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It's long been suggested that art and community development can improve neighborhoods, but some urban planners are now looking at ways to use creative development to allow people to design neighborhoods and spaces that speak to local needs and encourage social activism.
Candy Chang is one of those urban planners. Her art projects work to help community members learn to reengage with their neighborhoods, and with each other. Chang will be speaking at the Walker Art Center on April 26. She joins The Daily Circuit Monday to talk about creative development.
In Minneapolis, Hennepin Avenue is one such area that has been the focus of cultural development.
The Star Tribune wrote about the corridor plans last year, which include additional art galleries, public art and more residential housing:
"Downtown business leaders want to fill gaps between those theaters in order to form an arts corridor from the Walker Art Center to the riverfront. The key players cautiously, but frequently, invoke images of Broadway and Times Square in New York.
'We really want people to be continually drawn to the next block and the next block,' said Tom Hoch, president of the Hennepin Theatre Trust, which owns the State, Orpheum, Pantages and New Century theaters. The NEA has provided them with a $200,000 grant to spend a year designing a plan to 're-invent' Hennepin."
Jack Becker, executive director and founder of Forecast Public Art and a member of the Plan-It Hennepin group, will also join the discussion. We'll look at unique ways to re-imagine our neighborhoods and reconnect with one another.
Kerri Miller (host): I'm Kerri Miller and now we're in depth on urban intervention. How do you re-imagine a city? Who do you return the vibrance and verve to a neighborhood that might have lost its way? That's the challenge for city leaders and business owners and artists who see a lot of potential for Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis. Have you been there lately? There's a lot happening, as we like to say on the Daily Circuit, but the avenue needs more. Enter my two guests, with some truly innovative ideas, and we're going to talk about them, but we're also going to tackle the larger questions of how to make urban spaces more creative and more inviting. It would be great to have your input on this. What could the city that you live in, or work in, do to be more inviting, to express its collective personality, more creatively. Now I think that we're going to hear from people in the Twin Cities. I was also thinking it would be great to hear from people in Duluth this morning, because I know there's a big push to bring more people in to live in the city of Duluth. So think about this. How do you make a city like Duluth, like Minneapolis or St Paul, more creative, to attract more people who want to live in a creative way. Candy Chang is with us, she's an urban planner and a TED senior fellow, she speaks Thursday night at the Walker and she's with us from New Orleans. Candy, it's a pleasure to have you with us, hi.
Candy Chang (guest): Hi, thanks for inviting me.
Miller: Jack Becker is here, he's executive director of Forecast Public Art, its an organization that connects artists' creativity with the needs of the communities, he's with me in the studio. Jack, welcome, it's good to have you here.
Jack Becker (guest): Hi Kerri, thanks for having me.
Miller: So Candy, I love the city of Vancouver, and every time I'm there I think, do these people realize how exceptionally beautiful it is in this city? And then I think, I wonder if in some ways, when you live in a city, or somewhere that's just got beautiful surroundings, the urban landscape tends to recede a little bit and I guess I'm going to ask you how you bring what's around us back into focus for those of us who live in these places?
Chang: I think that, you know, who knows a neighborhood or a place better than the people who live and work there, you know? We know the details that will make it more complete and more comfortable, and more ours, and we know what businesses our neighborhood needs, and we know what things need fixing, and I think we need better tools to easily share these ideas in a way that's constructive, and will make a difference. That's something that I've been trying to figure out in various ways, you know not everyone can make it to the community meeting and I've been to a lot of community meetings where it's the ten people who can make it there that night and if you can't make that meeting then you've lost your opportunity to get involved, so how can we make it easier and more enjoyable for people to get involved on their own time.
Miller: You know, when you talk about tools, you've used some pretty unusual tools in New Orleans. I saw your Before I Die campaign. Is that still going on there by the way?
Chang: The wall is down right now, because - and it's actually a happy story, a good ending, but the house was bought and so the owners are renovating it right now, so...
Miller: OK. Well let's talk about what you did there, will you describe it?
