Vibrancy Is For People

One of the “pop-up” vacant storefronts in the Twin Cities Starling Project, a collaboration between artists, developers, and architects.

Thomas Frank has been making the rounds. Not only has he assumed Lapham’s editor’s chair at Harper’s and re-ignited The Baffler, he lately published a characteristic diatribe that wickedly skewers how the term “vibrancy” is used by non-profit funders, civic boosters, and artists as a façade for economic stability. Don’t get me wrong, I love poking holes in the great veil of NPR smugness that blankets urban liberal culture, I love hating the superfluities of starchitecture, and nothing makes my schadenfreude pique more than a dig at Richard Florida’s “creative class.” But frankly, when you start picking on struggling urban artists, I lose my culture of cool.

In his essay, Frank argues that vibrancy has become another empty overused buzzword. And of course, he’s half right. “Vibrant” joins a long list of empty planning jargon that includes “vitality,” “sustainabiltiy,”  “best practices,”  and (my doggerel champion) “stakeholder.” Gertrude Stein demonstrated long ago any word repeated enough times reduces to noise, and vibrancy is no exception. The world itself seems specially dumbing — vibrant, vibrant, vibrant — the dull notes of ‘v’ and ‘b’ thudding on the ears like a rubber drainplug.

And Frank’s correct that urban economic planning is particularly prone to snake oil. As Phil Hartman’s salesman explains in the Simpson’s Monorail episode, “a town with money is like a mule with a spinning wheel; no one knows how he got it and danged if he knows how to use it.” Cities across America are littered with stadia, casinos, abandoned downtown malls, forlorn skyways, and haggard aquariums. Frank’s critique of urban boondoggles mirrors Michael Moore’s hilarious documentation of Autoworld’s six-month flop in Roger & Me, which (needless to say) failed to bring vibrancy to Flint, Michigan. There’s no doubt that city officials are prone to easy folly.

I also agree with Frank that public art isn’t going to change the structure of the global economy. It isn’t even going to come close. It’s like asking a fish to change the flow of a river. (Remember: only 19th century Chicago can do that.) Midwestern cities like Frank’s Missouri foils are stuck in a economic current that extends back for over a century. St Louis’ economic influence peaked in 1850, and no number of Gateway Arches or contemporary art museums are going to undo decades of neoliberal economic policy.

One of the arts installations in the recent Artists in Storefronts project in Minneapolis’ Whittier neighborhood.

But there’s a difference between economic and artistic vibrancy. Lately in the Twin Cities, I’ve been struck by the emerging collaboration between the arts community and people engaged in urban design. Artists have a great deal to offer struggling Midwestern cities, far more than simple clichés about gentrification. For example, right now in the Twin Cities there are two different initiatives applying “tactical urbanism” to empty storefronts and shop windows, getting “eyes on the street” through window art, pop-up shops, and temporary installations. Minneapolis just hosted a wildly popular all-night public art festival that brought thousands of people out of their living rooms and into city parks and commercial neighborhoods. St Paul’s (literally) groundbreaking sidewalk poetry may not save the economy, but it will make it slightly more pleasant to walk to the corner store and buy local. To say that you are an artist is to say that you are engaging in precisely in the kind of “durable productive enterprise” that Frank champions.

St Paul’s sidewalk poetry program.

Public art is such a powerful tool for community engagement precisely because it takes artistic practice away from gaudy starchitect museums and out into aging urban neighborhoods. Too long our cities have been turning its back on public spaces, neglecting the sidewalks that cultivate Jane Jacobs’ twin champions, density and diversity. Having a “vibrant arts community” doesn’t mean that factories are going to magically open up in cities that de-industrialized long ago, but it might mean that the city becomes more of a place where artists can make a living, more likely a place that people want to appreciate and make into a home. I’d venture to say that Frank isn’t fed up with vibrant art so much as with bad art.

In a way, vibrancy is people. Just as Jacobs seminal essay, “Cities Are For People” was an attempt to re-focus the attention of planners away from megaprojects and toward everyday people using city streets, the turn to “vibrancy” focuses our gaze on the hearts of the cities that Frank wants to save. Having a vibrant city may be a cloying cliché, but it’s aimed at luring people toward the shops of main street, into city parks, and onto the sidewalks. The fear that public arts funding may not spur large-scale industrial redevelopment is beside the point. Public art aims at re-focusing existing economic activity away from isolating strip malls and back into the hearts of our streets and towns.

Will Missouri ever be considered cool? Not if you ask a New Yorker. There’s a big difference between Manhattan, Kanasas and Manhattan, Manhattan, and Jefferson City will never look hip when viewed from 5th Avenue.  Maybe we should be ask instead, what’s the worth of a “vibrant arts community”?  That will be found on main streets across the country. Blindly following Frank’s suggestion of spending money on “highways and bridges” is far more likely to incentivize Ponzi development and bix-box sprawl than resurrect the Middle West. Instead, we need to re-value what we already have. We need to spend our ever-diminshing resources on fixing up, maintaining, and re-investing in the abandoned towns, cities, and main streets. Who is going to do that without artists?

