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by Robert Bedoya
The following is a re-casted version of my essay “Creative Placemaking and the Politics of Belonging and Dis-belonging,” first published on the Arts in a Changing America website. To that end, I’ve expanded the coda section of the original article.
Ella Fitzgerald’s “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” is one of my favorite songs. In her warm and radiant version, you feel each word in pure tones. Ella sings about love—a blind love and the escape from that bewitchment. This is the song that plays in my head when I think about the practices of “Creative Placemaking,” which as an arts manager and policymaker, I define as those cultural activities that shape the physical and social characteristics of a place. I embrace Creative Placemaking in a variety of methods—from city planning to art practices with a goal of advancing humanity. But I am bothered by what I consider a significant blind spot—a blind love of sorts—in the Creative Placemaking discourse and practices. There is a lack of awareness about the politics of belonging and dis-belonging that operate in civil society, and is manifested in racism, classism, sexism, and any other kind of discrimination.
I’m wild again, beguiled again
A simpering, whimpering child again
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered—am I
Wild can be fun. Beguiled? The jury is still out on that one. These lyrics raise a question for me about a blind love associated with Creative Placemaking practices and how we can overlook its misguided aspects. How do we understand and talk about Creative Placemaking within our societies?
In many ways, we must first acknowledge the injustices that occur during the process of placemaking, reflections upon acts of displacement, removal, and containment throughout U.S. history. The forced movement of American Indians from their lands and their confinement to reservations, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the urban redevelopment movement of the 1960s and 1970s that destroyed working poor and ethnic neighborhoods across American cities are all examples of how placemaking is riddled with instances of oppression.
Placemaking in city/neighborhood spaces occurs when personal memories, cultural histories, imagination, and feelings to bring about a sense of “belonging.” But a political understanding of who is in and who is out is also central to civic vitality.
An example of Creative Placemaking can be seen in Tucson’s Folklore Field School, which provides workshops to train adult learners in the methods, ethics, and significance of folklife, community asset mapping, and digital photographic documentation of cultural traditions.
Southern Arizona’s relationship to its land, its indigenous and Latino cultural traditions and histories, the recent waves of Anglo retirees from the Midwest, and refugees from Somalia have produced an expressive culture that reflects their sense of place. The Field School project provides community members with training in how to observe, reflect, document, and write about cultural practices that allow memories, cultural histories, and spatial relationships to create a sense of belonging.
What I’ve witnessed in most of the discussions and practices associated with Creative Placemaking is that participants are tethered to a meaning of “place” manifest in a built environment, such as artists’ live-work spaces, cultural districts, spatial landscapes. And this meaning, which operates inside the policy frame of urban planning and economic development, is not the complete picture. Its insufficiency lies in a lack of understanding that before you have places of belonging, you must feel you belong.
An example of a Creative Placemaking activity that does incorporate the politics of belonging is the Worker Transit Authority (WTA), which presents events that incorporated performance, graphics, and data in a participatory manner designed to facilitate discussion about the issues of land use, infrastructure, transportation, and the environment.
A sense of belonging ties us to the built environment and is linked to the social infrastructures of a locale—its buildings, its relationships, the culture of its citizens. The mayor, the city manager, a real estate developer, an architect, a neighborhood association, an artist, all have visions of a place and its creative potential. The WTA works with these visions and asks Tucsonans to reflect on how they move through the city—by walking, public transportation, bicycling, or driving. It asks us to think about our spatial landscape and what we as placemakers want that animates the interactions between space and community. This example of Creative Placemaking prompts reflection on urban planning processes and spatial justice concerns that address the wants and needs of the public—the routes for moving across town that create a sense of belonging.
A troubling tenor of Creative Placemaking discourse is the avoidance of addressing social and racial injustices at work in society and how they intersect with Creative Placemaking projects.
Creative Placemaking practices must take into account history, critical racial theory, and politics alongside the spatial planning and economic development theories that dominate the discourse. How race, class, poverty, and discrimination shape place—through a politics of belonging or dis-belonging—needs to be reflected upon whether one is engaged with Creative Placemaking practices as an artist, funder, developer, NGO, or governmental agency.
The role of Creative Placemaking activities with regard to civic identity must be to investigate who has and who doesn’t have civil rights. If Creative Placemaking activities support the politics of dis-belonging through acts of gentrification, racism, and real estate speculation, all in the name of neighborhood revitalization, then it betrays the democratic ideal of having an equitable and just civil society.