Chang: Yeah, it was kind of a combination of a few things, before I moved to New Orleans I was living in Helsinki and during that time I lost someone I loved very much and a lot of my close friends too at the same and it made me very aware about life and death, and it made me realize that life is very brief and tender, and not to be delayed, and how do you really want to spend your time on this earth, and what really makes you happy, and why do you want to be alive, and what does it mean to live a good life? And I wanted to know how the other people around me feel about these questions, too, this is a universal struggle, and maybe through our collective wisdom we can learn from each other and lead better lives. And so there was this flooded house that I lived two blocks from, and I'd bike by every day, and it's kind of shabby and Brothers Grimm-esque, and I thought, how can I make this a nicer space for my neighborhood, and so I painted the side of the house and plywood boards with chalkboard paint and stenciled it with a grid of the sentence, before I die I want to blank. So people walking by could pick up a piece of chalk and fill in the blank and remember what's really important to them.
Miller: I can imagine that people who had lived in that neighborhood or been in that neighborhood for years did a double take when they saw your project on that house. They'd been used to just walking by and not even really looking at it, I'll bet.
Chang: I don't know, I think that people were very receptive, that's for sure, and I think that's what interesting too is that a lot of these projects, they were very much experiments, I have no idea what's going to happen, which also makes it really interesting all around. For a project like that and other ones as well, it's like I don't know if this will be up tomorrow, you know? Who knows, somebody will tag over it. And so it's always been a really pleasant surprise then to see the way that these projects develop, you know, it you give people trust and allow them to share in public space, what other things we can do, you know? How will this actually help improve our communities and even our personal well being?
Miller: So Jack, what do you think about this expression of a collective personality when it comes to what's going on on Hennepin Avenue. How do the two fit?
Jack Becker (guest): I have been a longtime supporter of artists doing independent projects, sort of like what Candy does, only throughout Minnesota, through a grant program that we've had. And through that grant program, we've seen artists take their creativity to places we would never think of if we were to try and decide where should public art go. And so -
Miller: Like where, would you say?
Becker: Well, vacant storefronts are an obvious choice, even the windows of vacant storefronts, because of the audiences that you have on the street. Give - exposure to artists' ideas that are - this is not about selling art, this is about ideas that artists have about how to address the urban environment, and they'll see things that other people don't see. What Candy saw in that house, and how to treat that, is not something everybody thinks about or has ideas about, and it's kind of like a big scientific experiment, isn't it; it's trial and error, and cause and effect, if we do this, what will happen? Will people come up to that chalkboard and start writing? We don't know. I think artists are really interested in that experimenting in the urban environment; what are venues for that? There's rooftops, there's the sidewalk, there's the storefront, there's the visible spaces, there's the entrances in and out of. So this Planet Hennepin project goes from the Walker Art Center and their sculpture garden all the way down to the river. And you know, there's really interesting changes as you walk that, if you ever have walked it.
Becker: There's the vibrant middle, where the theater district is; there's the cathedral, and you know, Minneapolis Community College, and there's a lot of businesses and there's a lot of change going on, and it's an incredible outdoor venue. It's indoor venues as well. So it really comes down to what are the goals that Hennepin Avenue planning groups want to envision for the future, and then how can artists bring their creativity to address some of those ideas?
Miller: But Jack, I would ask you when you talk about public art in open spaces, is the goal to make people say yes, that somehow expresses what we think, the ethic of what it is to live here, is it to make people sit up and take notice of their surroundings, what's it supposed to do?
Becker: Well, you really have all types of artists out there, and some are about, you know, projecting their own ideas onto the urban scape and others are about asking people or engaging people. And there's the process of public art, and there's the products of public art, and there's the temporary and there's the permanent. And there's the performative and there's the visual. It's a very broad spectrum of activities, and there isn't a job description if you want to be a public artist, you write your own job description, and you decide what audiences you want to reach. So if it's the audiences who use the skyways, you know where to go because that's where the skyways are. If you want to reach old people or young people or people in a park, you know there are venues that come with audiences. So I think a lot of it's about the artist connecting their creativity with audiences, with messages that they're trying to send or ideas that they're trying to get out there and see what happens. And I'm all about doing temporary things in advance of deciding to spend a million dollars on a monumental permanent fixed thing. How do we know that is the right answer?
