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Creative Placemaking for Every Community

Greenville, Mississippi. Desert Hot Springs, California. Thomas, West Virginia. It would be difficult to find three places in America that are more distinct from one another. But these small, rural towns have something special in common: they are using arts and culture as a tool to bring new life to their communities.

Arts and Culture for Revitalization
Known as creative placemaking, the use of arts and culture in community development has gained recognition as a successful strategy. Erik Takeshita, the director of creative placemaking for Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) observes, “Arts and culture are a powerful force. Powerful enough to transform physical space, spur economic activity and tell a story about a place. They can change the reputation and the trajectory of a community.”

Tamaqua, PA is home to "Dear Tamaqua," an effort to build community through cultural expression.

Photo by KAWhitley via Creative Commons

LISC’s creative placemaking philosophy holds that arts and culture-based development takes three main forms: Community cultural development (providing cultural programming for residents); culturally relevant physical development (public art projects, artist housing, gallery and performance spaces); and the creation of arts and cultural districts that attract visitors and strengthen local economies. Rural LISC is supporting its CDC partners to take on this work in more than a dozen communities nationwide.

The Rural Cultural Context
Just as every community is unique, creative placemaking naturally looks different in each place. While rural communities may not have the same depth of human capital or financial resources that urban communities can call upon, they have their own unique assets that serve creative placemaking very well.

Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, one of the originators of the term “creative placemaking,” writes: “Two assets are of particular relevance to creative placemaking [in the rural context]. In a country overrun by look-alike strip malls and big-box stores, rural landscapes offer some of our last bastions of distinctiveness. Some rural communities have also retained cultural practices outside of the mainstream, such as craft artisanship, and language, dance, and culinary traditions.”

In other words, rural communities can offer an authentic cultural heritage and experience that is not often found in the rest of America. From blues music in the Mississippi Delta to Appalachian folk art, distinctive local culture can be used to connect people in a community more closely to one another, to transform the physical appearance of a place, and to spur the growth of tourism and arts-related economic engines for towns seeking to replace and grow employment opportunities.

Placemaking Through Community Cultural Development
Creative placemaking can increase a community’s sense of identity and pride by engaging residents in cultural programming such as festivals, musical performances and arts education, often in reclaimed public spaces. Such activities can and do attract visitors from beyond the community, but the local residents are often the primary targets and the main beneficiaries.

Poster for the 2013 Delta Blues & Heritage Festival in Greenville, MS

Poster artwork by Himes Weekly, III

Mississippi Action for Community Education (MACE), a CDC in Greenville, Mississippi, founded the Delta Blues & Heritage Festival in 1978. In its early days, the Festival served as both music performance and community gathering. Holding the event in a poverty-stricken rural community, MACE showcased the blues as a traditional form of cultural expression in the Mississippi Delta, but also demonstrated the urgent needs of the communities from which the blues sprung.

Now in its 38th year, the Festival attracts visitors from all over the country and contributes nearly $3 million annually to the local economy, but it remains a deeply rooted community event, relying largely on volunteer labor. Over the years, MACE has added other community-building programs that complement the Festival and focus on the region’s rich cultural heritage, including the Delta Dialogue on Cultural Tourism and cultural arts programs for youth.

Ballet Folklorico dancers in California

Courtesy Coachella Valley Housing Coalition

Other examples of community cultural development abound. In Southern California’s agricultural interior, the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition (CVHC) is using Ballet Folklorico and Mariachi programs to enrich the lives of low-income youngsters and to teach positive skills such as concentration, commitment and collaboration that will be relevant in all aspects of their lives. While the Coachella Valley is famous for a music festival that attracts visitors from all over the world, CVHC’s programs are the only arts-related activities available to local youth.

In Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, the Tamaqua Area Community Partnership partnered with local arts organizations to launch “Dear Tamaqua,” a multi-year project to bring the community together through the sharing of their stories, memories and hopes for the future. Fostering both individual artistic expression and community bonding, “Dear Tamaqua” collects residents’ letters, songs, artwork and poems, which will serve as inspiration for a culminating community event.

Placemaking Through Culturally Relevant Physical Development
Creative placemaking can spur physical change in communities, replacing or “remaking” vacant or blighted structures with murals, sculptures and investments in artist housing, galleries and theaters.

Large windows bring light to the Lace Mill building

RUPCO is transforming the 19th-century United States Lace Mill building in Kingston, New York into 55 units of affordable housing, giving priority in its tenant selection to artists who will live and work there. The project will also feature a collective gallery, studio and workshop spaces marketable to the arts community. Located in Kingston’s Midtown Arts District, the Lace Mill will be part of a cluster of arts-related enterprises that includes galleries and studio spaces, arts-related manufacturing and retail businesses, performance spaces and artist residences. With large windows letting in ample light, the space will be appealing to artists and the redevelopment of the long-vacant building will add new life to an area dominated by industrial uses and railroad tracks.

Placemaking Through the Creation of Arts and Cultural Districts
Creative placemaking can strengthen local economies, as eye-catching storefronts, new cultural activities, and intriguing installations bring in customers and attract new businesses. For small, isolated communities where downtowns have largely gone vacant, attracting visitors is an economic necessity.

The Purple Fiddle, a live-music venue in Thomas, WV

MountainMade WV via Creative Commons

In its coal-mining heyday a century ago, the tiny town of Thomas, West Virginia boasted a population of more than 2,000 people. By 2010, with the last mine having closed more than 50 years before, the population was a mere 586. Several nonprofits, including Rural LISC partner Highland Community Builders (HCB) and its affiliate, Woodlands Development Group, have worked to preserve historic buildings, create a thriving arts scene and make the town a destination for live music and art aficionados. Along with nearby outdoor recreation opportunities, Thomas’ arts district attracts a healthy share of tourism. While the town itself is thriving, existing residents are facing competition in the housing market from people buying second homes in the area.

Thomas’ arts district developed organically, but careful and methodical planning is now required to guarantee its continued success and sustainability. Seeking to ensure that future development is community-focused and sensitive to the local context, HCB convened a series of roundtables on Arts and Economic Development and performed a Housing and Small Business needs assessment. HCB is now moving to incorporate that information into a cohesive arts and economic development plan for the area.

For rural communities, revitalization is about creating greater opportunity for residents without losing the unique sense of place. The projects described above, as unique as they are, share some common traits that make them successful. They depend on community engagement – in the planning stages, in the execution, as the audience, or all of the above. They value and use the cultural resources that already exist in the communities – the musical traditions, the resident artists or, in the case of Tamaqua, the community members themselves. And finally, they strengthen the ties that bind residents to their communities and to one another, looking into the hearts of their communities and answering, What makes us “us”?

For more information on creative placemaking, see the Arts and Culture section of the Institute website.

Posted in Arts & Culture, Rural Community Development

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