If the arts aren’t going to save the Midwest, then I fear that nothing is. Frank’s list of political poultices is laudable – universal health care, fair trade policies, ending corporate agriculture – but even paving our streets with back issues of The Baffler would be unlikely to move us toward those goals. If Frank doesn’t think that art can be political, he’s been going to the wrong galleries. Sure there’s a lot of meaningless public art plopped onto pedestals and plazas, but there are also a great many artists making vibrant political connections. I’d bet that the seeds of change that Frank desires will sprout not from a literary garden, but from well-heeled street corner. And, yes, it will be vibrant.


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7 Responses to Vibrancy Is For People

  1. Evan Roberts
    Evan July 18, 2012 at 4:40 am #

    I agree that policy is important in why American cities are why they are, but really "neoliberal"?

    In comparative perspective, the "decline" of American cities can be traced to the statist over-building of freeways abetted by all levels of government, the dirigiste land use (parking and zoning) policies of most local governments, and white flight during/after the Civil Rights movement. Those all date to the 1950s through 1970s.

    I interpret neoliberal policies as flourishing later than that, from the 1970s onwards. The sad thing is that neoliberal attention to state and federal policies has barely noticed the policies at a local level that are deleterious to cities.

    On Frank's broader diatribe, American local governments seem to have the attitude that they'll make it difficult to construct or change buildings or land use in the central city, wonder why the city is struggling, and then put public money into things like stadiums or public art or whatever to "revitalize" the city.

    Get the basic policy right, and we won't have this succession of dogmas about whether art or sports will revitalize cities. As Nathaniel Hood always points out (and he's right) they don't have an "entertainment district" in Melbourne.

    • Evan Roberts
      Evan July 18, 2012 at 4:46 am #

      [can't seem to edit my own comment] The importance of basic policy can be seen right here in the Twin Cities where St Paul requires restaurants to have off-street parking right from the get-go, and Minneapolis exempts the first 4000 square feet.

      Taste is subjective, but that's why Minneapolis has a lot more restaurants than St Paul. The Cupcake parking saga shows the difference starkly (http://www.startribune.com/local/yourvoices/139584884.html).

      On the other hand, there are ways in which St Paul's liquor policies might be better :)

      • Bill Lindeke
        Bill Lindeke July 18, 2012 at 4:48 am #

        Great points! Esp about the parking req's, one of my frustrations.

  2. Ian Bicking July 18, 2012 at 6:23 am #

    I think it makes more sense when I replace "vibrant" with "hustle". Vibrancy certainly isn't just a synonym for prosperity, as Frank seems to imply – there are many prosperous places that aren't vibrant (many of them suburbs, though I think Lake Of The Isles would qualify as well). Vibrancy implies a certain churn to me, of ideas attempted, some succeeding, some not, many ideas not even having a real concept of "succeed" – which is where art comes into play. When you have delightful decorations in a new cafe there's a hope that there will be returns on that investment. But if you put up "art" there isn't really a concept of success. Which is very conductive to hustle – there's nothing sustainable about art, it's not like resurfaced roads where you can say "we've finished this art very well," instead "art" is only justified by the next thing.

    I've personally never really liked the term "artist," or at least I think about it similar to the term "driver" – a driver is a person who is driving, an artist is a person who is making art. It's not a demographic, it's a state of being. When I look at the effort a few years back to make an "artist community" on Chicago Avenue, it feels like they made a whole series of category errors. Who qualifies as an "artist"? Why would they want to live in institutionally built subsidized housing? If art is making, have they done anything to facilitate making? But of course not, because the area wasn't zoned for the making of things.

    If you consider "artist" as "someone who makes things because they wish things to be made" then it's easy to see why they benefit the community. But if you just import artists so they can make some art and leave, then I you haven't accomplished much. The process undermines the art itself; turns art into "public art," which I think is where some of Frank's discouragement comes from. And perhaps where Frank rightly sees us putting the cart in front of the horse: art is a side effect of engaged and empowered residents. But then if there's no place for art it also discourages engagement. (This example of private art on public display is an interesting thought piece: http://www.startribune.com/local/minneapolis/1192

  3. Evan Roberts
    Evan July 20, 2012 at 4:49 am #

    On this topic: Minneapolis ordinances apparently try to codify the difference between art and advertising to no-one's benefit: http://www.minnpost.com/two-cities/2012/07/tough-

    • Nathaniel M Hood
      Nathaniel M Hood July 23, 2012 at 3:03 am #

      Evan – Thanks for bringing this up. I saw this on MinnPost's site the other day and it's troubling. Hopefully the City Council, lead by Schiff, will be able to get this changed sooner than later. I'm working on a piece that touches on the topic and that should be out later this week. Best -Nate

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