Community Anchors: How Can Arts & Culture Improve Neighborhoods?

As many American cities try to determine the most effective mechanisms to revitalize their struggling neighborhoods, the concept of arts-led community development has become increasingly popular. Innovative efforts in this domain, such as the University of Chicago’s newly established Place Lab, focus on community redevelopment strategies that stem from urban-based artistic and cultural initiatives. These non-profit programs fund community partnerships that promote a unique neighborhood identity, enhance quality of life for residents, and stimulate local economic development. However, critics of arts-led community development claim that these initiatives really only benefit the creative class—individuals employed in sectors that create new ideas and technology—by targeting development efforts to wealthier and less ethnically diverse neighborhoods. As a result, this form of development may exacerbate existing inequalities within a city by focusing revitalization efforts in wealthy areas while neglecting those neighborhoods in the greatest need of financial assistance.

A recent study by James Murdoch III, Carl Grodach, and Nicole Foster in the Journal of Planning, Education and Research examines the role that arts-led community development has played in various neighborhoods throughout New York City. The city of New York serves as both a financial and cultural center, yet tremendous differences exist among its neighborhoods in terms of income levels, diversity, and funding of cultural organizations. Utilizing data from the New York State Cultural Data Project (CDP), the American Community Survey (ACS), as well as the Zip Code Business Patterns Report (ZBP), the study analyzes funding of 1,050 culture-oriented community organizations as well as the demographics of the populations that these non-profits serve.

The researchers found that the majority of these non-profits are located in New York City’s most expensive neighborhoods. Specifically, these areas include high levels of amenities as well as young, working singles, especially those involved in the aforementioned creative industries. Additionally, the community organizations that received the most funding were primarily located near areas with a multitude of jobs in advanced industries. Advanced industries, such as finance, media and technology, typically employ high-income individuals that seek similar cultural opportunities to those of the creative class. Accordingly, all organizations included in the study had positive associations with creative economy industries and neighborhood amenities. Lastly, the cultural organizations that are based in lower income neighborhoods typically served localized, immigrant populations and do not have sufficient resources to support community development activities.

Overall, the results of this study lend support to critics of arts-led development, as non-profit funding for community revitalization activities was not equitably distributed among New York’s neighborhoods. Moreover, arts and culture based non-profit organizations mainly serve as “creative class magnets rather than community anchors” within the city of New York. As a result, they do not adequately address existing inequalities among New York City’s diverse neighborhoods. However, these organizations may still play a key role in promoting community engagement as well as developing a unique neighborhood culture and identity. Encouraging neighborhood participation in the arts can lead to creative solutions to urban issues through beautification activities, which, in turn, may spur investment. Arts-led development efforts can still provide more abstract benefits to disadvantaged neighborhoods even though funding priorities may not be equitably aligned.

Article Source: Murdoch III, James, Carl Grodach, and Nicole Foster. “The Importance of Neighborhood Context in Arts-Led Development: Community Anchor or Creative Class Magnet?” Journal of Planning Education and Research, 2016.

Featured Photo: cc/(Roman Babakin, photo ID: 78327367, from iStock by Getty Images)

Rachel Gordon
Rachel ('18) is a staff writer for Urban Affairs. She is interested in economic development and housing policy.

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