Friday, October 31, 2008
Arts and Culture, and the New Philadelphia
It has been Phillies mania over the last couple of days, but this post is about a forum that took place earlier in the evening, before the final World Series game, in that ancient time when Philly’s baseball fate was still uncertain.
Young Involved Philadelphia hosted a panel discussion Wednesday night on “Philadelphia as a Center of Innovation.” The panelists were Meryl Levitz, James Kise, Ted Lewis, and Matty Hart. Interestingly, the discussion was directed almost exclusively on the topic of arts and culture as the heart of Philadelphia’s new, younger, hipper image.
Meryl Levitz talked about the challenges of attracting both visitors and permanent residents. She stressed the competitive advantage of Philadelphia to attract New Yorkers who want to own an affordable home and live in a transit-friendly, cosmopolitan place. However, she cautioned that many transplants from New York seek to maintain their NYC identity while living in their adopted city. Naturally this emerging dynamic creates serious challenges.
Jim Kise discussed his experiences in planning the Avenue of the Arts, and was emphatic in his belief in the potential for the Avenue of the Arts North (i.e., from City Hall to about Lehigh Avenue). He noted the strategy spearheaded by then-Mayor Rendell for Avenue of the Arts South, of attracting new development for several vacant pieces of land that were close enough together to build a new continuity of place, and establish an identity. This strategy will be critical for Avenue of the Arts North, but even more challenging considering the much larger distance and greater disinvestment.
Ted Lewis discussed the important role of artists in the early stages of gentrification (my word, not his). He cited the usual examples in New York (SoHo, Chelsea, Williamsburg), and stressed the potential for this type of pioneering in Philadelphia. He also discussed the trend of artists pioneering and then being priced out of neighborhoods. He raised the important point of the need for new policies to protect affordable housing and live-work spaces in revitalized neighborhoods with rising home prices.
(For more on this topic, see my related post from 10/23/08 below – "Equitable Gentrification" – and my op-ed in the Inquirer from June 2007).
Finally, Matty Hart talked about the role of artist as entrepreneur. He felt that the City and its Commerce Department were missing out on strategic investments to assist artists, by failing to view them as the small business owners that they essentially are. He suggested competitive loan programs for artists to purchase a printing press or other expensive supplies.
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Overall, I was disappointed by the extent to which the discussion of arts and culture focused on the Avenue of the Arts and the Kimmel Center. Certainly all of the panelists are accomplished and knowledgeable leaders in their fields. However, Philadelphia is changing in profound ways, and I wonder whether the players who have been working here for years and decades understand the younger, hipper Philadelphia, and what it means for our social and civic landscape.
This question reminds me of a topic discussed by Mayor Nutter’s new sustainability coordinator, Mark Alan Hughes, in a Daily News column back in 2007. Hughes wrote: “THE BIG THEME of 2007 is this: We need a mayor who can manage the tensions between old and new Philadelphians. … [A] mayor who sees the potential bonds between new and old Philadelphians, who sees the ways in which each is necessary to the other's prosperity, is a mayor prepared to lead Philadelphia out of the dead-end Street and toward a better place.”
The existence of an old and new Philadelphia is clear: culturally, socially, and most glaringly, geographically. One of the speakers Wednesday night mentioned Francisville, and I heard a whisper from the young crowd, “where is Francisville?” I heard similar responses when I used to tell people I worked in Parkside. I recently got a blank stare from another young, hip Philadelphian when I mentioned Bartram’s Garden.
The fact is that the new Philadelphia is bringing many exciting and important elements to our city, rebuilding its population and reviving ailing neighborhoods. However the new Philadelphia is creating sort of a bubble within Philadelphia that overlaps with some elements of the old, while staying relatively separated from the massive rest of the world which is Philadelphia.
In New York, Chicago, Boston and other major cities, residents in one area seem to at least be aware of the expanse of neighborhoods and opportunities that exist throughout the rest of the city. Why is Philadelphia different in this regard? How can we bring a new level of awareness (if not understanding) between Fishtown transplants and Fishtown natives; families in Center City and families in El Centro del Oro; Passyunk Avenue and Germantown Avenue; Manayunk and Mantua; Parkwood and Parkside; East Falls and Eastwick?
Sitting in the audience Wednesday night, taking in the discussion, it struck me that perhaps arts and culture is the perfect venue for starting to bridge this gap. In other cities, arts initiatives have had a powerful impact in connecting neighborhoods and bringing to the surface the secret stories of a city’s people and communities. Certainly there are some similar initiatives that have been attempted in Philadelphia, but nothing in a venue and scale that has really captured the interest and attention of the old or the new Philadelphia in a significant way.
The fact is, the real arts and culture scene in Philadelphia spans the city’s 135 square miles, its dozens of communities, its range of ethnic and cultural identities. This is a powerful force that we should harness. What was certainly clear Wednesday night is that the conversation about arts and culture, and the new urban renaissance of Philadelphia needs to evolve and expand. It has to become citywide in scope, more advanced in its treatment of urban demographic shifts, and more dynamic in its approach.
The conversation that YIP started Wednesday night ended in time for Obama’s speech and the Phillies’ World Series win (!), but left more questions unanswered than answered. This is a dialogue that will need to continue with more players, more time, and much more creativity.
Posted by Gregory Heller