Envisioning a City of Artists with “Soulful Stakes”
Pittsburgh is widely – and deservedly – touted for its transformation from declining industrial center to post-industrial success story, with much attention devoted to the role played by the arts in that (ongoing) process. The site of the 2013 Americans for the Arts Annual Convention, downtown’s Cultural District, represents a shining example of how artistic activity can help drive an economic recovery.
But in many neighborhoods the transition isn’t quite as far along; in some, it’s barely begun. And, for me and plenty of other Pittsburgh residents, that raises questions about how artists – often among the “avant-garde” (regardless of the style of their work) in terms of moving into and restoring “blighted” areas – might strive to make the most of the opportunities presented to them there. In my case (and I’m by no means alone in this respect), these questions go beyond the relationship between artistic activity and economic revitalization to encompass broader aspects of community building, accessibility, and social justice.
As a citizen-artist-activist, I appreciate the feeling of community that the arts often generate among participants. I’m particularly interested in and devote some of my own creative energy to projects that address issues (social, economic, political) with direct relevance to local populations. I’m passionate about the work I do along those lines. At the same time, I wonder if there are ways I could use my creativity to engage more deeply with my communities and have a greater impact. That’s why I was struck so powerfully by the words of one panelist at a recent Pittsburgh Emerging Arts Leaders Network forum on “Arts as Urban Renewal.”
Multidisciplinary artist Vanessa German, whose unique forms of creative expression defy concise description, lives and works in Homewood, an area near the city’s eastern periphery with high unemployment and poverty rates, low housing values, and a history of gang activity, drugs, and violence. Toward the end of the discussion – perhaps in response to her real-estate developer co-panelist’s emphasis on property ownership (or economic stakes) as the key to preventing artists from being “priced out” of the areas they help transform – Vanessa stressed her belief in the importance of artists possessing “soulful stakes” in their home neighborhoods.
This prompted me to reflect on my own residential circumstances. My life partner and I own a modest row house in the Lawrenceville neighborhood, about three miles east of downtown along the Allegheny River. A former mill district that now hosts a major children’s hospital and a robotics institute (among other examples of “new” industries), Lawrenceville in many ways epitomizes Pittsburgh’s overall “reinvention” from “Steel City” to “The Paris of Appalachia” – including ever-present tensions between “yinzer” traditionalists and bohemian progressives (some might call them “hipsters”). As noted in national media coverage from about the time we moved here in 2007, “artists and other creative types” helped lead the renewal.
As a professional couple, we were able to afford a freshly renovated home in what was still considered a “transitional” – but already desirable – area. Our property value has risen significantly over the six years since then, as the array of neighborhood amenities continues to expand. Various artist studios and galleries, several performance venues (offering live music, theatre, and dance), and a wide range of restaurants, bars, coffee shops, boutique stores, and other specialty businesses line the main drag of Butler Street and enhance our quality of life.
Very few, if any, struggling artists are moving here these days. And it’s not only creative types who’ve been priced out. Some people who’ve lived in Lawrenceville for many years – even if they own homes and weren’t forced to relocate to an area with lower rents – no doubt lack the financial means to eat and shop at the new crop of local establishments. Have the changes to their neighborhood over the past decade or so improved their quality of life? In terms of things like personal security it’s likely so (although perhaps not as decidedly as one might think). But do they share the strong community identification felt by the “urban pioneers” who led the redevelopment efforts and even by we Johnny-come-lately types who arrived in time to get in on the spoils without having to do the hard work? Or have their “soulful stakes” actually declined?
As I contemplate this situation, I recall some additional words spoken by the artist panelist at the urban renewal forum. At an earlier point in the discussion, she said something along these lines: “All of our places belong to all of us. And all of us are worthy of being here.”
Vanessa’s approach to embodying those principles, which essentially turns her private residence into a public art house, might not be practical or appropriate for everyone. But we all can learn from her commitment to embodying them.
I wonder what Lawrenceville would look like if its revitalization had somehow managed to give everyone here – artist or not – soulful stakes in the neighborhood. (That it hasn’t is not intended as criticism of community groups such as Lawrenceville United, which have my utmost respect for their efforts on behalf of residents.) I wonder if that’s even possible. And I wonder if it’s not too late. Could artists use their imaginative capacities to help lead that kind of transformation?
Among the assorted existing annual neighborhood events – many with at least a loosely defined “arts” angle (architectural, culinary, gardening) – designed to celebrate the community, Art All Night may represent a step in that direction. For the last sixteen years, a completely volunteer team of artists and non-artists (if there really is such a thing) has put on a fully democratic (non-juried and uncensored) showcase – with free admission – for artists of all kinds from the entire southwestern Pennsylvania region that brings over ten thousand people to Lawrenceville in a 24-hour span. But I’ve heard residents shrug off its substance to complain about its effect on traffic.
As Pittsburgh continues to attract more artists from outside the city and cultivate more from within, maybe we all can strive to think about how our work might engage audiences differently – and engage different audiences – and what that might mean in terms of everyone possessing soulful stakes in our communities and neighborhoods.
And – who knows? – maybe residents of other post-industrial cities that haven’t yet recovered as fully as Pittsburgh will turn to us for yinzpiration.