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Cities turn to creative placemaking to revitalize neighborhoods

Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower
Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower - Steve Ruark
A year ago, the director of a German institute approached Bill Gilmore about showcasing European culture in Baltimore.
Gilmore, the executive director of the city's arts promotion office, spent the summer brainstorming with Wilfried Eckstein to determine how European art could enliven Baltimore’s transit systems.
 
That conversation set the stage for what’s about to happen this winter: artists and designers from Europe will come to Baltimore in January to begin the transformation of Penn Station in Station North, the Howard Street light rail line in the Bromo Tower Arts & Entertainment District, and bus stops in Highlandtown. Baltimore received a $200,000 grant from ArtPlace America to fund the project, which could put the city’s art scene quite literally on the map.
 
"It’s become an opportunity to connect Baltimore to arts on an international level," Gilmore says. 
 
The transit project is an example of a larger national movement known as creative placemaking: using the arts to revitalize neighborhoods and boost local economies. According to a report issued by the NEA, artists account for three percent of the nation's workforce, and the cultural industries support close to 5 million jobs.

Projects similar to the one in Baltimore are underway in Denver, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Toronto and St. Paul, Minn. At its core, creative placemaking is about transforming vacant and underused properties into hubs of activity and prosperity by engaging artists and residents of the neighborhood. 

In Baltimore's Highlandtown neighborhood, for instance, there were significant conflicts between older citizens waiting for the bus and kids from nearby schools. In other areas, the transit stops are hubs of dead space that could be used to better connect local businesses to patrons. 
 
ArtPlace, along with organizations such as the Project for Public Spaces (PPS), the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and Artspace, have been working with cities, planning groups, developers, arts organizations and other stakeholders on placemaking initiatives for several years. Their collective impact is beginning to show. 
 
Boosting the economy and foot traffic
 
Pennsylvania has received more than $3 million in ArtPlace America grants since 2011, which has boosted local economies and made urban neighborhoods safer. ArtPlace America is a collaboration of national and regional funders that awarded $15.2 million in creative placemaking grants across the U.S. this past May. ArtPlace looks for projects that strive for diversity and vibrancy when awarding grants. This year, ArtPlace received more than 1,200 grant applications.
 
It was competitive, but always boils down to the same thing.
 
"It is really about how arts and culture can play a role in changing and advancing places," says Bridget Marquis, ArtPlace America's program director. 
 
In Pittsburgh, the City of Asylum also hopes to increase foot traffic in a soon-to-be redeveloped part of town, focusing on another corridor known as Sampsonia Way.
 
The organization offers residencies to writers seeking asylum from countries around the world. Now, a $300,000 grant will help expand its residencies and programming with temporary and permanent public artworks. Large-scale events will bring international and local talent together to help drive traffic to the area and make the city more appealing to immigrants, Executive Director Henry Reese says.
 
Washington D.C. Director of Planning, Harriet Tregoning, used an ArtPlace grant to create temporary pop-up artist showcases in empty storefronts and lots in 2011. She says creative placemaking is now a permanent part of the city planning process.
 
”Part of what we're learning is that we can temporarily activate those places and help local businesses get a start, help create new centers of community,” says Harriet Tregoning, D.C.'s director of planning.“That temporary activity helps ensure that permanently good things will happen."
 
Tregoning says that in DC, the creative economy represents 10 percent of all jobs. The city suffers from a "Clark Kent complex” in that it’s known for government, but has a thriving arts scene. Creative placemaking is now helping rebrand the city.
 
A $250,000 grant from ArtPlace America helped turn a blighted property in downtown Denver into a rehearsal and performance space for artists. A few months ago, Denver dance company Wonderbound moved into an old used car dealership surrounded by three homeless missions and a notorious park crawling with drug dealers.
 
Wonderbound and partner organization Community Coordinating District No. 1 turned the building into what's now known as Junction Box. Passersby stop to watch dancers perform through large open garage doors and, according to Wonderbound's Artistic Director Garrett Ammon, foot traffic in the area has already increased.
 
“I'm seeing more people riding bikes or strolling from the Curtis Park neighborhood through this part of town to some of the restaurants,” Ammon says. “It's been an intersection in town that people avoid, but we're really seeing some changes.”
 
Origins of placemaking
 
The term "creative placemaking" was coined north of the border in Toronto, Ontario, where the nonprofit Artscape has been turning old buildings into affordable artist housing and studios for more than a quarter century. In 2012, Artscape's tenants conducted over 2,000 performances, exhibitions, and events across the city.  
 
“There's an incredible impact on community vitality and activity, which of course attracts more activity to the neighborhood as a whole," says Pru Robey, Artscape's creative placemaking lab director, who has worked with American organizations to instigate placemaking best practices, and wrote Canada’s only placemaking course.
 
“You then see that multiplier effect start to happen, our projects having a role in the wider regeneration and revitalization of neighborhoods. The economic impacts play out at multiple levels – from the individual artist, to the local community vitality and economic activity, to that wider impact on the transformation of our city.”
 
Outside traditional venues
 
St. Paul, Minnesota's Blue Ox artist group had a different idea for creative placemaking. Having grown up as mini-golf lovers in the working-class West 7th neighborhood, they realized there was a huge redevelopment opportunity for a 15-acre plot of land on the former Schmidt Brewery. They thought, “what if we turned the historic site into a mini-golf park that would also function as a business and pump money back into the arts?”
 
The idea landed them a $350,000 grant. The group will use the money to hire artists to design installation pieces for each hole and contractors to complete infrastructure such as electric and sound. The historic site will be required to maintain a high level of landscaping so that it remains attractive and serves as a kind of urban park.
 
"One of the things that has always driven us is finding ways to bring the arts outside of the traditional venues it's always had," says Gabriel Shapiro, one of four members of the Blue Ox group. "One way is to make large public art like sculptures. If you put it into an interactive context like a mini golf course where the art itself becomes a feature of what you're there to do, it’s no longer just about the game. You're actually interacting with art as you play. It's re-contextualizing how we see art and how we see recreation."
 
For as much as creative placemaking is about communities and cities, it's also about supporting the millions of people who work in the cultural sector.

"For us as artists, it's changed our world too. It's completely changing our perceptions of what art can achieve," says Garrett Ammon of Wonderbound. "We're gaining just as much or more from the experience as anyone else in the community. That sharing of ideas, sharing of inspiration and possibility, that’s what drives us."
 
Sheena Lyonnais is a Toronto-based journalist and the Managing Editor of sister publication Yonge Street Media. You can follow her on Twitter @SheenaLyonnais.
 
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