Mural in Paducah, KY. Photo by Tom Borrup

Mural in Paducah, KY. Photo by Tom Borrup

(Tom Borrup was kind enough to send this reaction to the recent ArtPlace Creative Placemaking Summit. Tom consults with cities, foundations, and nonprofits integrating the arts, economic development, urban planning, civic engagement, and animation of public space. His book The Creative Community Builders’ Handbook, 2006, profiles communities that have transformed their economic, social, and physical infrastructures through the arts. Hope you enjoy his guest post! -IDM)

Creative placemaking practitioners from across the United States—most of them grantees and funders of ArtPlace—gathered for the first time in late January in Miami Beach. The convening explored an array of topics in a productive quick-paced peer-learning environment.

At various points during the two days, numerous attendees expressed a desire to avoid colonialist practices of the past that resulted in gentrification and the displacement of vulnerable populations.  However, a core component of every placemaking effort, one key to learning how not to repeat mistakes, was largely missing from the conversation: the appreciation of history.

For some, creative placemaking includes historic preservation or reinvigorating 19th or early 20th century cultural resources (a jazz scene for instance), but most practitioners set their sights on a vision for the future that is different, but one that often lacks conscious connection with the historical trajectory that shaped the place to begin with.  Attendees at the conference were treated to the Miami Beach Art Deco District, a dynamic example of a world-class arts and tourism destination leveraging both the natural and built assets of place while fostering a welcoming and celebratory culture.  Not every place has a trove of significant period architecture, nor do they have music legends, momentous events, or even important crossroads. But every place has a history.  Those histories include the ways people have used the place over centuries or even millennia, the dynamics and relationships between people in that place, what grew or took place there, economies that have come and perhaps gone, and even the geological formation. Historical assets include the ways people made their livelihood, in the form of centuries of tradition and knowledge of working with wood, stone, leather or metal; or a special significance that explains why places were used for gathering, resting or healing.  A place that is economically, socially, culturally and environmentally sustainable is one that builds on and creatively interprets what has come before. When placemakers (creative or otherwise) ignore the stories, the assets and the meanings embedded in the ground on which they work, their efforts are exposed to the risk of repeating mistakes, offending residents or stakeholders, diminishing existing livelihoods, missing out on key resources under their noses, or simply importing unsustainable visions.  The long arc of history does not suddenly change direction when a group of artists or small arts organizations arrive and take to the streets.  Over several decades, community-based arts practice in the U.S. has absorbed these lessons, but too few of them have bled into creative placemaking.

In the planning profession there’s an adage that goes:  it’s easier to get people to agree on what they would like to see happen than to get them to agree on what actually did happen.  While I have found this true time and again, that doesn’t mean the easy route of ignoring the past produces the best outcomes.  Neither does learning about and showing respect for history mean freezing it in place or hanging on to old values.  If a placemaker is truly creative, he or she will facilitate key stakeholders in their community to unearth and evaluate the history and stories of place, to re-interpret these values and appreciate how to move that arc of history into the future towards a more equitable and sustainable vision.

Among the exceptions at the Creative Placemaking Summit was the representative of the American Indian Community Development Institute, a Minneapolis group leading the American Indian Cultural Corridor.  For this community, the long arc of history remains raw.  He described the area as a centuries-old meeting place of tribes and later a forced encampment area during the white settler occupation of the early 1800s.  A history of inter-tribal connections, together with continuing police brutality in this place, brought about formation of the American Indian Movement (AIM) there in 1968.  It remains the site of many other activist, service, and cultural organizations, and sits along a pathway also known as Franklin Avenue, a city street that runs through the Phillips Neighborhood, named for early abolitionist and Native rights advocate Wendell Phillips.

To create sustainable communities, creative placemakers need to identify how their work fits into the history of their place.  If the patterns that created inequity, injustice and disinvestment are not in their grasp, they’ll fall victim to those same patterns. The critical process of exploring history as an open and visible part of creative placemaking also demonstrates a respect for place and for the people who are there, who have been there and who will be there.  In all histories there are surely successes and mistakes, and it may not be possible to get everyone to agree on which were which. Yet if the past is not core to creative placemaking – to any kind of placemaking that purports to respect both place and people – practitioners are doomed to repeat it.