Tuesday, 13 December 2016 12:11

Ethics of Development: A Shared Sense of Place

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Blooming in the Midst of Gentrification mural in San Francisco, California. Photo Courtesy of Digital Mural Project, 2014.

Ethics of Development: A Shared Sense of Place

Maria Lopez De Leon

This article by María López de León is part of the publication "How to Do Creative Placemaking," an action-oriented guide developed by the National Endowment of the Arts. The full publication is available online.

A Sense of Place in Latina/o Communities

Arts and culture in Latino communities are a manifestation of the values, creativity, visions and aspirations of the people who make those communities their home. Latino families- past, present and future- simultaneously occupy physical and spiritual places that express who we are as a diverse humanity, and as individuals. Very often, the physical layout of our communities is a framework for shared social and cultural activity. This layout, however, is never restricted to solely buildings, parks, centers, material neighborhoods and so forth. It includes intangible or even temporal spaces that may be the result of cultural practices, such as the spaces in which marches, festivities, or ancestral rituals take place. These sites of spiritual and cultural meanings can even easily translate from one physical location to another.

It is through our cultural practices that we have the ability to bridge the ancient with the new in order to advance into a shared future, connecting our ancestors and elders to our youth, to our children and grandchildren. In thinking about best practices regarding the role of the arts in community development, questions arise on how to best engage Latino communities in creative placemaking work. These questions can, at times, appear to pose a one-dimensional, prescriptive answer, as if Latinos are somehow different, suggesting a tendency to stereotype those we do not know. There is nothing different in the way one engages Latino communities- respect and inclusion are touchstones to success in any community.

The character and texture of a community’s cultural life is expressed through artmaking and is often what centers neighborhoods, allowing one to view the inseparability of the arts from education, community development, personal growth and socio-economic equity. Through models of true civic participation, creative placemaking can be approached in ways that celebrate and promote inclusion and vibrancy by way of a more collective effort, wherein the set of stakeholders consist of a whole community participating in defining and shaping the re-making of a place.

Supporting Already Made Spaces

Together in community, it is possible to envision a new future and look beyond purely economic developmental gains by examining the intent to re-create a given place, considering who and what economic and social issues are there already, and then together determining how to help “revitalize” instead of replace the existing community. By leveraging the creative potential already present within a community, one can invest in and valorize the existing cultural life and offerings of residents. In other words, engaging community in respectful, inclusive civic planning processes within their homes and neighborhoods is of utmost importance in order to achieve real, long-term, sustainable outcomes that build equity and capacity within a place.

As the dialogue of creative placemaking initiatives continues to evolve in the larger context of economic and urban revitalization efforts, there is a need for places of being -that is, places primarily determined by our modes of being in them, by how we inhabit them creatively as different cultural groups- rather than places inscribed with directions on how we should inhabit them.

These places of being could also be described as places of belonging, or anchoring and could be compared to what Dr. Karen Olwig describes in her article Islands as Places of Being and Belonging, “Islands may be usefully conceptualized as socio-cultural constructs that constitute important anchoring points as well as sources of identification.”1 Ideally, we can say that these places of being are those anchoring sites where we can map and identify the existing ecosystems of our communities through an artistic and cultural lens. These places should embrace diverse voices and identities, including both individual and collective expression and welcoming both inter-generational and inter-sector dialogues. Building the connective tissue of communities promotes inter-sectorial work and increases access for economic advancement and revitalization based on a strategy of equity and social justice.

Learning From What Works and What Does Not

Fortunately, there exist today many examples of successful creative placemaking models that work with diverse communities. Across the nation, Latino community-based arts and cultural organizations, as Dr. Tomas Ybarra Frausto asserts, “[counter] the prevalent deficiency model that [reduces] Spanish speaking communities to a set of problems with an asset-based model that [fuses] the cultural capacity and agency of the groups as springboards for self-invention and self-determination.”

For example, in Puerto Rican neighborhoods within New York, Philadelphia, and many other locales, there exists the tradition of the Casitas. These are creative, social hubs for the performance of music, dance and other expressions that transmit cultural knowledge to the broader city and engage participants not merely as audiences or consumers, but as interpreters of a shared experience. Creative placemaking practitioners are well placed to strategically focus on the thousands of grassroots arts and cultural organizations, like these, in neighborhoods across the country, and invest in the growth and stabilization of ‘already made’ creative sites and contribute to their growth and stabilization.

Unfortunately, unhealthy models of creative placemaking also exist in neighborhoods across our country, models that result in gentrification and the eventual displacement of the people who call that place home. This work often results in the disarticulation of a community’s cultural practices and its replacement with a culture driven simply by financial imperatives. An example that comes to mind is the ongoing gentrification of San Francisco’s Mission District, where a predominantly Latino working class is being displaced by skyrocketing rents and increased costs of housing. Many Latino artists and cultural practitioners and organizations, such as Galeria de la Raza and the Mission Cultural Center, who have lived and worked in the Mission District for decades have been priced out of their homes and work spaces. The time has come for us to re-examine redevelopment methods that result in supplanting entire communities and find balanced approaches to building our cities and towns.

The ability to learn from these models puts us in a great position to work in true partnerships with the varied communities we serve. As part of this, it is important for us to foster equality as a key component in these partnerships. As a member of the Latino community, I think about the growing young Latino demographic that already makes up 25% of all U.S. school children, and consider what opportunities the future will hold for them to produce culture and integrate who they are into the larger ‘American’ imagination. The creativity of artists transforms places and, for me, artists represent what Pope Francis calls social poets, “those whose energy encourages the creation of work... and give inspiration to communities on the margins.”

1 Olwig, Karen Fog. 2007. “Islands as Places of Being and Belonging”. Geographical Review 97 (2). American Geographical Society: 26073. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30034165. 

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