Just watched a livestream of John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, giving a talk at PopTech about how he's rebuilding his poverty-stricken, crumbling, crime-ridden community of 3,000. The situation in Braddock, a town about 10 miles outside Pittsburgh, hasn't completely turned around — the regional health care clinic is closing it's doors in 90 days, which means 675 people will be out of work — but the work Fetterman and the citizens of Braddock have done in the past four years is hopeful.
Not surprisingly, the turnaround started with art — literally, getting the community together to beautify the city with brightly colored murals, signs, painted houses, etc. Fetterman, a large man who has tattoos stamped on both forearms, a long goatee, and the general appearance of a blue collar steel worker who might feel more comfortable at a Steelers football game than at the MET, also began to market Braddock to artists as a place to live and work cheaply (houses and studios can be bought for less than $5,000). To be clear, art wasn't the only thing the citizens of Braddock used to lift their community out of the ashes but it was a simple, viable starting point that could make an immediate impact on both the image of the town and the sense of community within the town.
While Fetterman has made the cover of the November issue of the Atlantic Monthly for his original and impactful ideas, he isn't the first mayor — nor is Braddock the first community — to understand the important role visual art and beautification can play in urban revitalization.
FDR realized what art could do to both alleviate economic woe, lighten the mood, and instill confidence when he started the Federal Art Project (FAP) and the Public Works of Art Program (PWAP) as part of the New Deal. These programs lasted for about ten years between 1933 and the early 1940s and funded over 200,000 murals, sculptures, posters, embroideries, furniture designs, and more for the country's non-federal government buildings. This is how Jackson Pollock, Stuart Davis, Mark Rothko, and other seminal modern American artists got their start. One imagines that the value of the lasting art work is in the tens of billions. Not a bad investment.
In the 1970s in the town of Curitiba, Brazil — long studied and written about as a model for successful urban planning — one of the first things the now legendary mayor of the city, Jamie Lerner, did was to turn the main thoroughfare into a pedestrian mall. There were imminent plans in the works to tear down the turn of the century buildings along the street to widen it in order to build a freeway overpass there. In one weekend, Lerner and his staff jackhammered the pavement, put in cobblestones and street lights, set up newspaper and other kiosks, and planted thousands of flowers. On Monday morning, the business owners loved it so much they asked him to extend the mall. But not everyone was so excited. The next weekend, the local automobile club formed a protest rally by getting in their cars to "reclaim" the street by driving down it, but when the cars arrived they found dozens of kids sitting gleefully in the street painting on long sheets of paper Lerner had rolled out earlier in the day with buckets of paint he supplied. In this case, the use of art became both a direct action to save a city's heritage, and the catalyst for the city's turnaround.
There are many other examples. Detroit now has the highest unemployment rate in the country (it was up to 28 percent in the summer), and home prices have plummeted. This past spring, news stories of artists buying houses for as little as $100 began cropping up, with one city street turning into an artist community of sorts. The Project Row Houses in Houston, Texas, may be serving as a model for the Detroit artists. In 1993, in one of Houston's poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods called the Third Ward, a group of community organizers bought 22 abandoned row houses along a block and a half and turned them into studios, artist's residences, and into sculptures themselves. PRH is now a non-profit and has grown to encompass six blocks with houses for local artists as well as for spaces that cater to the community, including seven houses for young single mothers, a park, and a community gallery.
The PRH organizers, like Braddock's John Fetterman and Curitba's Jamie Lerner, seem to understand why art serves as a vital part of community, and they cite the artist Joseph Beuys, who coined the term "social sculpture" as the basis for their philosophy. "PRH is founded on the principle that art-and the community it creates-can be the foundation for revitalizing depressed inner-city neighborhoods," the Web site states.
In conclusion, I'd like to point out that at the end of the day, the common thread linking Braddock, PA, to the New Deal to Curitiba, Brazil to Houston, Texas, is not the pretty colors and the sculptures; it's the people. Art, Braddock-style, brings the people of a community together in the creation stage, but it also brings people to Braddock. And where there's people, there's an economy. Community equals success.
Photograph by macwagen
Sam is the director of publishing for frog where he oversees frog's global content, editorial, and digital publishing strategy. He is also the editor of design mind, frog's print and online media platform. Sam is the author of numerous books of non fiction and has written for Dwell, Metropolis, GOOD, and other magazines.