Miller: So Candy, let me ask you about the goals, what's this for? What's it supposed to deliver?
Chang: Well, for me I think that I'm interested in learning more from the people around me. At a certain point I was studying as a designer, I was a - my background is in graphic design and architecture and I was a designer at the New York Times. And during that time I was living in Brooklyn and bumped into a neighbor, and we lived on the same block, but our paths never crossed until a year later, and in a matter of minutes she dropped all this knowledge on the history of our block, and what community boards were, and we used to get involved, and she was so helpful and it made me wonder what all my other neighbors knew, and how I could reach out to all of them, you know. We have more and more tools to reach out across the world, but it's still actually a real challenge to reach out to your entire neighborhood. And residents are full of local knowledge, from the trivial to the very empowering, and right now a lot of that knowledge never gets tapped. You know, we don't bump into every neighbor, but we do share the same public spaces and if they're designed differently, they might be able to help us share a lot more with one another, and I think that's where it stemmed from. And I started looking at fliers, fliers in public space, and I started thinking about here are individuals trying to reach out to a bunch of people within a defined area. I did a whole study of fliers in Chinatown, and lower East Side, and Cobble Hill, and a lot of them are really useful, like information on apartments for rent, or free flu shots at the local clinic, or an upcoming community meeting, and they're also usually illegal, still. And I started to think about how our physical public spaces can continue to expand, like our online ones, and if spaces were designed differently, and this was validated - you know, fliers were not only legal but encouraged, could we learn more from each other? Could we self organize and become more effective agents in our communities?
Miller: So we're talking about how to make cities and the spaces that we live in more inviting, and more expressive of a kind of collective personality, I guess that's what I'm thinking. How to draw more people in, how to make a place where you get to know the people around you better, and you're kind of coming together and thinking about how that space expresses your personality and goals for the area. In your city, can you think of a way to make it more creative, more expressive? What would you do with that? And I have been thinking about Duluth with this, because I know there's a big push to bring in more people into Duluth. How could you make a city like that more creative, what would you do in the open spaces? Here's Chris, who says for Duluth, it's about welcoming the thousands of college students who graduate each year to stay and make it their home, of course this means jobs. Duluth has all the right elements except jobs; things like Duluth homegrown music festival show that this isn't a creative backwater. So Jack, that's - I know that's not really your space, but I do want to ask you about when a city says look, we are reaching out, we are trying to be more welcoming, especially to young people, what role does public art have in that, and the ethic that the city approaches that with?
Becker: Well, every city's different, but it's worth noting that there's some 350 public art programs by cities around the country, in the US. Most of these are what are called percent fired programs, a percent of the city's capital budget is actually used to commission artists, to build things, mostly fixed permanent things, as part of public improvement projects. But what's happening that I find to be more interesting in some ways is the growth of DIY public art, the independent producers, the street artists, the artists who put up fliers illegally because they can, you know you can put up what you want. And it's about cities starting to reinvent themselves and thinking about having a really important ingredient that we often overlook in thinking about city building, which is engaged creative citizenry. And if you can have that in your community, and the citizens can feel like they can creatively engage in creating the community they want, you're on your road to success. If people feel like that's somebody else's job, that's what they city does, or that's what arts organizations do, that's not what I do, you're missing out on incredible amount of resources you could bring to bear on improving the quality of life in your city. And for citizens to say what they want and make that happen, and Candy's projects are just great examples, and I'd love to hear her talk a little about her neighborland project that she's bringing here.
Miller: Candy, would you describe that?
Chang: Yeah, it's interesting, because it all started with a little sticker, and vacant store fronts, and I think a lot of us walk by vacant storefronts in our neighborhoods and have opinions of what we'd like to see in them, and there were a lot of vacant store fronts when I moved to New Orleans, and as locals I think we could be our greatest potential customers too. But right now we have limited influence on what businesses really open around us, so what if we could easily say what we want, where we wanted, and that was the inspiration for this project called I Wish This Was, where I put these stickers that look kind of like 'hello my name is' stickers, blank stickers that say 'I wish this was blank'. And so I put grids of these blank stickers on vacant storefronts all around New Orleans, and also had a little permanent marker there so anybody walking by could fill one out just like that.
