With every wave sweeping across a region or a nation, whether social or economic or health-related, there comes new language, new definition, new combinations of words. In the past 15 years, most of us have surely become quite comfortable with new meanings for words like "mouse," or we nod perhaps grudgingly at awkward inventions like "staycation," which entered Merriam-Webster’s dictionary in 2009.
In the realm of community development, the broad topic under review by the Brattleboro CoreArts Project, certain new-fangled phrases describe current practice. Take for instance "cultural district." One might conjure a rather hazy image involving some place that is somehow more cultural (whatever that means!) than another adjacent street. And depending upon your location, states and provinces encode different meanings for the phrase, and in some states, legislation provides economic incentives to develop the things.
Vermont has no legislatively defined cultural district. Cultural districts can be highly formalized, demarcated sections of communities intended to produce economic benefit for residents, businesses, and nonprofits. Such designated districts might also serve as keystone attractions for tourists, promoted by government seeking sturdy economic return. Pittsburgh touts a longstanding district of this sort.
On another hand, a cultural district can be a loosely defined area where artists or arts-related businesses seem to collect, and is perhaps recognized as a trendy place. Think Brattleboro.
Another term that plays in recent national discussions is "creative placemaking." Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, who appeared here last Saturday as a panelist for the first of six community discussions, describes creative placemaking as a situation in which "partners from public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired."
Every American community has changed in the past 50 years. Just how each community has changed provides insight into its viability. Does change occur with intention, involving multiple sectors, for the community’s general health and well-being? Or does it seem to occur primarily in reaction to single-minded economic justifications? OrŠ
Many studies reveal that those communities working inclusively, across differences, engaging community assets and values fully are communities that practice creative placemaking. There is mounting evidence that these communities are America’s vibrant, viable communities -- whether small or large. The most impressive aspect of many of these communities? Development and decision-making rests solidly in the hands of its community members.
And where planning struggles and strategies discern and reveal broad public intent, creative placemaking adds value to the overall health and wealth of the community. The idea of cultural district is but one tool, one example of creative placemaking.
The CoreArts Project does not assume or desire a particular outcome in this exploration of cultural district and creative placemaking. Instead, CoreArts seeks inclusive community involvement so that our community gains more skill for effectively shaping and framing the qualities of our future.
The CoreArts Project is a three-part exploration into the potential development of a cultural district. This community study is made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to local partners, Town of Brattleboro and the Arts Council of Windham County.
This article is part of a short series presented periodically in the Reformer. For more information about the CoreArts Project, visit www.brattcorearts.org.
Zon Eastes, a longtime resident of Guilford and advocate for the arts, works at the Vermont Arts Council in Montpelier.