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.

Did Covid Suddenly Make You More Aware of Sidewalk Space?

The Americans for the Arts blog had an interview with an arts group that was flexing their skills to solve problems in their community. They spoke with Yin Kong, one of the founders of Think Chinatown which started the initiative Assembly for Chinatown to provide outdoor dining for restaurants in New York City’s Chinatown.

While restaurants in other parts of the city were able to find ways to cope with Covid restrictions by setting up dining on sidewalks or in dedicated parking spaces on the street, Chinatown has narrower sidewalks and streets. Regulations frequently changed and violations earned a $1,000 fine. Outdoor dining really hadn’t been part of the business practice among Chinatown restaurants so between physical restrictions, legal hurdles, and custom there was little incentive for the financially ailing restaurants for that neighborhood to pursue outdoor dining options.

Think Chinatown collaborated with A+A+A Studio to write a guide on how to build affordable structures that met Department of Transportation guidelines. Artists worked with business owners to decorate the structures in colorful murals.

We removed the financial risk for these restaurants by covering the construction costs. We selected restaurants where we believed the impact could most be felt. For the most part, the project has helped bring attention to businesses and provide more space.

We are still connected with the restaurants who participate—we do not drop these and leave. We live in the neighborhood and are here to adjust. For some murals, it has been almost a year [since they were created], so we are repainting. We want them to continue to be colorful, delightful work.

The Assembly for Chinatown page mentions the project has helped 13 businesses at nine sites. In some cases, adjacent businesses got wrapped into the effort. In one case, a restaurant, cafe and florist had a structure constructed. In another, a restaurant and neighboring tea importer shared a space.

The interview is short, but it is clear that the perceptual, legal, and logistical hurdles they faced required a lot of time and effort to navigate before the first two pieces of wood were attached together. They provided access where it didn’t exist or seemed difficult to achieve and got people thinking of new possibilities for doing business in their neightborhood.

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.

Cleaning Up Litter Never Looked So Cool

Video came across my social media last month about the litter picking samurai of Tokyo.  These theater performers call attention to the trash dropped in the streets of the city to generate a sense of responsibility and pride in keeping things clean.  Some commenters to the video wonder if they set things up for the performance given the timing and spacing of some of their movements. That may have been the case to create some drama for some of the shots, but I found other videos of them cleaning and sorting the trash they collect before disposing of it so it appears they are committed to putting in a full effort.

During Covid the arts community has become thoughtful about ways in which they can contribute to change in the world. These folks in Japan seemed like a good example of how performance skills can be employed in informal settings, (as opposed to performance spaces), to model positive actions.

Additionally, since there is so much uncertainty and tentativeness regarding the status of events and the return of audiences, the format of these types of performances can help the arts remain relevant and visible in communities.

Not to mention emphasizing the fact that the arts can be used in efforts to solve problems.



Similar efforts can be intentionally employed to achieve a specific goal. Back in 2014 the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and Sojourn Theatre partnered on a project to call attention to the fact that crosswalk signals were timed too short to allow senior citizens to traverse intersections.

Send this to a friend