Miller: What a great idea.
Chang: And it was really interesting, again it was a total experiment, I had no idea what would happen, and it was interesting to see such a range of thoughtful responses, you know, from a community garden to a nursery, to a bakery and taco stand, a butcher shop, a dancing school, and it was so interesting to think wow, here are all theses voices - and I know I don't hear these voices at the community meeting, these things get lost along the way. And it was interesting to see people start to write on each others' stickers too, so people would write things like 'me too' or 'I second that', or 'plus one', you know three votes for this, so it was kind of like a really - social media on sticker. And one of my favorites was a sticker where someone wrote 'I wish this was a bakery' and someone else wrote underneath it, 'if you can get the financing, I will do the baking'.
Miller: Oh, yeah, building a business right there out in the open. Here's a listener on twitter saying speaking of art in outdoor spaces, last summer I printed out some short stories of mine and taped them to bus shelters. Yeah, great idea, waiting for a bus, reading literature, it doesn't get better than that. To Renee in St Paul, hi Renee. Hey Renee, what do you have to say about this? Oh we might have lost her. To Sherry, in St Paul, hi Sherry.
Cheri (caller): Hi, it's Cheri, and I want to say hi to Jack, I've known Jack since the late 70s -
Jack: Hi Cheri.
Cheri: - and I've admired him for all these years, and I want to say that I think that one of the most creative things that a community can do to foster creativity is blank space, and I had worked as hard as I know how, when Block E was being developed, to advocate for that being an open green space, and I compared the effects being to something like Bryant Park in New York, where they have an outdoor library all year long on carts that they roll out, they have that open grassy area, which is interesting, because in the middle of 12 million people no-one steps on that grass. I wasn't necessarily advocating no-one steps on it but if you had a green space where you could have festivals, winter, summer, fall, and spring, concerts, activities, and it defaults to park and gathering space for downtown living, it's one of the most creative things you can do, to create blank space.
Miller: Ok, that's good. Jack -
Cheri: Creativity vacuum invites creativity.
Miller: What do you think about blank space?
Becker: I think the whole city's a playground and full of canvases that artists can use their creativity to enhance, and ask questions, and challenge and confront us. And it isn't all about making everything pretty and nice. I really think artists play their role in challenging the status quo and asking questions that are hard to answer.
Miller: Is that where it gets controversial, though, when you say it's not all about making things pretty and nice, because one person's lovely art project is another person's eyesore, potentially.
Becker: You know, it gets political, it gets controversial, even what you think might be the most innocuous harmless artwork, somebody can get really upset because you spent my tax dollars on that?
Becker: And what they don't realize is that there is so much private money going into public art these days, and public spaces are becoming privatized right and left, but you know this Planet Hennepin thing is a really fascinating partnership that's got a lot of people involved from the Walker Art Center, Hennepin Theater Trust, art space projects, but then so many stake holders along the avenue and in the city of course involved. And what I have to say in - I have a small part in that whole planning process, looking at public art and opportunities for public arts to sort of serve the revitalization of Hennepin Avenue, but there's people looking at how kids use it, daytime, nighttime, education - there are so many partners in the process of planning that I think they have a much better chance of success to make something happen. It's when you do planning in a vacuum, and then you say here's our great plan, everybody's going to love it, that's when you're asking for trouble. And I really admire the way they've really engaged so many stakeholders in the dialog, in the planning process, so that they feel like we're helping create the Hennepin Avenue we want, and then when the plan rolls out, it isn't a surprise, it's what everyone's actually asked for and wants to work on.
Miller: We should say, that if you want to get involved in that Planet Hennepin project, get your voice heard in that, now is the time to do it as Jack is describing. A lot of people coming together on that.
Miller: I'm Kerri Miller and we're talking about making city spaces more inviting, more expressive of our collective personalities. To Molly in Minneapolis, hi Molly, appreciate you waiting.
