Support the Artists, Uplift the City
Updated: Feb 26, 2021
STREET ARTISTS KNOW OUR CITIES
What is street art you ask? It is a hybrid art practice that takes place in public spaces to express a community's hope, dissent, and questions about a larger societal issue. Street Art is found on trains, the side of buildings, on the street, underneath your foot on the subway floor! The specific art form is diverse, but the style it is recognizable for DIY techniques like stenciling, screen printing, and graffiti. At its core, street art uses different formats to say:
"I'm here, listen up, this is what you need to know about living in this city."
Support the Artists, Uplift the City is a policy proposing a collaborating with Street Artists to create equitable access to the urban design of public spaces from parks to memorial sites. What does equitable access even mean? And how do we do it?
Well, here's my pitch:
Providing additional federal funding to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to create a Street Artist (SA) Consultancy Task Force will shift the access to urban design process into the hands of the community. This Task Force will connect developers and urban planners to Street Artist Consultants who will provide guidance on how to most accurately reflect community needs in the design process.
WHO HAS THE RIGHT TO THE CITY?
French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s question “who has the right to the city?” is at the heart of my policy proposal to integrate Street Artists into the urban planning process. While the proposal may seem radical, in truth there is an inherent collaboration between artists, policy makers, and urban planners. Policy makers and urban planners work from the top down; creating regulations, blueprints, and budgets to match the perceived needs of a community. With little input from local community members, a collaboration of politicians, corporations, and federal departments determines how to balance safety concerns, development plans, and economic need.
Street Artists, on the other hand, enter the cityscape from a hyper-local level; creating art that responds to what has been created in their neighborhoods and city blocks.
Street Artists are accustomed to creating alternative spaces for public political expression. Most often, their artistic practice makes a statement on the exclusionary nature of a city's development; they have a history of remaking public space and confronting repressive circumstances through “spontaneous and organized political response” (Low and Smith 16). From conflict over black lives matter murals in Tulsa to murals highlighting the complex history around the US-Mexico border wall, artists are at the forefront of questioning the motives behind public space regulations across the country.
The revolutionary nature of this work presents both challenges and opportunities. The most important considerations include: 1) The commitment of the National Endowment for the Arts to work in authentic collaboration with Street Artists. 2) The Street Artist's ability to accurately tap into and represent the concerns of their community.
THE PROBLEM: The Falsehoods of Public Space
From the founding moment of this country, the concept of public space has coexisted alongside exploitation, slavery, and oppression of women, people of color, and queer folx. Far from being universal, who is or is not considered part of the public sphere is determined by class, race/ethnicity, gender, and citizenship. Thus, political movements across a spectrum of topics are almost always about “asserting the right, against the state, to mass in public space” (Low and Smith 14). The question of how we as a nation share space is at the core of political issues from disability rights to gender expression to incarceration. In this way, Support the Artists, Uplift the City has the potential to impact a wide range of people who have been excluded in public space.
In addition to the limits on what category of person has safe access to public spaces, the difference between private and public land is fraught with racialized controversy.
Historic housing covenants, for example, have restricted rental access exclusively to white families, resulting in segregated cities across the U.S. A 1925 covenant from a New Jersey property stated that, “no part of said premises shall be used for an insane, innebraite or other asylum, or cemetery or palace of burial or for any structure other than a dwelling for people of the caucasian race” (Rothstein 78). Covenants such as this are only one of many predatory real estate tactics that collectively form invisible walls of urban segregation.
The perception and economics of public space are intertwined with these regulations of privatized space. The exclusivity of private space has created a higher need for and usage of public spaces in communities of color. Take Central Park, which receives funds from a private conservancy and basks in the glow of Upper West Side wealth, versus Crotona Park, which borders some of the poorest districts in the Bronx and is rated one of the most dangerous parks in New York City. In these two extremes, we see how the perception, use, and development of a park is impacted by the highly racialized private residences that border it.
The fact that a person’s identity categorization, be it race, gender, or class, determines the nature of their safety in public space begs the question:
If the same groups of people face challenges accessing both private and public spaces, where do they go to safely exist and express?
Street Art must always be understood as working in response to this question. This art form is a crucial part of the democratic process; allowing communities who are marginalized and underrepresented to express their views.
ARTIST LED SOLUTIONS
When discussing collaborative art practice, social sculptor Joseph Beuys says, “everyone will be a necessary co-creator of social architecture, and, as long as anyone cannot participate, the ideal democracy has not been reached” (Finkelpearl 29). Street Artists transform oppressive cityscapes into modes of political messaging. Their practice exemplifies the future of democratic urban design. Due to the colliding safety concerns in response to political protests and COVID19, it is increasingly urgent to create safe ways to navigate public space.
