Arts for Community Control: Planning an Arts and Innovation District Without Displacement

Residents use creative engagements to envision an arts and innovation district without displacement in Boston’s Upham’s Corner.

Workshop at DNI Community Building
Workshop at DNI Community Building. Photo courtesy of Ayako Aruyama.

Jason Moreno first learned about redevelopment efforts taking place in his Boston neighborhood on a sunny summer afternoon in July 2018 at his local outdoor basketball court. Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) had set up a pop-up event to engage local youth about their experiences in the neighborhood. Moreno remembers being asked “what I’d like to see in the neighborhood.”

A year later, Jason was elected to the youth board of DSNI and spent the summer in its youth program, envisioning how a former bank building recently acquired by DSNI’s community land trust could be redeveloped into a youth-friendly space. The program’s culminating project was activating the building with temporary installations using recycled materials, inviting people to interact with what it might be like in the future. For one afternoon, the youth repurposed the first floor of the building into a bowling alley and arcade, Zen garden with koi pond, and movie theater/café.

These arts-based and interactive methods have become part of how DSNI and its community partners are collaborating with the city of Boston to revitalize the Upham’s Corner commercial district into an “arts and innovation” district. Their vision is development without displacement, a tall order given that arts development has often led to gentrification. And Boston has already been experiencing the pressures of a hot real estate market over the last decade.

What makes this redevelopment process different from most is that a democratically-controlled community-based organization owns one of the redevelopment sites and as a result, is a partner in guiding the overall process. DSNI is a co-facilitator with the city of Boston of the Upham’s Corner Implementation (UCI) process. Like many neighborhood groups, DSNI was formed in the mid-1980s to establish community control over development. But DSNI stands apart from most groups with its community land trust (known as Dudley Neighbors Inc.), which now owns over 30 acres on which they’ve developed hundreds of units of permanently affordable housing, as well as parks, urban farms, and a greenhouse.

Upham’s Corner is a commercial district on the northeastern side of DSNI’s territory with a surrounding population of 30,000. It has been described as one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country, and houses the historic Strand Theater, an arts and culture anchor for the area. After the city designated Upham’s Corner as the first “Enhanced Neighborhood Pilot” in its comprehensive plan Imagine Boston 2030 (published in 2017), it made a commitment to build a new public library branch (at the cost of $18 million) and revitalize the Strand, which it already owned. The city bought another former bank building and included a municipal parking lot as part of the project. To assemble even more land for this multi-site redevelopment, the city worked with DSNI’s land trust, providing it a $1.7 million loan, to acquire the former Citizens Bank building.

This ambitious undertaking, led by an unprecedented collaboration between the city and a community group, was not formed overnight. Rather it builds on almost four decades of organizing and planning by DSNI and its community partners and deep relationships with the city of Boston. In fact, the lead champion for this project inside the city is Boston’s Chief of Economic Development, John Barros, who was formerly executive director of DSNI and as a teen helped found DSNI’s first youth group.

Creative Placemaking and Community Control

The fact that the arts are being used to plan an arts and innovation district is significant for both city and community leaders. “I love the fact that because this was towards an arts district, that arts was part of the engagement process,” says Barros. “I thought that was brilliant. So how do you engage, not only in a way to be inclusive, but also in a way to live out where you’re going.”

Lori Lobenstine of the Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4SI), based in Upham’s Corner and a long-time DSNI partner, says, “If the city is going to label this an arts and innovation district, then how could we get residents to imagine that this might be something for them, and not something for gentrifiers and not something that would push them out.”

The use of arts-based methods was not completely new for DSNI and its partners. They had already been working since 2012 on a creative placemaking initiative called the Fairmount Cultural Corridor (FCC). The initiative’s purpose was to engage residents to build their sense of civic belonging and counter growing feelings that the neighborhood is not for them.

FCC was heavily influenced by Robert Bedoya’s critique of creative placemaking as only focusing on built environment and often supporting a “politics of dis-belonging through acts of gentrification, racism, real estate speculations all in the name of neighborhood revitalization.” Bedoya, cultural affairs manager for the city of Oakland, says, “before you have places of belonging, you must feel you belong.”

Ramona Lisa Alexander, DSNI’s director of programs, who had managed the FCC process, extends the critique even further in saying that “I even think the word ‘art’ is limiting. Because we have cultural workers and we have healers, who I think fit under that umbrella. Land tenders and keepers of the land and creatives and business owners.” This broader concept of arts beyond just what is in museums helps residents see that an arts district can be about supporting them and their diverse creative efforts, rather than just bringing in artists from outside the neighborhood.

FCC’s arts-based engagements included the Tall Mirror, a wood-and-mirror sculpture installed on the sidewalk. It invited residents into an interactive exhibit asking how they saw themselves reflected in Upham’s. A pop-up public kitchen encouraged residents to share food and culture and reimagine what public infrastructure could look like. And local artist Cedric Douglas created a mock version of a local daily newspaper to inform residents about upcoming planning processes and invite them to share what they wanted to see in the neighborhood.