As a policymaker I argue for the ethos of belonging as central to Creative Placemaking. The blind love of Creative Placemaking that is tied to speculation and its economic thinking of “build it and they will come” is suffocating and unethical, and it manufactures a “place” without including a place’s most important influences. Accounting for the histories and policies of a given place in the process of Creative Placemaking is crucial not just to the functioning of a healthy democracy, but to an animated and engaged civil society. Creative Placemaking is not a development strategy, but a series of actions that build spatial justice, healthy communities, and sites of imaginations.
Ella’s “Bewitched” ends with some words of witnessing:
Wise at last, my eyes at last,
Are cutting you down to your size at last
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered—no more
Let us support the ethics and aesthetics of Creative Placemaking grounded in belonging and have the wisdom of Ella’s witness to blind love gone wrong. Let us reflect upon the work of Creative Placemaking and ask if the activity is engaged in a politics of belonging or dis-belonging. Does it suck out creative life or support it? Is it ethical and just? And let our answers to these questions be central to our self-reflections and discussions of impact, of outcome, of success and failure in the work being done.
The images on the website www.artsinachangingamerica.net that accompany these remarks are examples of arts-based civic engagement projects supported by the Tucson Pima Arts Council’s P.L.A.C.E. (People, Land, Arts, Culture and Engagement) initiative, which is informed by the “ethos of belonging” that I refer to. Launched in 2008, PLACE has funded fifty-seven projects to date with the additional support of the Kresge Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, and the Open Society Foundations.
Examples of Creative Placemaking practices:
1. Tucson Meet Yourself: Folklore Field School
The Folklore Field School provided workshops to train adult learners in the methods, ethics, and significance of folklife, community asset mapping, and digital photographic documentation of cultural traditions.
Southern Arizona’s relationship to its land, its Indigenous and Latino cultural traditions and histories, the recent waves of Anglo retirees from the Midwest and refugees from Somalia have produced an expressive culture that reflects in part the way people understand and express their sense of place. The Field School project provides community members with training in how to observe, reflect, document, and write about cultural practices that allow memories, cultural histories, and spatial relationships to create a sense of belonging.
Field School gave community members who are often the subject of research (e.g., the Native American Yaqui community of Old Pascua in the urban core of Tucson or the cultural bearers of food traditions or heritage practices within the various neighborhoods of the city) the tools to be their own researchers in that DIY citizen movement of participatory democracy that transforms the social landscape. Field School is an example of belonging as community voices asserting agency that shapes and defines place.
2. Bill Mackey: Worker Transit Authority
The Worker Transit Authority (WTA) presented events that incorporated performance, graphics, and data in a participatory manner designed to facilitate discussion about the issues of land use, infrastructure, transportation, and the environment.
A sense of belonging ties us to the built environment and is linked to the social infrastructures of a locale — its buildings, its relationships, the social imaginary of its citizens. The Mayor, the city manager, a real estate developer, an architect, a neighborhood association, an artist, all have visions of a place and its creative potential. The WTA worked with these visions and asked Tucsonans to reflect on how they move through the city — by walking, public transportation, bicycling, or driving. It asked us to think about our spatial landscape and what we want as placemakers that animates the interactions between space and community. This example of Creative Placemaking prompts reflection on urban planning processes and spatial justice concerns that address the wants and needs of the public — the routes for moving across town that create a sense of belonging.
3. Finding Voice
The Finding Voice program engages refugees and immigrants at Catalina Magnet High School to develop their personal and community voice through literacy, visual arts, and civic engagement.
Belonging and civic identity are fundamental to Creative Placemaking. The development of our civic identities through acts of participation, ranging from hanging out in public spaces to voting, intersects with our understanding of our civil rights. The homeless in a public park, the petitioner gathering signatures in front of the supermarket, and the street vendors at the crosswalk all animate place and raise the question of our rights and their relation to place.
Finding Voice works with refugee youth who often face the politics of dis-belonging because of their social status. Their Creative Placemaking activities include art projects at the mall and at bus stops, as well as in print publications that use stories and images to make visible the invisible — their lives that animate place — and affirm the impact of the lives of refugee youth upon our social vitality. Their voices and experiences assert a civic identity that demonstrates how they belong to Tucson as members of our society, as placemakers.
Roberto Bedoya is executive director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council.
[Photo courtesy of Shutterstock]
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