For Gateway City leaders, time to get creative
Worcester City Manager Michael O’Brien, Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong,
Building a vibrant arts sector has become a popular idea in urban revitalization circles. The arts can enliven a dormant downtown, generate an influx of young creative types, and provide an economic shot in the arm to cities that desperately need it.
Pulling off such a transformation is a challenge that falls as much on pols as painters, which is why Wednesday’s Gateway Cities Creative Placemaking Summit in Lowell, sponsored by MassINC, included a panel discussion with leaders of four gateway cities. Working at the ground level, and with all the fiscal constraints municipal leaders are under, these officials need a creative flair of their own to make headway.
For newly-elected Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse that means figuring out how to bring arts into the design of 50 waste barrels and new downtown benches — as well as building support for the $28 million renovation of a long dormant theater. In New Bedford, with a mixed-use neighborhood taking hold downtown, Mayor Jon Mitchell is working on a plan to transform a parking lot into a park (think Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” in reverse). It’s an idea, he says, modeled on the widely praised Post Office Square park in downtown Boston.
While the summit’s keynote speaker, Anne Gadwa, coauthor of a white paper on creative placemaking underwritten by the National Endowment for the Arts, cited concerns over gentrification as one of the challenges to the arts effort, that is the sort of problem some Gateway City mayors would welcome at this point. Morse recently moved into a Holyoke loft, in part to help promote the idea of residential life in what can be an awfully desolate downtown. “Let’s get more residents here, more market-rate housing,” he said.
The arts can be an important part of the comeback of cities that were once fueled by the industrial might of mills and factories, as this 2006 CommonWealth story on Pittsfield showed. The idea of “creative placemaking” got a huge lift from Richard Florida’s 2002 bestseller, The Rise of the Creative Class. Florida argued that attracting creative types, artists, and gays is a key to the revitalization of modern American cities.
Creativity is a huge part of the transition from an industrial to knowledge-based economy, so there is certainly some truth to Florida’s argument. But the idea that cities can put all their eggs in the creative economy basket while ignoring the basics of safe neighborhoods and decent schools seems like shortsighted folly. “A sexier public space won’t bring many jobs if it isn’t safe,” writes Harvard economist Edward Glaeser in Triumph of the City, published last year. “All the cafes of Paris won’t entice parents to put their kids in a bad public school system.”It is heartening that the Gateway Cities leaders seem well aware of that. Indeed, Wong began by remarking that the arts summit and a scheduled Thursday meeting of Gateway City mayors on education issues are really two parts of the same revitalization effort.
That said, the urban leaders now have their work cut out for them. The proposed 2013 budget released today by the House Ways and Means Committee eliminates a $10 million initiative proposed by the Patrick administration to support education projects in Gateway Cities and trims $1.2 million from the Massachusetts Cultural Council budget.