Molly (caller): Sure, thanks for having me. I think this is a great conversation, and I think it's a great opportunity to also talk about what's happening here in Minneapolis, and one of the things that's happening, it's actually happening this weekend, starting April 27th, is a project I'm involved with. It's called Whittier artists in storefronts, and more than 20 building facades, vacant and underused storefronts are going to be part of this project where all local artists are using the storefronts and facades to create these alternative exhibition spaces, which include photo exhibits, yarn bombs, murals, mini-libraries, and there's also going to be a Candy Chang wall -
Molly: Before I Die, as well as her sticker, I Wish This Was, which will be used in foreclosed upon places to create a dialog with the community about what this space could become instead of an empty space, and how these spaces can also create an interactive dialog with the community to become sort of a thriving space in a once-blighted neighborhood.
Miller: So Molly, let me bring Candy in here, so Candy they're following your lead in the Whittier neighborhood, you're going to have to drop in and see that while you're here.
Chang: Yeah, that's great to hear, I'll look forward to seeing it.
Miller: So Molly, what are you going to do with all the info that comes out of the Before I Die wall and some of the other stuff you're doing?
Molly: Well, that's to be determined, this is only - the space will run through June 9th, which is Northern Spark, so there are going to be walking tours on Saturdays, so it's going to be this ongoing event, and what will end up happening - so artists in storefronts is an ongoing project that we're hoping to launch in other neighborhoods, the organizer, Joan Gorderbrugen, is fantastic, and she's hoping to launch in other neighborhoods as well. And maybe at some point once that information is collected it can be used as part of another art project as well.
Miller: Molly, I'm glad you called.
Molly: Yeah, thank you.
Miller: Candy, that's something that I wondered about from you, when you do these projects where you're getting a lot of input from the community, well then what happens with all that input?
Chang: Right, right, exactly, you know and that's the question I had with I Wish This Was, what if residents had better tools to self-organize and shape the development of their neighborhoods, what if we could easily join forces in different ways and come together to make things happen. And so that's why my colleagues and I made neighborland, which is - it takes the stickers a few steps further, and it's an online tool that helps residents voice what they want in their community, and also come together with shared goals. So it's neighborland.com, you can go on there and you can say what you want in your neighborhood or city, and you can see what other people want, and if you want you can click 'me too', so that one person who wants a grocery in the by waters can then turn into 10, 20, 50, beyond, and will be - for the past year we've launched it in New Orleans, and are slowly expanding, and we will be expanding to Minneapolis this week.
Chang: It's been an interesting challenge to think about how do you connect real places with online spaces, and how do you collect this information and allow people to share their ideas in a more open form, and thanks to this partnership between Forecast Public Art and Clearchannel, we're going to be putting neighborland signs up around Hennepin Avenue on the digital billboards, so they'll be asking people what do you want in St Paul, in Minneapolis? And then they'll also project people's responses on the billboards, too, so you can see what the people around you would like as well. It's another experiment to think about ways that can easily help share ideas around our communities and figure out how to join forces and take next steps.
Miller: And then Jack, and then where does that information go? How does change then actually happen?
Becker: Well, in terms of the Neighborland project, this is how I envision, if enough people want say food trucks on Hennepin Avenue, they're saying 'me too' and they're seeing each other, it's almost like a social networking opportunity where a like-minded group can take it to the next level fairly easily, because they already know, we're of the same mind, what can we do? I know somebody who has a food truck, why don't we try it here, what if we tweet the location and tell our friends to come to the food truck - you know, I really see Candy as somebody whose figured out how to get from I wish this was to, I want to make this happen. And it's brilliant, and I think the digital billboard project that we've just started in partnership with Clearchannel, is about how do you use advertising media, that's normally looked at as a liability in a community, turn it into an asset? All of a sudden, that's a place where people are posting what they want in their community and it's an empowering kind of experience. And public art, for any artist who's been in a gallery and tried selling their art at an art fair or whatever, now they have incredible exposure and their voice is being heard by many many more people than they thought would ever listen to them; it's a very very empowering experience.
Miller: You know, Candy, again, I heard what you said about the planning meetings, but I noticed that in your descriptions of how to get from A to B, you don't say - and then we're going to take our petition to the government, and all that; I mean you basically say build critical mass and work around that in some ways. Is that fair to say?
