By Joe McNulty
Thomas Frank’s thoroughly engaging piece “Dead End on Shakin’ Street” in the latest issue of The Baffler may not mention Philadelphia specifically, but it’s hard not to see reflections of the city in his takedown of current urban planning fads aimed at attracting Richard Florida’s much sought after and, in turn, derided “creative class.” In fact, though he focuses primarily on Midwest and Rust Belt cities like Akron, Indianapolis, and his hometown of Kansas City, from a certain perspective the essay could read like a long rap sheet of what some might see as Philly’s recent crimes against urbanity.
On the surface, Frank’s main gripe is with the overuse of the word “vibrancy” in promotional literature and mission statements across the community development world, but as Will Doig points out in an excellent reaction piece on Salon, what Frank is really addressing is more than mere semantics. (If that were the case, we could all take a lesson from Hank Hill and co., who thwarted hipsters intent on settling in the Latino neighborhood of Arlen, Texas, because of its “authenticity.”)
Frank takes issue more specifically with city planners and government officials using art as an economic intervention to jumpstart prosperity. As the thinking goes in his portrayal, a robust arts scene is one sure sign of civic vibrancy, so any city or neighborhood attempting revitalization would do well to encourage homegrown artists and other members of the creative class to move there by adding “urban amenities like hipster bars and farmers’ markets and indie-rock festivals.” Frank says this approach to economic development is “like reasoning that, since sidewalks get wet when it rains, we can encourage rainfall by wetting the sidewalks.” In other words, a series of government interventions does not an art scene make.
This strategy, according to Frank, is embodied at the national level in ArtPlace, a partnership of the National Endowment for the Arts, several banks, foundations and federal agencies dedicated to “investing in art and culture at the heart of a portfolio of integrated strategies that can drive vibrancy and diversity so powerful that it transforms communities.” Now that is some powerful art. But how do we know if it works, asks Frank, especially when vibrancy and its indicators are so difficult to measure or quantify?
And this is where it all starts to sound a lot like Philadelphia, the recipient of three ArtPlace grants in 2012, as well as the home of the ArtPlace partner foundation William Penn Foundation and host city for the Knight Arts Challenge the last two years running. You don’t have to dig very deep into local arts organizations’ websites before the v-word or its synonyms pop up.
And speaking of popping up, Frank takes issue with exactly the types of urban interventions that probably populate most of your weekends. These days there are enough pop-up cafes, parklets, beer gardens, night markets, officially sanctioned guerilla gardens and site-specific art installations to make your head spin. Vacant lots and empty shop windows blossom with vegetables and conceptual art pieces on the regular now. The question remains: Does it make a difference? This is a question with which adherents and opponents to all stripes of urbanism (new, tactical, landscape, etc.), will continue to grapple.
Philly’s own venerable Mural Arts Program makes no bones about it in their list of core values: “Art is an economic engine. This is not art for art's sake. Our institutional wisdom and intellectual property have value, add value, and are valuable. There's no shame in earning fair compensation for unique professional expertise.” This is either an argument for paying artists for their work (which is ADVISABLE!) or an acknowledgement that a mural might increase a neighborhood’s economic viability and surrounding property values.
This latter assumption is backed up somewhat by a 2009 Econsult study on Philadelphia’s commercial corridors. A multiple regression analysis of all 265 retail corridors in Philly revealed that certain interventions were in fact more effective than others at driving retail shopping trips and property values on and around commercial corridors. The study showed that MAP projects offered at least “some correlation to corridor success.” Interestingly enough, the analysis of neighborhood characteristics on the success of a corridor indicated that the presence of an “arts district,” meaning four or more arts organizations, showed consistently positive impact while the presence of only one arts organization showed a slight negative impact.
So how do we Keep Austin Weird™ without engaging in a neighborhood marketing scheme? Is all this art just artifice, like so much corporate bird-putting. Or can art really act like the philosopher’s stone of urban alchemy, capable of turning blight into vibrant gold?
Full disclosure: The author has been known to install a parklet or two and contribute to a vacant windows art project.