Friday, July 30, 2010

And now back to our regularly scheduled program . . .

If you read this blog with any frequency, you know I took a break from neighborhood stuff to reflect on a recent trip to Russia. Much has happened in the meantime, and I'm feeling all Rip Van Winkly trying to catch up. It's tough to know where to start.

Here's as good a place as any. One of our most impassioned community activists set off a firestorm recently with this article.

His point was to interrogate our latest neighborhood festival, an arts fair that traverses a two-mile stretch of our main retail corridor, using existing businesses, vacant storefronts, and outdoor spaces to display visual art, music, dance, gardening projects, and various forms of spontanous expression and culture jamming.

Cool, right? Maybe too cool. At least that was the point of this particular activist, who felt the festival strip was being tidily and intentionally divided in half: White hipsters on the more developed end, ethnic others on the more modest end. He called it "artPartheid," and he called it out.

I actually have a lot of respect for this activist. For years he's opened his home to display his own artwork, long before the mods and rockers landed in the neighborhood, serving as a trailblazer for the arts in this community. He's taught art to low-income children in the area. He's always been a spokesperson for diversity, integration, and loving one's neighbor.

He also was on the planning committee for the inaugural version of this festival, which took place last year, turning a tiny art-in-the-park concept into a vast and winding experiment in public intervention.

Then, a fallout between the activist and one of his very good friends, who was the other festival organizer. Then, a literal explosion of gentrification on the east end of the neighborhood despite a crushing recession. Then, the festival being handed over to a marketing company instead of the independent minds who'd hatched the concept in the first place. You can see why the guy would have a beef.

But I found myself wondering, was this the right beef?

I spent a lot of time last weekend walking those two miles of festival. On the grittier north side, I saw Latino art, hip-hop bands, a community mural, and DJ sets. On the glitzier south side, I saw Latino art (including several pieces by the activist himself), hip-hop bands, a community mural, and DJ sets.

Oh, the grittier north side also had the hipster craft market, two full days of ballet performance, an outsider-art exhibit curated by a wealthy eccentric, an independent film festival, a mural created by a group of invite-only street artists, and a much higher density of gallery spaces. The glitzier south side had long stretches of no art space at all, plus a community mural where anyone -- and I mean anyone -- could pick up a paintbrush and add to the pallette.

I will admit: The glitzier south-side music stage had an abundance of indy rock bands, while the northern stage was mostly jazz, soul, and bomba. But both sets of audiences were mixed, and the low turnout at each stage hardly privileged one setting over the other. The third stage in the center was a combination of influences, and the only one that charged admission.

Feeling confused? I guess that's the point.

There's a lot to dispute in our neighborhood these days. Gentrification is coming in like a wave, and rather than creating interventions to help keep development balanced and eclectic, policy is being used as an instrument to boost its homogeneity. Public schools are suffering. People need jobs. Kids are still shooting each other.

I guess in the midst of all this, making an argument about coded spaces at an arts festival, particularly when the codes seem jumbled from the outset, strikes me as stirring the wrong pot. Don't get me wrong: If his observations rang true, and the division between the powerful and powerless held up, I would've have seen this fest as the slippery slope. But in interesting ways, it actually bristled against where the neighborhood seems to be going. It brought value to what the market has devalued (like long-empty storefronts and wasted fields and parking lots). It seemed to integrate where the neighborhood wants to separate.

I have to give credit to this activist for starting the conversation, though. It's a dialogue we sorely need to be having if we don't want to become the next Wicker Park. I appreciate that people are paying attention.

All that said, my favorite festival installation wasn't planned by the outside marketing company and wasn't in any brochure. It was a makeshift swing someone hung from a tall steel railroad platform. Children and adults of every stripe stumbled upon it and took a go, laughing and swinging as the elevated train roared by overhead.

It was a good reminder to us all: In a world where time is charging forward, there's still room for simple, poignant, and decidedly human interventions, so long as we create them.


Rosemary said...

It *is* pretty distressing when a marketing firm takes over a local festival after just one year...though I suppose there must be some agencies that could do it with sensitivity and a light touch. I can definitely see why you're anxious about the larger significance of the shifts from last year's event to this year's, though.

*Love* the mural with Underdog et al. What the heck is the name of the other dog, with the "D" on his chest? It's on the tip of my tongue, but I can't's driving me crazy.

Christy said...

Rosemary, I wish I could remember the name of that cartoon dog! Considering I can barely remember what I did yesterday, even just remembering Underdog's name is a feat :-).

And you're right: For me, the marketing firm was probably the stickiest wicket in this entire thing. They were brought in to ensure the fair turns a profit (no word on that yet, from what I've heard).

And it's true: It's tough to navigate the sudden 'blossoming' of the neighborhood, wanting to be on the right side of things, fearing we're often on the wrong. The angel and devil on the shoulder are definitely duking it out these days.

We remain on the
'wrong side of the tracks' in terms of benefitting most from these changes, but I don't want that to be the only thing that keeps us honest.

Berdawn said...

oh, this sounds so familiar (but I'm envious of all the wonderful stuff that your 'hood is arguing about). There is one community "leader" who insists on referring to the east/west parts of our tiny, struggling neighborhood as though they weren't both dealing with crime, trash, and slumlords.

I loved your posts on Russia, BTW!

Christy said...

Berdawn, so good to have you back! I'll probably be in Columbus over Thanksgiving (my husband's family is there, and I think I mentioned I grew up there). It'd be great to meet in person for coffee. I know it's a ways off, but let's try to coordinate somemthing if we can.