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.

1 comment:

urbanursus said...

Your argument seems to attempt to marry your critique of these presentations with a larger argument you have made in other avenues. You argue that the way to bridge modern urban immigrants (i.e. people who have moved into the city from suburbs) who do not “know how to live” in a city and who maintain their suburban life patterns in the city, with their communities is through the creation of appropriate cultural activities. However you make a few questionable assumptions, and don’t answer enough questions.

Your criticize urban immigrants for not knowing the neighborhoods of this city well enough. Well, I lived up the street (on Germantown Avenue) for years and had no idea where Francisville was. I still don’t really. I don’t know neighborhoods in North East Philly. I would bet you Manhattanites have no idea how to get some places if they are not on their own subway line. Its not simply that people don’t know Philly because they are new. Even in Philly we only know our own little circles. Don’t confuse your knowledge, built upon a desire to know this city and inclination to visit every nook and cranny through your work, to be the norm.

You suggest that in other cities people are far more aware of neighborhoods. I am not so sure that our urban immigrants are so very comparatively unaware. It could be that we simply have so many more neighborhoods with distinct identities, where as in other cities their neighborhoods are larger, and their more minute distinctions don’t translate to a medium where outsiders get them or talk about them.

Dude, generally speaking I am skeptical about this thesis. My initial thinking is to actually say that this plannerific bullshit. However I usually like how you think, so I am willing to listen to you further on this, but I would need more details and I would need you to answer some of the following questions for me,

“What are the cultural demands for “old Philadelphians” and the demands for “new Philadelphians” and how do they over lap?”

“How do shared cultural activities bridge this gap” Are you saying that both old and new Philadelphians will go to West Philadelphia Orchestra? Will they all do murals together” What are these shared arts expressions and how, mechanically, do they bring people together?”

“Are there other ways to do this? Why the arts? Why not shared civic engagement around neighborhood parks, etc.” Have you seen the stuff done at NeighborhoodsNow, the Martin Luther King Design Day of Service, done with Community Design Collaborative, they have done EXACTLY the kind of thing you are talking about. There have been real, and real successful efforts at this with our Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative that bridge this gap not through arts and culture but through problem solving.

“How can we leverage existing resources for this? Can Mural Arts do this” That arts center on Lancaster (Elanor Bye Center or what ever its called?) Prove to me that this is not a new funding stream request.

While I agree with your thesis about the suburbanized attitudes of new immigrants, I think there are a variety of issues facing integration into real Philadelphia and I don’t know if cultural events / programming are the ways to bridge that gap. I am thinking that the ways of life are so vastly different that simple arts and culture is a misapplication of resources.

I think the real problem with this panel was their inability to think about problem solving beyond institutional basis. They think the answer to filling in the knowledge gap for new Philadelphia immigrants is a website, as opposed to strengthening the informal networks that have worked for ages and can be targeted through the arts schools. They think that we need to develop an “avenue of the arts north” when while Broad Street North does need redevelopment, the application of the arts to it is not really addressing the problem. They refuse to look at the artists as an entrepreneur, as Matty Hart tried to explain. Until they stop thinking like big city developers, we will still have unwieldy solutions to the wrong problems.