Chang: I think there are a lot of tools to get things done, things you want to get done, and that can include petitions, so some of the ways people have used neighborland is to successfully petition, say for instance the transportation group here successfully petitioned the RTA to open up data so that people can create mobile apps, you know using the public transportation data, and that's something that was initiated on neighborland. And then another group organized also a pop-up night market, so this non-profit organized this event on the state commercial corridor, and it was great, hundreds of people came out to eat, drink, and buy and sell and swap and dance, and it was a lot of fun. And we're also working with community organizations and developers to help throw together some ideas about specific places and projects. So different groups are asking people what they want on two major commercial corridors, kind of like Hennepin Avenue, and an architect developer is collecting ideas for what people want in a commercial ground floor space, one of their new developments in downtown New Orleans. So it's been interesting to see ways that, you know - if people want these things, how can they lead to some kind of change? And also, something I'm really sensitive to is the idea if planning fatigue, you know we're all very busy, and a lot of people have - especially in New Orleans - have gone to community meetings and have put stickers on maps and oftentimes that energy hasn't translated into any noticeable change. And people only have so much energy to give, you know? What is the meeting that will lead to real change? And that's - you know, we love our neighborhoods, but we all have things to do, we're already really busy, so how do we make the most out of our time. You know there are already a lot of amazing people trying to get great things done and who need help and people power, so how do you better connect the people who want fresh produce with the local food co-op trying to get off the ground. How do you connect the person who wants more trees with the local green organization that's trying to find people to help plant trees every month? How do you connect the person who wants to start a cafe with the local process on how to start a business; how do you connect the person who wants better public transportation with the policy change that you can vote on right now that will do just that? So that's what we're trying to do with neighborland, it's very infant stage right now, but it's about how our time and energy are really precious and how can we use it to really get the things done that we want to get done and connect people with those people who can - you know where they can self-organize and make things happen together.
Miller: We have a listener on facebook who says Hennepin Avenue should give preference to small storefronts and restaurants; smaller stores would be more fluid, bring more choices from an economic standpoint. If one small store fails it's easier to replace it than replacing a larger store, it adds diversity and local investment, it adds foot traffic and life to a street. So Jack, what you started to say earlier was Hennepin Avenue has a lot of different personalities as you traverse it, how is the idea to bring some kind of cohesiveness to it, or more to say - yes, it's very different places as you go along Hennepin, and how do we figure out how to celebrate all of that difference. How do you see it?
Becker: Well, I see it as a planning process that's got lots of input, in fact there's a facebook page for Planet Hennepin where a lot of people are doing this exact thing, I mean what do they want, what do they think are good ideas, and you know, how can we re-use Block E even right now? One idea is just to give it to artists -
Becker: Well, my idea is to turn it into artists' studios and barter. So if you get a free studio space in Block E, then you have to do something creative out on the street to serve the audiences out on Hennepin Avenue.
Miller: How does the city respond to that idea, may I ask?
Becker: Well, the city hasn't responded yet and the owner of Block E hasn't responded yet but there are so many ideas, that's the problem, and it's planning fatigue that Candy's talking about. You want to be careful not to keep asking what does everybody want but eventually hone it down to - maybe here's some demonstration projects at three critical sites that represent certain key issues that Hennepin Avenue faces. One might be by the Basilica, you enter Hennepin from under 94, you're coming from this dark, kind of scary tunnel, and it's not a very friendly place, nobody wants to hang out there, but that's your entrance. From the other side you're crossing this beautiful bridge over the river and there's Hennepin Avenue. It's a very different experience from each end. And what could be done about these entrances, these gateways into Hennepin Avenue? There are certainly big vacant lots, and there's development projects, how can you work with private developers, say as long as you're building a new building on Hennepin, how about this? So there's all these opportunities, there's all these challenges, and then it's all about public private partnership.
Miller: Let me tell our listeners again there's a meeting, people coming together at the Walker Art Center on Thursday, April 26th. Candy Chang is going to be there, Jack, I assume you'll be there as well?
Becker: Oh yes.
Miller: Candy, thank you so much for the time today.
Chang: Thank you so much.
Miller: Jack, I wish you well with the project.
Becker: Great. And there's also a workshop Saturday after.
Miller: So be there, if you're interested in this.
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