The Creative Edge

This week I attended a conference in Baltimore titled Arts & Neighborhood Change 2013. It was quite a cool crowd of people in attendance, you had your local artists, the community developers, some city politicians, residents of decades, and then even a few real estate developers.  To say the least, all perspectives were covered.  The conference was two days; the first day was about the larger issues of creative placemaking, artists as “urban pioneers”, gentrification, and how city infrastructure can be organized to unlock human capital.  The second day then focused on Baltimore as a case study for all of these concepts.  Let me break it down a bit.  

Creative Placemaking: This term is still getting used to its definition, but the idea is that in any zone or district can use cultural institutions, such as a photography studio, or a non-profit after school arts program, as vessels for local economic growth.  This growth is unlocked by private-public partnerships, most often meaning that investments from the private sector are used to jumpstart artistic initiatives that cannot promise short-term profit.  Check out this consulting company that focuses on creative placemaking to help clarify things.  The tricky thing about creative placemaking is that it needs some kind of measurement system.  Quantifying the power of seeing art in a bottom line kind of way is like asking for rain the dessert.  How can a city know that its cultural institutions are actually causing local economic growth?  How can a city quantify the impact of private-public partnerships (with investors and artists) to prove to politicians that the policies they make absolutely need to be sensitive to artists?  One of the interesting take-aways I had from the conference was a more nuanced understanding of artists needs.  Artists are low-income, but they are not poor.  Their lifestyle is one that priorities a space to work, not live.  They want to allocate their money in a way which helps them find a space which suites the needs of their five hundred canvases, or ten feet welded sculptures.  That is why you often see artists congregate in grittier parts of cities, because that is where the living spaces are smaller and cheaper, and where vacant large spaces that just scream “I could be a new studio!” are many.  So many of the artists I met literally moved into a city, found the largest cheapest vacant building they could, bought it with a combination of their own money and bank loans (which they said took forever to get, what bank wants to loan money to an artist, there is no guaranteed return there!), and used it as a studio.  They were actually some of the only “homeowners” in their area, the other residents could only afford renting their apartments.  Furthermore, because these artists needed the space to be able to be trashed, renovations did not include granite table tops and sterling silver door knobs.  It included sweeping the floor, removing the junk, adding a fire alarm system, and putting up a few dry walls, just the basics.  They now created a space that is owned and in use.   One step towards getting an area up and running if you ask me. This leads into the next term, urban pioneers.


Urban Pioneers: What artists are.  They are people who come into a city looking to find, or create a community.  Artists care about space.  They want to feel happy in their environment in a very immediate way.  Just from putting an old postcard on the wall, to adding a hand painted lamp shade to the living room, artists pour great effort into beautification.  So when they come into a city, any space they inhabit will become transformed.  Over time, these transformations become quite appealing, and gain attention.  People start coming to see what all the hype is about said new “cultural district.”  With policies that allow artists to easily buy, renovate, and work in large spaces while living cheaply, natural clusters of art making (visual, musical, etc.) happen.  Check out Jubilee Baltimore, a non profit developer that aims to make it really easy for cities and individuals to use vacant buildings.  This is a beautiful thing.  Artists come into a nothing space and pioneer it to make it something.  And then comes the infamous term: gentrification.


Gentrification: Often with a bad connotation, it is a phenomena in which the low-income residents that rent or own in an area are pushed out of their homes because of that areas gaining popularity with the outside public.  Once an area becomes known through a kind of hook which could be because anything from its food, art, or business-friendly infrastructures, more people take notice of it and want to move in.  With a rapid increase in demand, but continued limited supply, the housing that exists follows the market, and goes up in price.  Current residents who are renting often times cannot afford those higher prices and move out, or get “displaced” by the richer folk.  Now, this is a very basic and clearly negative view of gentrification.  I think that development is important, things can’t stay the same forever.  But, there must be a way to respect the income of long-time residents to an area given that it was them, and often times their artists, that gave the area any flavor or desire to begin with.  One of the speakers at the conference made a point I could not agree with more, and leads to the final, most important question of unlocking human capital through creativity. 


He said that no area has nothing, in fact every area has quite a bit of something.  The only way to know what that is, is to take the time to know the history, and the people of that area.  Sounds pretty simple right?  But somehow that gets lost.  Why do developers assume that when they come to a place, that they bring the development as opposed to the tools to allow the city to develop on its own?  To really give each city or district the identity, self-worth, and strength any good community leader would envision, one must absolutely know what they are working with.  The people who exist on the grassroots level, and the people who have spent the most time in a place know best what the area is like, its charachter.  They need to be the ones that developers go to for direction on what the real needs of the area are.  Creative placemaking, urban pioneers, gentrification, these things are all ways of pointing to the fact that creativity is not, ironically, created.  It is unlocked.  So, what’s the code?


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