mural artist

#109 Jan/Feb 2000

Arts Build Community

CDCs now recognize that art and cultural activities can be useful tools toward building a community's identity, meaning, and spirit. But bank regulators have not yet reached a sufficient level of comfort with this new strategy.

Artist Ajia Coleman Durham working on the mural she created for True Victory Church of God in Christ. Photo by Chuck Horn

mural artist

In North Philadelphia’s economically impoverished Fairhill section, a dozen African-American teenagers begin a solemn evening procession, the high point of the annual Kujenga Pamoja Festival (Swahili for “Together We Build”). Torches in hand, these teenagers prepare to celebrate their rite of passage into the adult community – a status they have earned through their art studies and the completion of a master project, a work of art for the benefit of their community. They commemorate their elevation into full community membership through a special ritual in the outdoor ceremonial center of the Village of the Arts and Humanities. They form a circle around the central sculpture and take vows of honesty, integrity, compassion, self-respect, hard work, educational excellence, and commitment to their community. The community of adults, mentors, teachers, friends, and family surround these celebrants and in turn vow to accept, honor, respect, and support them in their growth.

Five miles east in Philadelphia’s multi-racial Frankford neighborhood, area residents complete a massive mural along a 260-foot-long school wall. The mural honors the Frankford community’s multi-cultural and working class heritage. One thousand citizens have contributed to the project, which has become a unifying, energizing force and a great source of pride.

These examples illustrate how the community development field has evolved in its understanding of what it takes to revitalize a community. Community development organizations now recognize that art and cultural activities can be useful tools toward building a community’s identity, meaning, and spirit. The arts, both visual and performance, can serve to forge community bonds, transform vacant land into productive use, and attract commerce.

In many cases, banks have sought to support such organizations with loans, grants, and services. Bank regulators, however, have not yet reached a sufficient level of comfort with this new strategy to allow banks credit under the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) for supporting arts-driven community development.

The Regulatory Remedy

Despite the increasing use of arts-driven community development, and the fact that CRA regulations could be interpreted to include such development, bank regulators are still uncomfortable doing so. Informal discussions with CRA examiners indicate three concerns.

First, a misimpression still lingers that art is only a matter of personal expression or entertainment and not about community building. This misimpression reflects the 20th century drift of art toward personal expression, but it fails to recognize the historic and now revived tradition of art as an affirmation of community.

The idea that art can build community is not really new. Martha Kearns, executive director of the FrankfordStyle community arts organization in Philadelphia, points out that throughout most of the history of Western civilization, art served public purposes by expressing social ideals and symbolizing communal identity. Only in the last 100 years or so has art become associated with the personal expressions of the artist as loner. “All great art transforms the individual, transforms the relationship of individuals, and transforms the relationships of the individual to his/her society.”

Secondly, regulators are not confident in their ability to objectively distinguish community-building art from other art forms. Bank regulators could address this concern by setting two standards with which to classify art and cultural activities as qualified forms of community development: purpose and context. Is its purpose to improve a community physically, economically, socially, or psychologically? Is it part of a multi-dimensional revitalization plan for a low- or moderate-income community?

The third concern of regulators is that by allowing CRA activities to include arts and culture, regulators would open the floodgates for diverting scarce bank resources from housing and economic development. The key to addressing this concern is for the regulations to narrowly define the intent and context of the arts or cultural activity covered under CRA. However, much of the funding of community building arts could come from bank grant categories for arts and culture that normally would not be considered useful for CRA purposes. And even if community building arts were to draw some funds away from housing and economic development, the impact of those funds on the community should enhance traditional development strategies’ prospects of success.

Why CRA $ Should Support Arts and Culture

Arts and culture have become useful to community development and revitalization by, firstly, building meaningful emotional bonds. Arts and cultural activities can inspire civic pride, connect generations, bridge diverse groups, and serve as a catalyzing symbol of the people as a community. More than anything, the significance of community building art is its power to connect people to each other through a symbol of their shared identity and to the place in which that identity was forged.

In metropolitan areas with high vacancy rates, the neighborhood that is “meaningful” will have a competitive advantage. Vacancies appear predominantly in the least desirable buildings in the least desirable neighborhoods. Older, inner-city neighborhoods compete with each other and suburbs for residents and businesses, and community building art can contribute to their desirability.

Nationally, we experience the power of meaningful symbolism in the Statue of Liberty and the Vietnam War Memorial. We experience it in the growing number of urban wall murals, the recording and dramatic portrayals of people’s stories, the transformation of empty lots into sacred gardens, and the creation of spiritual communal rituals.

The power of community art to connect is precisely the antidote needed against the meaninglessness of the broken neighborhood that makes it so easy for its children to leave. In recognition of this, Philadelphia’s William Penn Foundation established the $3.5 million “Culture Builds Communities” grant program in 1997 in partnership with the Washington-based Partners for Livable Communities. The program aims to prove that organizations can improve the sense of community by connecting people through arts and culture.

Isn’t this what community development is about? Numerous distinguished community development organizations in Philadelphia are convinced so and have integrated community-building arts strategies into their overall revitalization programs. These include Point Community Development Corporation, Asociacion de Puertorriquenos en Marcha, Norris Square Civic Association, Hispanic Association of Contractors and Enterprises, Universal Community Homes, Project Home, Frankford Plan, and the Village of the Arts and Humanities.

Community building arts and culture also serve the goals of the community development organization in a more tangible way through transformation of land. This idea of land transformation has become increasingly significant, as the loss of industrial jobs and population in old industrial cities like Philadelphia has created a surplus of vacant land that stands as a symbol of decline. This land can be adapted and renewed for productive uses, such as urban greening and community-based art, that make sense in Philadelphia’s new circumstances.