Che Madyun, a DSNI founder, long-time community leader, and dancer, worked with an FCC artist-in-residence to choreograph Moving Colors of Life. This set of dances was performed at various bodegas, shops, and restaurants along Dudley Street to depict the interactions she observed. Madyun notes that “art and culture has always been part of how DSNI has done planning.” Spoken word and songs have often been a part of community presentations and events.

Integrating Arts into City Planning

Though DSNI and its FCC partners built considerable creative placemaking capacity, they had to negotiate integrating these methods into the UCI process, which kicked off in Fall 2017. In the beginning, the UCI process was seen as a more conventional development process. The city had hoped for a much shorter time frame to draft requests for proposals (RFPs) and recruit developers, but DSNI pushed back to ensure enough time to run an authentic and meaningful community process. According to Alexander, the fact that DSNI’s land trust owned one of the development sites and could take independent action for that site allowed DSNI to “own the table, not just have a seat at the table.”

After initial attempts by DSNI to give the city advice on how to run the community process, the city “basically resigned to letting us lead a lot of the efforts on the community side,” according to Kalamu Kieta, who was DSNI’s arts organizer at the time, and “that really changed the way that this process rolled out.”

A key turning point was the community meeting at the Strand Theater in November 2017. The city was eager to have a positive process, as it had invested a lot of political capital in UCI. There was pressure on the process because it had become a top priority of Mayor Walsh.

DSNI took the lead in planning the Strand meeting and brought in DS4SI to help design it. Several hundred people came to the event, which included an interactive timeline of the Strand Theater, performances by local artists, and open dialogue about hopes and fears community members held about the process. Alexander explained, “If we’re talking about arts and innovation, we have to have (1) food, (2) translation, and we have to have art. We have to have something that is going to be engaging.”

DSNI and DS4SI enlisted Red Sage Stories Playback Theater, a partner they were already working with in the FCC, to help synthesize the discussions “so it’s not just people reading off of a piece of paper,” according to Boston’s Chief of Arts and Culture Kara Elliot-Ortega. The Red Sage actors observed the meeting, had one-on-one conversations with participants, and at the meeting’s conclusion performed a 10-minute skit dramatizing what they heard. According to DSNI’s Kieta, “When they performed, you could hear a pin drop. It was so quiet and everybody was listening. All the city staff were there. We must’ve had at least 300 people there.”

Red Sage’s four actors, all people of color, performed skits centered around people’s fears and hopes. For DS4SI’s Lobenstine, “The ones that I remember the most are the ones that I felt like were the bravest for them to tell because they were stories of people already feeling pushed out of Upham’s and feeling like this was part of a large-scale gentrification [project]. Participants were telling stories about people that they knew, or their own experiences of being pushed out and experiencing racism.” Elliot-Ortega described a scene where the actor “folded up into a ball” while another actor covered him, as he said, “Is this for me? Can I stay here?” For Elliot-Ortega, it “was showing real fear and vulnerability. And it was really, really serious.”

For DSNI and its partners, the playback theater was a very powerful moment because it gave voice to community frustrations and pain from past processes with the city. “Sometimes the community doesn’t feel heard, respected, valued, and that what they’re saying is even going to make a difference. So now they felt validated, they felt witnessed, they felt like ‘oh, it is real this time,’” according to Alexander.

However, some city staff reacted negatively in the moment. “You are hearing people’s deepest concerns and critiques performed on the stage of a 1400 seat theater,” explained Elliot-Ortega, though she felt that the performance actually defused tensions between city and community. She noted that in the time since, there has been some shift in perspective at the city in understanding that “people feel better being heard, even if it’s negative.”

Creative Engagements Lead to More Effective Results

For community participants, the Strand meeting signaled that the UCI was not going to be the same as other city processes. For the city, it showed that DSNI and its partners could deliver in terms of getting people out and engaging them in deeper and more creative ways. And it set the tone for the next year and a half of the UCI process, which included nine major community meetings. A Working Advisory Group (WAG) with about a dozen stakeholders met almost monthly to guide the public process and draft a set of RFPs by spring 2019. Concurrent with the official city process were DSNI’s own community engagements to develop their vision for the building owned by their land trust, called the Dudley Neighbors Inc. Community Building (DNICB).

Instead of holding the standard meeting or charrette with a slide presentation followed by questions and comments, there were a variety of interactive and creative engagements designed to allow participants to share their experiences and dream about the future. Pop-up events were held on the sidewalk in front of the development sites and on playgrounds. People were brought into the DNICB for tours. DSNI also piloted text polls to reach additional people. Many of these engagements were designed for people who might only have had 10 or 15 minutes, not enough time for a traditional meeting.

