The Downside of Professionalizing Neighborhood Revitalization
I spend a fair amount of time thinking about how Cleveland’s large philanthropic and nonprofit sector impacts the city. A lot of my friends work in this sector. In fact, in Cleveland it’s sort of hard to escape. Like anything, in some ways it’s good, but in some ways it’s bad.
I just returned from a trip to Chicago where, of course, my favorite part was a bookstore. This bookstore was in the hipster neighborhood, again of course, and it was filled with interesting stuff, books and zines on contemporary art, revolutionaries, sex, fiction. There’s really just nothing like it in Cleveland, and I don’t mean that to knock our bookstores; they have to be general and less niche because our city is smaller. But that’s what I love most about big progressive cities. All those cutting edge ideas, people experimenting. It made me depressed about Cleveland.
I remember when I lived in Columbus in college, I was exposed to a lot of this kind of stuff. It’s sort of my thing, discovering cool new art, music. I’m also intrigued by radical ideas. Cleveland doesn’t seem to nurture that the way it seems like it would. For all the lip service this region pays to the arts, I don’t come across much local art that impresses me (though there is some good stuff out there if you look). But generally, this city seems to always be pushing some mediocre, commercial version of art that is boring and tiring, the kind of thing that a wacky art teacher with low standards would praise. Pittsburgh and Detroit, from my limited perspective, seem to have much more vibrant and interesting art scenes.
I think part of the problem is the way we have institutionalized art in Cleveland. There are basically like four organizations that serve as the curators of what is well known in terms of art here. These organizations are run by nice people whom I know personally; they have been some of the biggest supporters of this blog. I like them. But they are institutions that answer to funders and government officials. These people all tend to be pretty conservative, at least as far as the art world goes. That’s necessary. They sit in offices all day writing grants.
But as a result, they sometimes promote a brand of art that is conservative, and sometimes bland. I also think they have a tendency to promote, probably unintentionally and very naturally, people who are like them, in terms of income level or racial background or worldview. That means people who are outside the mainstream or have radical ideas are silenced or ignored. The problem is those are the folks that tend to make the best art.
Check out this mural that was recently installed by Cleveland’s West Side Market. In Cleveland, we have a tendency to hand out gold stars to anyone who tries, especially if they’re nice people. But this mural–I hate it.
It’s so boring it barely merits mention. It’s trite as well. Yes, the West Side Market sells food. How provocative!
Art is supposed to be fun to look at. It’s supposed to be a break from the monotony of everyday life. It’s supposed to make people think and talk. This mural fails on all those levels.
What does this mural say about Cleveland? I guess it says Cleveland cares about food, which again smacks of some corporate marketing firm’s branding idea of what Cleveland is. The mural is oddly like an ad actually, an ad for Maxwell House Coffee circa 1950.
Was this mural created before or after the contemporary art movement? You would never be able to tell. There isn’t a trace of the street art movement that is celebrated in cities the world over, a movement that celebrates youth and rebellion and rejects consumerism.
Here’s an example of some public murals in Miami and Pittsburgh.
Anyway, I freaking hate that mural. If I was an artist living in Cleveland, I would be insulted by it. I don’t know a lot of top artists that live in Cleveland. But I’m not sure they would be celebrated if they did live here, so why would they, I guess.
Anyway, that mural was commissioned by a nonprofit and approved by another nonprofit and then some city officials and so I guess we’re stuck with it now and I guess it is marginally better than a blank wall and it won’t upset any suburban people, which I’m sure was the point.
But that’s not the kind of thing that makes cities attractive. I am 100 percent certain that if we would have taken out the nonprofits and the government officials, we could have developed a superior mural.
A small business owner and personal friend in Columbus commissioned this mural, and it’s something that I would look at for a full minute without someone paying me to.
In this case, and in many others in Cleveland, the nonprofit or the government agency serves a role that might be better served by community residents–the revitalization of a neighborhood, for example.
Wicker Park in Chicago and Short North in Columbus are neighborhoods that didn’t become fashionable because nonprofit organizations did a really good job. They’re unique, with vibrant economies, but they followed a well-known pattern: some slightly marginalized or counter-cultural group (bohemians or hipsters in Wicker Park and gays in Short North) moved in and started making it their own, which in turn made it cool.
In Cleveland, that role belongs to a nonprofit, and they are sort of skipping the cool phase altogether. Nonprofit community development organizations on the near West Side of Cleveland are run by white men with college degrees who are pushing or have reached middle age. And they are effective in some ways, but believe me, they’re not aiming for hipsters or gays; they’re aiming right at folks with money, hence the idea that up and coming neighborhoods need more parking, to attract suburbanites which will somehow fix the neighborhood.
It’s sort of stifling. The neighborhood won’t belong to creatives quite the way it would in Columbus and Chicago. The neighborhood will never becomes weird and culturally distinctive. There’s never a bookstore with objectionable material on the front counter because of, well, suburbanites and kids. People don’t loiter in the streets playing music or skateboarding because they have their own security forces to take care of that stuff.
So our neighborhoods become like the mural–bland, generic, and consumerist instead of interesting.