Land transformation has become such a significant strategy of Philadelphia’s community development organizations that it prompted one major bank to launch a special grant program exclusively for this purpose. Arts-driven community development organizations have been major recipients of these funds.

A third utility of the arts and culture industry for community development has been its capacity to serve as an effective engine of economic development. In the context of the global economy, with metropolitan regions competing for business investment, and neighborhoods within those regions competing, the quality of life factor has taken on increased significance. A region’s cultural amenities play a strategic role in this competition. In the Philadelphia area, a Regional Arts and Culture Economic Initiative, composed of private sector leadership, began in 1997 to serve that purpose. The initiative estimated that in 1995 the culture industry brought $564 million into the Philadelphia area economy, and downtown has certainly enjoyed the greater part of this capital infusion.

Philadelphia’s Old City section, situated between Independence Hall and the Delaware River, has historically been a mixed-use neighborhood of wholesale distributors, odd shops, and some artists living on the fringe. In recent years it has blossomed as a showcase of art galleries, restaurants, pubs, and upscale residential properties. The driving force in Old City’s resurgence has been the special character of the neighborhood defined by its galleries.

But what about poor and working class neighborhoods? Can community-based arts and culture serve as economic stimulants without becoming agents of gentrification? Development organizations in at least two struggling Philadelphia neighborhoods are betting on this strategy.

Frankford – Where Art Builds Harmony

The Frankford neighborhood in lower northeast Philadelphia has a proud and distinct history. It thrived well into the mid-20th century as a biracial, multi-income community with plenty of blue-collar industry and a vibrant commercial strip under the elevated line to Center City Philadelphia. However, by the 1960s Frankford was beginning to experience erosion of jobs and population, and by the 1980s the need for affirmative community revitalization programs was apparent.

In 1986, Reverend John Scholl of the Frankford United Methodist Church led the multi-congregational Frankford Group Ministry (FGM) into the community revitalization arena. One of FGM’s first strategies was recruiting resident art educator Martha Kearns to launch the FrankfordStyle Community Arts Organization to promote identity, unity, and harmony in the community. Kearns reflects that “You have to reach the Spirit to build community and John had the vision how art can transform community.”

Later, in 1993, Reverend Scholl and FGM led a broad-based community planning process that resulted in the exemplary “Frankford Plan,” the goal of which was to “develop a more livable and prosperous community.” While the plan addressed housing, economic development, crime and safety, education, health and human services, recreation and transportation, it also focused on heightening civic pride and community identity and gave culture a prominent role.

The plan proposed creating a coalition of cultural groups, a shared promotional campaign, a Community Cultural Center as a showpiece for Frankford, and revitalizing part of the declining commercial strip by fostering a critical mass of private art studios and cultural facilities. The arts organization works in close coordination with another arm of the Frankford Plan, the FGM Community Development Corporation.

Under Kearns’ direction, FrankfordStyle evolved from workshops to a professional school for the community arts with staff artists. It tries to imbue the idea that an individual’s art is vital in community life. FranfordStyle students perform public recitals at senior centers and the Frankford Hospital. The organization sponsors an outdoor summer performance series and an outdoor summer film series addressing the themes of multi-culturalism and racial tolerance.

Its outdoor wall murals program portrays imagery and history that, Kearns says, “deliberately build, not only images, but pride, a sense of genuine identity, and a sense of unity. The walls honor the multi-cultural as well as the working class history of the community that is not honored.”

The Village of the Arts and Humanities: Art Bringing Spirit to the Land

In severely broken-down Fairhill, an extraordinary program is evolving. Under the inspiration of community-based artist Lily Yeh, an institution and place called The Village of the Arts and Humanities is blossoming physically and psychologically.

The Village program is often described as “organic.” It is about healing the broken relationships between the people and the land, the people and each other, and the people and their own inner spirits. These relationships are made whole primarily through community-based art, both visual and performance.

Yeh explains in a brochure for the Philadelphia Art Alliance exhibit, “At the Village of Arts and Humanities, my work aims to reconnect people, to comfort, and to heal. Chinese landscape paintings depict a place known as the “dustless realm,” a place of pristine beauty and tranquility beyond passions and desires. My goal is to establish this “dustless” place in the community art that I create.”

The Village’s work includes beautifying abandoned lots, converting vacant buildings into art studios, and presenting ceremonial events and theater performances of people’s stories and the story of the community itself.

The Village’s Education Director, E. German Wilson, takes the painful stories of people’s lives and creates performances that express the community’s ethos. Village performance ensembles have enjoyed so much success that they now perform nationally and are a great source of community pride.

Most visibly, the Village has transformed garbage-strewn lots into a meditation park, gardens protected by giant mosaic guardian angels, a community ceremonial center, and a tree farm with stylized animal sculptures.

More importantly, these places are imbued with deeper meaning. The ceremonial center is where young people celebrate their rites of passage. The Garden of Angels is where the procession of celebrants at the Kujenga Pamoja festival receives the blessings of the Good Spirit, which they then pass to other community members. The meditation garden is where stressed out inner-city residents seek and find peacefulness and become centered. The tree farm is where the community nurtures the fruits of the Earth. Not only is the land transformed, the people’s sense of place and belonging is transformed.

The community development field has come to appreciate the more profound dimensions of community life and is creating strategies that reach those levels. Banks have grown with their community partners and are ready to support their efforts. CRA regulations could encompass this evolution. Regulators could use the above guidelines to develop objective standards to qualify or disqualify arts-related activities, thereby seizing the opportunity to profoundly strengthen the community development field.


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