Cultural Districts as Community Connectors
Baltimore’s three cultural districts are each reflections of the distinctive neighborhoods and communities in which they are situated: the Bromo Tower, Highlandtown, and Station North Arts & Entertainment District. An inherently place-based practice, each District operates under a different management structure, producing programming and projects tailored to the strengths and challenges in each District that serve the artists, businesses, and residents in their respective neighborhoods.
I write from the perspective of a practitioner in and observer of the Station North Arts & Entertainment District. Station North is a state-designated arts and entertainment district. It is also comprised of several distinct neighborhoods and their respective community associations, contains three historic districts, is part of a Maryland Enterprise Zone, and is one of Baltimore’s major transportation hubs - amongst other designations and catchment areas. Needless to say, there is a lot of activity in and around Station North, all of which is contributing to the positive change happening in this neighborhood and throughout Baltimore.
This is not to diminish the importance of the work undertaken by Station North as an organization or its designation as a cultural district; My point is a) cultural districts are one of many drivers of change within their larger economic, environmental, and/or social context; b) it is our job as the activators and administrators of these cultural districts to use designation (whether formal or informal!) as a platform through which to incorporate artistic expression and culture heritage into larger community initiatives; and c) cultural district managers must constantly assess, re-assess, and refine their cultural district mechanism, whatever form that might take, to ensure it is serving the various communities within its prescribed geography.
Station North’s latest National Endowment for the Arts Our Town supported project, Artists Within, is a prime example the potential for connecting culture and community development at the local level. In October 2014, this Station North-led coalition of artists, designers, and activists began working in four carefully selected locations in the Arts & Entertainment District with previously underserved communities. Through strategic partnership, program implementation, and documentation over the course of a year, this multidisciplinary coalition will explore the ways in which theater, dance, design, and the visual arts can be vehicles for better schools, safer public spaces, and increased civic engagement in Station North.
The Artists Within partners hypothesize that Station North will be strengthened by connecting the District’s residents, artists and non-artists alike, with one another and with local opportunities for creative expression. The project also provides the opportunity to advocate for artistic expression and creative production as components of a healthy community, and build the expectation that art and culture will be included in the future development of Station North. Not even halfway through the project, I am excited to already see these connections percolating. (If you get a chance, check out the Station North website and read more details on these great projects.)
While there are a slew of lessons to be learned regarding connecting culture and community through the framework of a cultural district, there is no set formula for doing this work. And this, I believe, should be viewed as a great opportunity. Working at the confluence of cultural districts and community development at the local level enables us to evaluate neighborhood goals, vision, and context, and examine how art, design, and creative expression can adhere to and augment these dialogues. So, in closing, I would urge those working in cultural districts to constantly mold their programming, projects, and policies to meet the unique needs of the communities in which they are situated, and to not underestimate the potential of creative expression as a catalyst for change.