Creative Placemaking, revitalization and gentrification


As far as I can tell, gentrification is basically the same thing as neighborhood revitalization. It’s just that one word has a negative connotation and one has a positive connotation. The only difference that I can make out is that gentrification implies that the makeup of a neighborhood changes — as condos and money stream in, the neighborhood becomes too expensive for the previous population to live there, thereby forcing them to move elsewhere. With neighborhood revitalization, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Theoretically, the term could imply that the standard of living of residents that live there improves as new investments come into an area, but I suspect that in many cases, neighborhood revitalization implies at least a partial gentrification.

I’ve been thinking about these two terms in relation to all of the creative placemaking projects that are going on right now throughout the Twin Cities. Enormous amounts of government and nonprofit spending are being directed to projects highlighting the arts in select areas — the Central Corridor, the Arts on Chicago project, funding to turn Hennepin into an “arts district.” There are creative placemaking projects in North Minneapolis, with the Whittier Artists in Storefronts, and as part of the American Indian Cultural Corridor on Franklin Avenue. 

I’ve written about a number of these projects (and actually participated in the Whittier project), and many of them have some very cool ideas. Murals, roaming art galleries, performances in alternative spaces all excite me and make me interested in visiting the neighborhoods where they are taking place. Also, as an artist and arts supporter, I’m definitely in favor of new avenues for artists to get paid. In an ideal world, these types of creative placemaking projects involve conversations with community members, business owners, nonprofits, and city officials, and if that’s happening, it seems like a positive thing.

At the same time, I have some lingering suspicion about these types of creative placemaking projects. There have been a number of articles recently that talk about the lack of evidence for Richard Florida’s theories about “the creative class” and the evolution of that which has become “placemaking”.  I recommend Frank Bures’s The Fall of the Creative Class as well as Ian David Moss’s article from last spring about the “outcomes problem” of creative placemaking.

The latter article does a really good job of outlining a really important point — that in order for these placemaking projects to be good for the community that currently lives there, neighbors and community voices must be at the table. But even if they are at the table, is there any evidence that their lives will improve through the revitalization that supposedly is the result of creative placemaking? Perhaps it’s a matter of degree. A little revitalization may bring a more beautiful place to live, safer neighborhoods, etc. A lot of revitalization may lead to skyrocketing property values, diminished availability of affordable housing, and that scary word: gentrification.

Interestingly, one of the Arts on Chicago projects spearheaded by Pillsbury House + Theatre is a theater piece examining gentrification. That feels like a positive meta analytical step, to explore the possible ramifications of the larger creative making project through one of the activities of that project, ideally in order to prevent the negative effects of what that revitalization could bring about.

I don’t pretend to know the answers here- certainly I would like to learn more. But right now, it certainly seems like the Twin Cities are undertaking a great experiment in pockets of the two cities. It may take another 10 years e to tell what effect the light rail and all these placemaking investments have on communities.

I think that leaders who are heading these projects need to remember to keep connected with the community. They should be asking themselves how they can collaborate with schools and service organizations, with small business owners and people who actually live in a community. I think the more integrated creative placemaking can be with the welfare of a community, the less likely it will end up being a waste of money, or even worse, damaging to the community that lives there.