Changing the Narrative is Key Lesson of Chester-DC Peer Exchange
On a hot Tuesday morning in July, the Chester Cultural Corridor Team gathered at the DC Office of Planning (DCOP) to kick-off a two-day Peer Exchange tour of Brookland and Anacostia—two wards that are undergoing revitalization with the help of the creative economy .
During the tour, the Chester Team met with city planners, artists, developers, entrepreneurs, and NEA representatives to discuss how to reach diverse urban communities through arts and culture initiatives. The discussions yielded a number of insights on how to best move forward with the Chester Cultural Corridor project. One strategy often reiterated was that of building a constituency through concentrated engagement and small, focused events or projects that empower residents and create something unique in the city.
First, a quick note about who exactly the Chester Team is and the goals of the Chester Cultural Corridor (C3) project. The Chester Team is a partnership between the City of Chester, Widener University, Pennsylvania Humanities Council and Chester Arts Alive! formed to imagine the possibilities of a proposed arts and culture corridor between City Hall and the university. The project is headed by an innovative vision that integrates design, economic development, civic engagement and the arts to bring residents and visitors together. Representatives from each of the partners attended the GMF program: Paul Fritz, planning consultant for City of Chester; Linda Braceland, President of the Chester Business Association; Tiffany Kator, Director of Foundation Relations at Widener University; Laurie Zierer, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council; Rachel Baron, intern at the Pennsylvania Humanities Council; Don Newton, Founding Member of Chester Arts Alive!; and Lisa Jo Epstein, Director of Gas & Electric Arts theatre company.
Back to our day with the DCOP. Our kick-off meeting included Associate Director of Citywide Planning, Kimberly Driggins, Senior Economic Planner Sakina Khan, and Neighborhood Coordinator of Ward 5, Colleen Willger. The meeting focused on temporary urbanism, specifically the practice of filling vacant or underutilized spaces to generate foot traffic, attract outside visitors, and allow entrepreneurs to see the potential in underperforming commercial streets. Kimberly and the rest of her staff at the DCOP employed this model in Brookland and Anacostia (as well as the Central 14th St NW area and the Deanwood neighborhood). Specifically, Kimberly, Sakina, and Colleen shared their experiences coordinating activities such as temporary art galleries, impromptu dance performances, and the creation and placement of custom designed street furniture and showed how these activities have helped reboot targeted commercial areas.
How exactly do art galleries and a few neon street chairs revitalize a depressed community? As Kimberly explained with her work in Brookland, a ward that has demonstrated the success of these planning initiatives, temporary urbanism is a low-risk method that can unveil the potential of vacant spaces and encourage civic engagement. A well-executed and focused event allows people to see underperforming commercial areas as dynamic and accessible spaces and simultaneously brings artists, art patrons, investors, entrepreneurs, and the residents together.
On the second day of our tour, we visited the Arch Foundation, a non-profit, neighborhood-based organization focused on the economic revitalization of historic Anacostia. President of Arch Foundation and the Anacostia Arts Center Duane Gautier shared his experience launching pop-up projects in an often resistant area. He stressed the importance of proving the viability of one’s organization through successful projects such as the Lumen8Anacostia festival, a 3-month festival of music, art, and light that transformed vacated buildings like the police Evidence Warehouse into venues for artists and creative vendors. Duane also suggested following up with residents after events had ended and incorporating their suggestions into future events.
Duane also invited Artist George Koch to talk with us about Artomatic, his model for small-scale, impactful events. This is a month-long festival where artists can display their work in a communal space for a small fee. The Artomatic model weaves a strategic business strategy into a creative venture that allows artists, residents, and venders alike to network and build lasting relationships. Artomatic’s DIY model makes it viable in a range of communities and the Chester Team expressed interest in having George bring his vision to Chester.
Director of Marketing and Business Development Nikki Peele also shared her insight into aligning social media with projects and events to create a more positive narrative of areas that are often portrayed as dangerous and unlivable. She detailed the recent “Love Campaign,” whereby she photographed attendees of the 10th Anniversary Party at Anacostia Arts Center holding a “Southeast Love” sign.
This simple messaging project is just one example of how to present a more intimate image of Anacostia to the DC area. She also regularly updates the blog congressheightsontherise http://www.congressheightsontherise.com/ to inform the greater DC area about developments occurring in Anacostia.
As a depressed area with a lagging commercial district, Chester shares a number of similarities with Brookland and Anacostia and so the stories and visions we heard during our stay were not simply interesting anecdotes, but rather strategic models that can be deployed in Chester. For instance, Nikki Peele’s social media strategies prompted our team to think how we might begin transforming the Chester narrative. We brainstormed several ideas, including recruiting local Chester bloggers to alert city officials to the needs of Chester.
From June 4-6, 2014, the city of Washington, DC hosted a peer exchange in support of the development of the Chester Cultural Corridor. The peer exchange is part of the Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) Leadership Activities, hosted by the Urban and Regional Policy Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. This was a report summarizing the exchange.
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