They finally got it! Bravo to National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Rocco Landsman, his staff, and the consortium of government agencies, foundations, and corporations for their pledge to invest generously in locally-formed, modest-scale, cultural enterprises as generators of urban rebirth.
This group’s new program, ArtPlace, will distribute $11.5 million in grants and $12 million in loans to programs that integrate the arts into local efforts in transportation, housing, community development, and job creation. For decades, exactly these kinds of efforts have been a prime renewer of downtowns. Denver, Sante Fe, Portland, Pittsburgh, Chattanooga — name a reborn downtown district and you’ll find similar modest catalysts that added up to big change.
And this is not just about artists or even the arts as narrowly defined. It’s about the ancillary services and businesses that creative work attracts and, critically, it is about energizing an area so that all kinds of activities are attracted to locate there.
Consider the restoration of the 1855 Hudson Opera House in upstate New York in the 1990s. That once thriving manufacturing town was dying a slow death. Stores were mostly empty along its main thoroughfare, Warren Street. Only a small supermarket, hardware, sports and drug store, a children’s clothing maker, one antique shop, and a few other businesses survived. This shrinking city of 6,700 lost 11 percent of it population since 1990
But Hudson had smartly left its urban fabric intact, ripe for regeneration. First came a pioneering restaurant, then the opera house and one art gallery. In short order, a concentration of antique shops transformed this waterfront city into a destination. Then came art galleries, more restaurants, a Pilates exercise studio, kitchenware, clothing, cosmetics. More diversification followed. The supermarket succumbed to competition from a nearby Walmart and other shopping centers, but new was added to old gradually. The Opera House is now a veritable cultural center. The few empty sites are being built upon even during the recession.
By contrast, consider Detroit. It has spent decades chasing the Sirens of flashy progress — notwithstanding the fact that no city has rebounded because of stadiums and casinos. But while none of the massive, publicly-financed big projects did anything for Detroit, some of the smaller ones bore fruit that are now about to be appropriately nurtured by the consortium’s support of the Woodward Corridor. Avalon Bakery, now known for its international breads, opened on Cass Avenue two blocks west of Woodward in the late 1990s, followed by an organic market, a local beer producer, restaurants, art galleries, and social service organizations — blossoming into the Cass Corridor.
This home-grown regeneration was fed by small investments and spread organically, aided by its proximity to Woodward Avenue with the potential of broad-based rebirth. Similar nodes of regeneration are occurring elsewhere. Small steps eventually add up to big change.
Something similar emerged in Salt Lake City following the first conversion of an empty industrial building into a live-work space for artists in the 1980s. More conversions, galleries, framers, accountants, a stained glass artist, a farmers’ market, a seamstress, non-profit organizations all followed in an unplanned way evolving into a highly popular neighborhood. Even a longstanding homeless shelter was absorbed in the mix. And when a community writing center opened next door, the homeless had a place to learn how to use a computer and create a resume. The neighborhood became a real destination, making feasible the light rail which now connects it to the downtown core.
These kind of catalytic efforts draw investment because they are part of the fabric of the city — strikingly more successful than some large cultural fortress accessible only by car. The regenerative momentum builds gradually. That’s how Manhattan's SoHo started, pioneered by artists, with no public investment, inspiring similar neighborhoods elsewhere.
This is about piecing back together the undervalued precincts of our downtowns. Local people must shape the reconnections. Without them, the result is form, not substance.
Editor's note: This story comes to Crosscut via Citiwire, which chronicles urban issues and success stories across America.