For example, at a DSNI annual meeting held at DNICB, participants used blocks to build their visions for Upham’s Corner and filled out a one-page survey. They were engaged by visual displays and 3D models to spark their imaginations. At community meetings, people posted sticky notes with their ideas and placed dots to vote on ideas that they liked. These large posters allowed participants to see the collective ideas and priorities. With all of these modes of participation, notes Lobenstine, “that doesn’t just mean that the person who talks the most, or the person who talks English the most, is the one that everyone was listening to.”

Red Sage Stories actors at Strand Theater. Photo courtesy of Red Sage Stories via Facebook video screenshot.

Another design principle is that activities should be fun, to attract people to participate. Fun was one of the main goals of the DSNI youth activation of the DNICB in 2019. The youth built a mock Zen garden and koi pond using cardboard and a wading pool, complete with a fishing game that used sticks, string, and magnets. They used duct tape to mark off a bowling alley and invited participants to roll a soccer ball to knock down soda bottle pins. And they served popcorn and candy in their café-theater, where they projected a movie on one wall and set up bean bags to lounge on the floor.

Planning intentional, creative engagements takes a lot of time. Elliot-Ortega noted that when they incorporated creative engagements into the process it became “super time-consuming” but that “it made the process way more transparent.”

In addition to broader participation and more meaningful input, these creative engagement methods are also affecting the vision and RFPs that have emerged from this process. One outcome of the Strand event was the acknowledgment that the Strand Theater should remain a 1,400-seat arena, rather than being broken up into smaller spaces, which some had assumed would be necessary to make the Strand more financially feasible. Madyun believes that the meeting “really helped people get a better sense of what could happen in the space. . . . It was at that meeting where people started talking about, well, there’s no other big space that communities of color can afford to rent and have their performances at.”

Another outcome is that the RFPs are not a typical dry, technical document. The WAG wanted the RFPs to embody the “energy in the vision” using a storytelling approach. Elliot-Ortega and Madyun agree that the draft RFPs are now more “reader-friendly” and don’t “read like an RFP.” According to one city staff member, the draft RFP signals to developers that they are not just here to “build the building … and then walk away,” but that they “have to be part of the vision.”

Challenges Ahead and Lessons Learned

Though a set of RFPs was drafted by spring 2019, their release was delayed by legal issues within the city through the remainder of 2019 and is now delayed again in 2020 by the COVID crisis. A release of the RFPs is now anticipated for fall 2020. Several lessons can be learned from the UCI process so far, but there are also remaining challenges.

One challenge is the inclusiveness of the process. Though hundreds of people were engaged in the broader community meetings and activities, the WAG did not have enough representation of youth, artists, and business owners (who were appointed but ended up not being able to participate consistently). There are now plans to appoint to the WAG additional artists and business owners to ensure a more comprehensive representation.

In addition, the length of the process itself is a challenge. How do you engage people over a long period of time? One WAG member noted that during a multiyear process, “there’s going to be a bunch of people who have moved in and a bunch of people who have left.” The long delays have meant that some of the momentum of the first two years of the process has now been lost and will have to be rebuilt.

The UCI process, nonetheless, offers a model and lessons for others in Boston and beyond. First, it is possible for a city to partner with a community entity and use creative arts-based methods to run a robust, inclusive, and meaningful development process. In order to do so, there must be the will to nurture and support community planning and organizing groups like DSNI and to enlist the support of artists. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh established a cabinet-level Office of Arts and Culture in 2014 to build community and artist relationships; provide grants, capacity building and technical assistance services; and help secure space.

Second, an intensive collaboration like this can build capacities and relationships that go beyond the project. For example, participants from across city agencies and community groups now have deeper relationships, which they can call upon in other situations. Also, the city is learning how to conduct more effective community processes and now provides food and translation at other meetings for other departments. One WAG member noted that he had adapted methods he had learned from UCI for facilitating other community meetings he was involved in.

Finally, a city can share power successfully if staff members remain open to new ways of doing things and develop trust with their community partners. Many WAG members praised the city staff for their openness in trying new community planning methods and their “incredible patience and their ability not to feel defensive,” according to one WAG member.

Conventional approaches to development can often lead to the seeming inevitability of gentrification, despite community input. Arts-based and creative-class theories of development have often been criticized as strategies for displacing lower-income residents to pave the way for more wealthy ones. But in Upham’s Corner in Boston, the usual story has been disrupted by community ownership of land, collaborative control over the development process itself, and the integration of arts-based planning and engagement methods.

Resident engagement through creative placemaking and the arts, along with typical planning methods, has produced a vision that celebrates the diversity of Upham’s Corner and nurtures homegrown artists, creators, and innovators. Boston has partnered with DSNI to co-facilitate this redevelopment process and has been open to following the lead of the community partners. Whatever the next steps may bring, the decisions will be made collectively between the city, DSNI, and community stakeholders, and together they will navigate the uncertainties and choices ahead.

 

This article is based on research funded by the Office of Research and Evaluation at the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) under Grant No. 18REHMA001 through the Community Conversations research grant competition. Opinions or points of view expressed in this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of, or a position that is endorsed by, CNCS.

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