I have been thinking a lot recently about the collision of issues around creative placemaking and gentrification — proving once again that I am not the person you want to talk to at a party.
Creative placemaking, the shorthand for efforts wherein creative types help reshape communities or neighborhoods through artistic projects and initiatives, has been part of the conversation in the Twin Cities for some time. Even I have written about it before, so you know it’s old news at this point.
Creative placemaking is a focus of the Creative Community Leadership Institute — a professional development program run by Intermedia Arts — where I am a member of the 2014 cohort. Our required reading has included prominent voices on the subject from Richard Florida to Minnesota’s own Ann Markusen. Studying and imagining the power of artists to bring warmth and new life to communities has been a welcome distraction from the white and bitterly cold canvas outside this winter.
The issue of gentrification usually comes up in tandem with Creative placemaking. Most artists seek to improve the communities in which they create — except for that faction of evil mimes bent on taking down Granite Falls from the inside. Beautifying an area of a city or making it into a cultural destination increases its desirability and often in turn, its property values. This can end up leaving the neighborhood or even a whole city too costly for those who lived there before the Creative Placemaking efforts began, and even sometimes the artists themselves.
The G word became a hot topic of conversation late last month when director Spike Lee tied the displacement of black residents of Brooklyn to gentrification and this decade’s easiest target of ridicule, hipsters. Amidst colorful expletives and some well-noted hypocrisy, Lee touched a nerve.
Change, whether economic, social, cultural, or demographic, is fraught with potential pitfalls. Those shifts can unjustly disadvantage some and benefit others. When we, either as artists or community planners, actively shape changes that will affect a neighborhood, we are in many ways responsible for those repercussions.
So what to do about it? What are my responsibilities if I want to create something (I’ve had my eye on an abandoned telephone exchange building in Southeast Minneapolis to turn into a theater if anyone has $700,000 lying around to pay for removal of some ancient heavy equipment) in a community?
The simple answer might seem to be to make certain any project has buy-in from the community which it intends to serve. However, I have heard some refutations of gentrification that reject any external forces entering another community and paving the streets with good intentions. Am I then limited to creative placemaking efforts in areas in which I can claim some sort of residency? If the need is greater elsewhere, should I still resist the urge to meddle in another place’s affairs? I fear what might start as a bulwark against cultural colonialism could grow into something resembling micro-xenophobia.
There are no easy answers and these issues will continue to bubble up as Minnesota’s economy continues to improve. Grappling with these questions, beyond simply hating on hipsters and yuppies, are likely to keep urban planners, artists, and graduate students busy for years to come.