by Maria Teresa Roca de Togores, Policy Intern
If you have ever been to any big city like New York, Paris or London, you will know what it means to be surrounded by art and culture every hour of the day. These cities pride themselves on being hubs for creativity and cultural exchange, filled with art venues both historic and modern. It is no surprise then that these cities have also become centers for global tourism, forever attracting new generations looking for opportunities to participate.
It’s also not surprising that investment in the arts has become a strategy employed by local governments as part of a broader economic recovery agenda. But rather than supporting only large institutions such as ballets and symphonies, some are now turning to genres that historically haven’t received much government support.
In a recent article, The Washington Post presents the extremely successful development of Omaha’s first indie rock club, The Slowdown, which was undertaken in part to revive the old and deteriorated North Downtown neighborhood. Music geographer Michael Seman first encountered the Slowdown project seven years ago, and has studied its neighborhood impact ever since; in an accompanying interview, he explains that in his research in Omaha has given him enough proof to argue that “music [can] transform cities” big and small.
This project and Seman’s findings broaden the general understanding of urban development and creative placemaking, but they also emphasize the valuable presence of artists in a community and the importance of their relationship with it, which makes projects like the Slowdown successful and worthwhile.
So what are some key lessons?
First, Seman argues that “city leaders can support—and even build—their artistic communities.” In the case of the Slowdown, the City of Omaha pitched in $1.3 million of the $9.8 million that were invested to complete the project. For musicians and commercial developers, knowing that there is public funding involved in a project can immediately create a good relationship between them and the city leaders. Public participation in a project for the arts also results in further public interest for that particular project when it is finished, and it makes it more accessible to diverse kinds of patrons.
Second, far beyond simply studying the success or failure of an urban development project, Seman looks at the Slowdown as a creative and artistic vehicle to build community in an area that was once largely forsaken. As he defines it, his work consists of “the examination of music and how it interacts with the people, economy, built environment, and technology”.
It is about connections and relationships between the social structure, the city leaders and the musicians that are going to be using the new Slowdown’s space. But it’s also is about making the arts more available for the audience and the city more accessible to artists.
Third, artists go where art is preserved and promoted. Then, intellectuals follow artists. New communities seeking innovation appear. When cities make an effort to build such relationships with the musicians in their environment, investment in their communities grow exponentially.
In the Omaha neighborhood of North Downtown this outcome is still in the makings, but already “ two apartment buildings, a restaurant, a coffee shop, an independent cinema” and a clothing retailer have been opened in the area after the Slowdown was established, according to the Post. As the area around the Slowdown becomes more popular, more and more “dynamic people with a lot of creative energy” will be increasingly attracted to settle there, Seman says.
Of course, a key challenge as more and more cities invest in music and culture as means of advancing urban development agendas, is to make sure that musicians themselves ultimately benefit from the redevelopment process And in neighborhoods that are more populated than North Downtown Omaha was, it’s especially important to weigh the impacts on neighborhoods historic and current populations. There are a number of troubling stories nationally where predominantly white artists have been encouraged to move into a neighborhood, displacing families of color who had historically lived there, only to find that they are ultimately priced out of the neighborhoods themselves.
Overall, though, it’s great to see more attention paid to research that confirms what we’ve known all along: that space for music is more than a neighborhood amenity; it’s a central feature of healthy civic life.
Image by flickr user okobojierik, used via CC license.