-less past.

San Francisco’s Fillmore District, for example, was substantially redeveloped, scattering its mainly African American residents to the East Bay, while the now celebrated Victorian district of Old Louisville saw over 600 buildings demolished between 1965 and 1971 alone. These losses didn’t go unnoticed, and the early 1970s was also a time when grassroots historical preservation societies fully ground into action,…

[…]

Indeed, the show sometimes tackles these issues directly. The classic Scooby-Doo villain is a developer or greedy landowner, scaring people away from their property by dressing as a ghost or monster, only to be unmasked and confess everything to the band of “pesky kids” just before each episode’s final curtain. Occasionally, even urban renewal itself crops up. In one episode a developer constructing new buildings in Seattle is also secretly plundering treasures from the subterranean street network built in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1889.

It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that the cartoon was a reflection of the times. The Flintstones, also from Hanna-Barbera, was originally aired during prime time for an adult audience, and was not intended primarily for a younger demographic. As we have recognized in recent years, the content of comic books does not necessarily address non-serious themes.

Ten Pounds of Arts Funding Doesn’t Yield 20 Pounds of Peace

So like me, you may have been driving home Monday night and heard an interview on NPR conducted by host Mary Louise Kelly with poet Tess Taylor discussing art as civic repair.  Taylor talks about how a plethora of festivals in Belfast have helped people to come together peacefully since the Good Friday Agreement brought about a general cessation of violence in Northern Ireland.  She draws some parallels to political division in the United States.

She tells a story about being assigned to write a travel story about Virginia shortly after the 2016 election. She arrives in Floyd, VA, a mecca of bluegrass and is torn between being upset at the election results and wanting to square dance.

KELLY: You write, (reading) I realized I could either be mad or I could dance, but I can’t do both, so I’m going to dance.

TAYLOR: There might have been so many people right then at that square dance with whom I really had nothing to say about politics. But while we’re doing this dance, we’re actually partaking in a community action that takes place with an old pattern, and people swing around, they have to change partners, nobody can be left out, everybody is called in, and I understood the square dance is a ritual meant to build community and meant also to be sure that people had some relationship with one another so that they were kind of agreeing, perhaps, in a rural, small community to care for each other in some way. But I also felt very amazed by the ability of the dance itself to make me feel more able to work with people around me and to feel as if somehow, in that moment, we had put aside our differences and come together into something bigger.

As the interview closed, it was mentioned that Taylor had written a longer piece on this subject for Harper’s this month so I sought the article out.

There was a great deal of nuance in Taylor’s piece which was careful to say while there were similarities between the friction in the U.S. and Northern Ireland, there were differences that made them, and thus the solutions, distinct.

What I really appreciated was just how much Taylor’s article paralleled my post yesterday about viewing the arts as a prescriptive solution for problems. While Taylor cited research that showed how arts activities can create bonds of friendship, empathy and cooperation, she also noted arts weren’t, and will likely never be, the totality of the solution for Belfast in and of themselves. (my emphasis)

…Artists knew that arts programming was an effective means of weaving people together; they had written many grants justifying projects in these terms, and some were tired of the process. Some expressed concern about instrumentalizing art. “It’s not as if you put in ten pounds of arts funding and get out twenty pounds of peace,” said Glenn Patterson.

…But Durrer is the first to say that investments in reconciliation are naturally hard to quantify: “It’s not as if you can count the number of Protestants and Catholics who sat next to one another in a theater and know anything about how well people are actually reconciling.” My friend Stephen Connolly, a poet, warned me that the festivalization of Belfast can at times feel like a “manufactured peace.” Others felt uneasy about looking to anything in Northern Ireland as a model. Everyone stressed that what had been achieved in the north of Ireland has since frayed and grown tender.

But FitzGibbon, who has collaborated with Boyd on outdoor performances and directed the Belfast Children’s Festival for thirteen years, also emphasized the giddy feeling of making interventions that seemed to result in collective delight.

There is a lot of thoughtful reflection in the Harper’s story and it bears looking at regardless of whether you are considering connecting the arts with social change.

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