Placekeeping: East 9th Street, Lawrence, Kansas

Cultural Agent Dave Loewenstein, some of Lawrence's Citizen Artists, and many other local residents and allies, have been mobilizing for many months to inform and arouse the public. Their cause is the future of the East 9th Street corridor, an affordable, hospitable neighborhood for artists and others of modest means. 

To promote it, they’ve just launched the East 9th Street Placekeepers website, a rich repository of documents, commentary, and images. It’s an impressive site, demonstrating how Citizen Artists and other local residents can be a resource to their communities, helping people understand what’s at stake when it comes to the public interest in culture. It portrays a community deeply concerned about the process and impact of “a partnership between the Lawrence Arts Center and the City of Lawrence to remake a seven-block stretch of East 9th Street. The project is funded by a $500,000 Artplace America grant, approximately $2.5 million from the City of Lawrence and an undisclosed amount from private developers and donors. It is by far the largest public art endeavor the City or Arts Center has ever tried.” 

The site’s creators state its purpose:

This site addresses lack of transparency, inequity of representation, and obstructions to the neighborhood’s ability to shape its own story. It is an effort to provide information that can help residents better understand the implications of and alternatives to this first of its kind project in our community. It is also our hope that this site may serve to help other cities facing similar placemaking projects.

Increasingly, “placekeeping” has come into usage as a counter to placemaking, the central concept animating a notable rise in local development funding through Artplace America, the National Endowment for the Arts’ Our Town program, and others. One stimulus for this discussion has been a 2013 essay by Roberto Bedoya, Secretary of Belonging in the USDAC National Cabinet, exploring “the politics of belonging and dis-belonging at work in placemaking in civil society.” On the one hand, people are delighted at a new infusion of cash to support arts-based community work; on the other, as Roberto writes, is “US history and its troubling legacy of ‘placemaking’ manifested in acts of displacement, removal, and containment.”  As he puts it, 

The relationship of Creative Placemaking activities to civic identity must investigate who has and who doesn’t have civil rights. If Creative Placemaking activities support the politics of dis-belonging through acts of gentrification, racism, real estate speculation, all in the name of neighborhood revitalization, then it betrays the democratic ideal of having an equitable and just civil society. Is the social imaginary at work in Creative Placemaking activities when enclaves of privilege are developed in which the benchmark of success is a Whole Foods Market?

In Lawrence they define placekeeping this way: 

We define Placekeeping as the active care and maintenance of a place and its social fabric by the people who live and work there. It is not just preserving buildings but keeping the cultural memories associated with a locale alive, while supporting the ability of local people to maintain their way of life as they choose. Placemaking, which is the term used to describe the East Ninth project, is a process of urban renewal that leverages outside public, private, and nonprofit funding to strategically shape and change the physical and social character of a neighborhood (often working class) using arts and cultural activities.

The East 9th Street Placekeepers site isn't an official project of the USDAC or the local Field Office, but it clearly reflects the cultural values that are central to our work, and of course, Agent Dave and some Citizen Artists are involved. 

The Lawrence Field Office opened last September. (You can find the first of a two-part blog series here telling the story of why, how, and what they’ve been up to; click the “newer” link at the bottom of the page to read part two.) Lawrence is a college town—both the University of Kansas and Haskell Indian Nations University are based there—of about 90,000 souls in Northeast Kansas. In a largely conservative state, Lawrence has a reputation for liberal tolerance, but doesn’t always live up to it. If you visit the town’s Wikipedia page, scroll down to the arts section to see an image of Dave Loewenstein’s beautiful “Pollinators” mural, painted in 2007 and eradicated in 2015 despite a popular campaign to save it. 

The Lawrence Field Office took shape as the East 9th Street Corridor Project was ramping up. Early on, Citizen Artists and other residents pressed for information about the project to be made public. There had been much speculation about the budget, timeline, and work plan, which had not been released even to the City Council. East Lawrence residents, alarmed at the central role of real estate developers, began mobilizing neighbors to weigh in on the project. They took part in public design meetings. The East Lawrence Neighborhood Association (ELNA) put forward a statement of shared values stressing heritage, diversity, and local control. Dave was one ELNA representative to Lawrence’s appointed Citizen Advisory Committee on the project, taking part in many meetings and hearings. 

In June, as critical decisions were about to be made, the USDAC wrote a letter to City Commissioners urging them to adopt ELNA’s values, prioritize local artists’ participation in the project, and apply a conservation overlay district to the neighborhood, recognizing the need for preservation and protection. We wrote:

What is happening in Lawrence, with East Lawrence community members contesting the approach underlying the Ninth Street Corridor Project, is not unique. Across the country, we are seeing advocates of community preservation rooted in diverse, resourceful, low- and middle-income housing come into conflict with a community development model that fails to recognize the cultural assets of an established community as valuable social capital. 

As Commissioners, you have the opportunity to stand for humane values against a notion of beautification that devalues both tangible and intangible heritage.

But despite considerable outcry—check out the Citizen Voices section of the East 9th St. Placekeepers’ site for an interesting sample—East Lawrence neighborhood advocates lost the vote. 

The East 9th St. Placekeepers’ site features a wealth of written material from other communities facing similar challenges and from commentators across the country who put their weight on the side of placekeeping. All the primary sources are there too: the ArtPlace proposal, planning documents, a conversation with the Art Center’s director, local news coverage, and more. It’s a great resource for anyone who wants to understand this debate. Local activist artists have produced banners, posters and stickers, some depicting the project as a Trojan Horse for developers, and you can find those images at the site too. 

The Placekeepers have urged people who care about this issue to show their support and contribute to the site:

Having numerous supporters will show that this is not the work of a few, but a collaborative project by many who believe that the information on East 9th St. Placekeepers is important for everyone. It will also show that we are not intimidated or afraid to share our support publicly. Transparency is key, and we feel this will give a louder voice to those with valid concerns. 

We salute them for it. 

Arlene Goldbard, Chief Policy Wonk