Rather than punish artists, this policy proposal outlines proactive measures to harness the political energy that Street Art creates.
As we are in the midst of reorganizing how we interact in social spaces, artists worldwide have been leading the conversation on how to tackle the changing ideas of what a “safe space” means. With additional federal funding, the Support the Artists, Uplift the City policy will work closely with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to create a Street Artist (SA) Consultancy Task Force. The creation of an experienced team of people specifically hired to oversee this consultancy is crucial to its success. The SA Task Force will design and oversee a program for Street Artists to consult on NEA urban planning initiatives, particularly in areas undergoing major gentrification. Street Artist (SA) Consultants will then serve as community liaisons; predicting, protecting, and interpreting community needs to urban planners.
By allowing local street artists and residents to play an active role in designing their city, the policy will accomplish the following goals: 1) Make urban space planning more accessible to a range of needs. 2) Increase community cohesion through transparent and inclusive urban development. 3) Lower long term costs of development by creating cityscapes that more authentically represent the community.
It is important that Street Artists be working in and for their own community. Voting will be available to anyone above age 12 who lives in the area of the project, and the consultancy position is open to any local street artist 16 and up. Additionally, Street Artists in the incarceration system are welcome to vote and/or be nominated for the position. The number of Street Artist Consultants on a project is equivalent to the other types of consultants; if there are two architects, for example, there will be two street art consultants. All consultants receive a salary with benefits. Honor their expertise.
BUT HOW WOULD IT WORK?
Let’s examine how the Street Artist Consultancy could function in Washington D.C., where segregation and gentrification have determined everything from equitable education funding to housing opportunities. The violent response from the police force in recent Black Lives Matter protests is just one action exemplifying what’s at stake regarding public space in this city. A 2019 report noted that Washington D.C. has the highest percentage of gentrified neighborhoods in the country with communities of color being disproportionately harmed by the changes. Anacostia, a historically black neighborhood located in southeast DC, has been undergoing a process of gentrification; the increasing property taxes as wealthier residents move in are pushing out many black owned businesses and art spaces.
Example 1: The gentrification of Anacostia presents an opportunity for the SA Consultants to serve as liaisons between local residents looking to protect their neighborhood, and developers looking to create business. As Stan Voudrie, chair of the Anacostia Business Improvement District says, “I don’t think there’s a need for displacement if we develop it smart and develop it right.” With the support of the Street Artist Consultancy Task Force, the consultants will be selected and connected to NEA projects taking place in Anacostia, or directly to development projects. The SA Consultants could be given a period of time to connect with the community about the specific development and then create a report, community session, or other forum to share community opinions. While the SA Consultants are responsible for accurately tapping into the needs of the community, the SA Task Force will work to connect their on the ground knowledge with the plans of the developers. In this way, the SA Task Force will facilitate this new collaboration between artists and developers.
Example 2: The recent controversy over the graffitiing of a playable art structure in the Petworth area of DC exemplifies the need for Street Artist Consultants. In 2014, what was at the time known as the Kennedy Street Development Association won the Playable Art DC contest. As part of their design process, the developers sent out surveys and hosted community sessions. The central designer for the project is Sports Collaborative; a New York based architecture firm made up of two designers, neither of whom are native to DC, who are rooted in academic fields. In late October, this playable art piece was graffiti-memorialized in response to the death of Karon Hylton. Soon after, the structure was washed clean of the graffiti. Unsurprisingly, residents were unhappy with this reaction. In this circumstance, the Street Artist Consultants could have served an important role in advising the city in how to best approach this situation. The Street Artists, for example, may have found that graffiting the structure was an important way for residents' to express their pain at the death of a young person. By erasing what is both an expression of sorrow and an act of political engagement, the city is sending a message that the residents' voices don’t matter.
The real challenge is creating authentic collaboration between a developer and a Street Artist. While this dynamic presents the potential for conflict, more importantly, it presents the possibility for growth. Support the Artists, Uplift the City understands that the expertise of Street Artists is in their ability to transform the meaning of a space. There are deep lessons to be learned from their experience in creating ownership in otherwise exclusive spaces. As we approach changing memorials, school layouts, and public transit to be more safe for a range of needs, it is Street Artists who can tap into the kind of creative, direct action that we need to re-imagine public space.