Your Turn: Ninth St. concerns deserve attention

Over the past couple of months, there has been lots of conversation about the Lawrence Arts Center’s proposed development for East Ninth Street. At city commission, East Lawrence neighborhood meetings, in the Journal-World and on the street, people have been discussing the potential impacts and opportunities of this first-of-its-kind project in Lawrence.

Reflecting on the origins of this project, and studying recent evaluations of the new practice of creative placemaking, may help shed light on many of the concerns and questions that have been raised.

In 2010, Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa Nicodemus completed “Creative Placemaking,” the National Endowment for the Arts report that introduced this new practice to a wider public. It was this report that launched the creative placemaking funding initiatives Our Town and later ArtPlace, which are at the center of the proposed East Ninth Street project.

But just two years after co-authoring the NEA’s paper, Markusen wrote of her unease about how ArtPlace was measuring creative placemaking success. She writes, “ArtPlace is developing ‘measures of value, which capture changes in rental and ownership values…’ This reads like an invitation to gentrification, and contrary to the NEA’s aspirations for creative placemaking to support social cohesion and community attachment.”

This is not a surprise. Gadwa Nicodemus and Markusen alerted us to the potential of creative placemaking to spur gentrification in their original NEA paper when they wrote, “Arts-initiated revitalization can set off gentrification pressures that displace current residents and small businesses, including non-profit arts organizations.”

And they are not alone in their concern.

In his 2013 essay, “Placemaking and the Politics of Belonging and Dis-Belonging,” Roberto Bedoya, executive director of the Tucson Pima County Arts Council, writes, “The blind love of Creative Placemaking that is tied to the allure of speculation culture and its economic thinking of ‘build it and they will come’ is suffocating and unethical, and supports a politics of dis-belonging employed to manufacture a ‘place.'”

These comments by respected arts leaders are clearly reflected in the dialogue that has emerged around the proposed East Ninth Street project. Although East Lawrence was represented on the Cultural District Task Force, which made general recommendations for the Cultural District, the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association was not consulted in the development of the actual ArtPlace and Our Town grants related to East Ninth Street. Concerns about this perceived lack of agency in the process led ELNA to initiate forums for discussion around the project’s implications, including facilitated public meetings and the three-hour “Imagining East Ninth Street” event.

Comments from many participants at these meetings expressed the need for accountability and the desire for full participation in the overall process. These ideas taken together concern social equity — the idea that fair access to livelihood, education and resources; full participation in the political and cultural life of the community; and self-determination in meeting fundamental needs is a social good intrinsic to healthy and just communities.

In her 2014 article, “The Gentrification of Our Livelihoods: Everything must go,” about an ArtPlace-funded project in San Francisco, writer Megan Wilson speaks directly to this need for equity. She writes, “To achieve these ends, we must work to put far more pressure on our city officials and hold them accountable to provide the best services, opportunities and amenities for residents, while ensuring that existing communities are protected and supported through high functioning planning, permitting and legislation with strong and clear avenues for oversight and accountability by their constituencies.”

This is what many East Lawrence residents have been advocating for: genuine accountability and an acknowledgment of the value that their unique experience and knowledge can bring to the process.

Hiring the city’s first director of arts and culture, Christina McClelland, whose job included facilitating the East Ninth Street process, was a step in the right direction. Her expertise and experience were shown to be integral in creating an informed and equitable process. Unfortunately, that position is now vacant and we’ve been left adrift without a director of arts and culture to navigate the complex and sensitive dynamics of that project.

But perhaps this is a good thing. Maybe it’s exactly what we need: time to pause and reflect on the underlying questions and concerns the proposed East Ninth Street project has raised. Doing so will go a long way to ensuring that those impacted most by the project have a strong voice in its planning and implementation. It will also allow us to be much better prepared when the new director of arts and culture arrives, and the process of the Ninth Street project resumes.

— Dave Loewenstein is an artist and writer based in Lawrence.