Human Rights and Property Rights: Placemaking and Placekeeping

What do you foreground in terms of meanings? The trap of creative placemaking is it can't figure out whether it's a property rights movement or a human rights movement. It really is dominated by it being a property rights movement, so that feeds gentrification. If you can create agency and try to talk about placemaking/placekeeping as a human rights movement, there's a difference in strategies that can come out of that frame, and that's really what we need to do.
Roberto Bedoya, Secretary of Belonging, USDAC National Cabinet

On 8 March, the USDAC’s first-ever Citizen Artists Salon focused on “Creative Placemaking, Placekeeping, and Cultural Strategies to Resist Displacement.” Citizen Artists from across the U.S. signed up to take part in the free 90-minute video conversation. (If you don’t want to miss the next one, be sure to enter your name and email address here to be notified of USDAC events and opportunities.) If you missed it, the video is just a few clicks away here.

 A moment from the 8 March 2016 Citizen Artist Salon

A moment from the 8 March 2016 Citizen Artist Salon

Taking off from the growing attention and resources directed to “creative placemaking,” Cultural Agent and Chief Weaver of Social Fabric Jess Solomon began by framing the topic: “Creative Placemaking has been described as a process of community development that leverages outside public, private, and nonprofit funding to strategically shape and change the physical and social character of a neighborhood using arts and cultural activities. While there are ample examples of placemaking activities resulting in positive change, some placemaking activities can also support gentrification, racism, real estate speculation, all in the name of 'neighborhood revitalization.' Across the country, ‘Creative Placekeeping’ has come into usage as a counter to Placemaking. Placekeeping has been described 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.”

Three presenters summarized their perceptions and experience. Roberto Bedoya began by talking about how he'd conceived the alternative frame of placekeeping in terms of “spatial justice.” “People live by metaphors and they live by frames,” Roberto said. “They need to imagine what they can do, so it's not to damn completely placemaking and all the funding agencies that are supporting that work, but also to offer a different way in which you can deal with the politics of disbelonging. On the border, there is a politics of belonging and disbelonging. The racial profiling down here of brown people and the status of the undocumented community—there's this politic about you don't belong because you're brown, you don't belong because you're queer, or you don't belong because you're poor. That informed my thinking about the placemaking frame.”

Cultural Agent Betty Yu of the New York Field Office has worked with coalitions of local housing and human rights groups to plan several events using collaborative, creative projects to call attention to spatial justice. She stressed the importance of building partnerships grounded in local knowledge. “We have to really respect the knowledge base of the activists and the organizers coming into this space. As activists and cultural organizers, we have to ask ourselves: what side do we want to be on in this work? And we're often seen as a gentrifying force.”

I'm a native Brooklynite, I was born and raised in Brooklyn, my parents are garment workers, immigrants from China and Hong Kong, so I already I have some legitimacy, I think. But the large majority of artists I work with, whether they're black or brown or yellow or white, who are doing partnership projects with communities are often seen as the gentrifiers. So immediately, from the beginning, we have to figure out how to do we develop these partnerships and really honor the legacy of cultural organizing in these communities already. How do we help aid and amplify that work? It's not about us have that Christopher Columbus attitude, having that colonial mentality, and I think there's a lot of examples of that.
Cultural Agent Betty Yu

Cultural Agent Dave Loewenstein of the Lawrence, KS, Field Office talked about the East Lawrence community's experience trying to make neighborhood voices heard in a large “creative placemaking” project that represented a significant infusion of resources for Lawrence—but one they feared would not benefit the neighborhood residents targeted for “revitalization.” Dave said, “You have to address the inequity in the power structure. If folks can't have equity in decision-making, it's all a lot of talk. So that's been one of our biggest pushes, giving people information about what do people mean when they say 'placemaking,' or do they even know? Referencing other communities, talking to people who've experienced these kinds of projects already”—which is what activists in Lawrence have tried to do with the East 9th St. Placekeepers site, which aggregates public documents, news coverage, and links to relevant resources.

There’s much more worth hearing on the video, including exciting exchanges and illuminating contributions from Citizen Artists. Be sure to watch it here.