Culture can reflect, preserve, and strengthen the character of neighborhoods and communities at a time when it seems that character may be threatened in neighborhoods across New York City.
Culture can be a tool for maintaining and reinforcing what makes the city’s neighborhoods unique in each of the five boroughs. These unique identities must be both protected and strengthened.
Same as their proud inhabitants, New York City neighborhoods have a broad range of characters, histories, and heritage. Communities’ cultures are deeply ingrained and vary across neighborhoods. This can be found in the activities on stoops, parks, plazas, and community gardens, in the music and food at local festivals, the architecture of the streetscape, and the work of thriving community-based organizations. Through the lens of culture, the distinct identities of neighborhoods and communities can be reflected, preserved, and strengthened at a time when pressures of displacement are increasing. Culture can be a tool for maintaining the city’s unique neighborhoods throughout each of the five boroughs. Supporting neighborhood culture supports communities thriving in place.
CULTURE IN COMMUNITY CHARACTER
New York is a city of neighborhoods. Countless individuals and organizations are working in ways that reflect and strengthen the character of their neighborhoods. There remained no doubt after more than 400 public events—while there are certainly cultural clusters, there are no cultural deserts. However, as issues of affordability and displacement are felt citywide, a long-term approach to sustaining existing cultural hubs and the ecologies around them is crucial to preserving neighborhood character. This begins by respecting and supporting the existing cultural infrastructure of New York’s diverse communities. The next step is to strengthen and better integrate cultural infrastructure into the enduring neighborhood fabric. This requires addressing historically underresourced areas and facilitating network building amongst existing cultural stakeholders and assets.
By integrating culture into place-based public investments—the design of streets, parks, plazas, transportation infrastructure, housing, and other new assets—the City can:
- Strengthen the physical connections of culture within neighborhoods;
- Maintain and expand existing communities and organizations side by side with new cultural producers and development; and
- Ensure that cultural resources and organizations are able to thrive in place as part of a neighborhood ecology that promotes social wellbeing.
As the fast pace of development changes the face of our neighborhoods, New Yorkers must ask—what makes a place home?
At the same time, it is important to recognize the uncomfortable relationship between artists and gentrification. Recent protests against the influx of artists and art galleries have taken place in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles and Peckham in London. While studies show that art galleries have minimal impact on development trends, observers point to a correlation between the arts and neighborhood change, if not a causal relationship.
In this climate, it is more important than ever for artists to play an active role in their neighborhoods. For example, artists Jennifer Dalton and William Powhida recently staged a series of public performances and discussions called MONTH2MONTH, about how “class, wealth, and social mobility affect people’s ability to live in New York City.”
Neighborhoods are where New Yorkers live, work, play, pray, and belong. CreateNYC participants identified gentrification and displacement as threats to the interconnected fabric of the city’s neighborhoods. Crucial housing needs must be met, and are one of the most urgent components of providing spaces where all can thrive. There is more to consider. A multi-faceted ecology of community members and institutions collectively contribute to the cultural character of our neighborhoods. Therefore, a broad coalition of local residents must play an active role in planning for future neighborhood development.
Local coalitions—comprised of activists, artists, workers, business owners, residents, cultural, and other community organization—are leading conversations about cultural heritage, assets, and character throughout the city. During the CreateNYC engagement process, participants conveyed the need for the City to support small, local, and non-traditional organizations having agency over the future of their communities as the rule, not the exception.
One important step toward the preservation and development of neighborhood character is to catalogue individual neighborhood resources. Such an inventory highlights opportunities for residents to experience arts, culture, and community building in their neighborhoods. It also provides the opportunity for local artists and groups to collaborate, share resources, discover unexpected spaces to gather, practice, and produce work.
Collaborative efforts toward this end are captured in projects like Place Matters’ Census of Places that Matter, led by City Lore and the Municipal Art Society, which is “a grassroots survey of places in the five boroughs that the public finds important.” These local institutions, businesses, and networks form neighborhoods’ cultural ecologies and are vital to sustaining neighborhood character and need greater support.
As stated in One NYC, the de Blasio Administration values access to culture as an essential element of a strong city. Achieving increased and equitable access to culture throughout the city calls for recognizing and supporting the role of neighborhood-based culture as an essential part of the city’s ecosystem. The challenge is in adequately reaching areas beyond lower Manhattan, especially low-income communities. The City has taken different approaches to better connect the many nodes of these cultural ecologies to each other, to the philanthropic community, to their local communities, and to existing resources that can help strengthen and stabilize these existing networks.
As referenced in Citywide Coordination, in 2015, DCLA piloted the Building Community Capacity (BCC) initiative to intentionally and collaboratively strengthen cultural capacity in targeted low-income neighborhoods. In each of the four communities, resident coalitions establish strengths and opportunities within a hyperlocal context, building partnerships and spreading the word within the local community, and connecting the cultural community to other place-based, City-led initiatives. During a Southeast Queens BCC-led focus group, a local business owner expressed dismay at local awareness of Jamaica’s culture, stating, “there are a lot of talented people here in Queens, but they tend to travel to Harlem and Brooklyn for opportunities and events, [even] when we have so much culture here.” The more artist and neighborhood cultural networks develop, the stronger the role neighborhood character can play in offering important programming and opportunities for diverse cultures to continue to flourish across the city.
At the neighborhood scale, communities are able to highlight their own cultural priorities and shape their local heritage. Through this work the City aims to ensure access to well-used cultural spaces and programming in all neighborhoods. It is important to solidify the physical presence of these cultural networks, increase the legibility and visibility of community-defined culture in neighborhoods, and create spaces where networks can come together.
THE IMPORTANCE OF LOCAL INSTITUTIONS
Participants in the CreateNYC public engagement frequently cited the important role that local institutions play in supporting and defining neighborhood culture.
A 2016 ArtPlace America analysis, entitled Exploring the Ways Arts and Culture Intersects with Housing: Emerging Practices and Implications for Further Action, provided similar examples of community-based groups nationwide, finding that arts-based strategies were crucial in their efforts to stabilize vulnerable communities. These institutions and groups are uniquely capable of reflecting the character of the neighborhoods which they inhabit and intimately understanding what their communities need. These local organizations face the same pressures as those felt across their neighborhoods.
A strategy for supporting these community anchors should not only support and preserve what is there, but also expand on it, especially in communities of historic underinvestment. At an immigrant artist town hall, organized by the New York Foundation for the Arts for CreateNYC, participants noted, “more cultural centers throughout the city would enable collaboration and networking among artists, as well as more access for local community members to arts and culture.”
CULTURE BRINGING NEIGHBORHOODS TOGETHER
The cultural field should be an integral partner in processes of community development. CreateNYC engagement participants noted the power of artistic activity to build new bridges among communities, creating empathy and overcoming bias while cultivating an appreciation for the diverse cultures that call New York City home. The support of culturally relevant spaces and programs signals the importance of local heritage and creates opportunities for neighbors to gather and celebrate a shared culture of a particular place. For one recent example, in 2016 the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the New York City Council, and the nonprofit Groundswell presented “Public Art / Public Housing,” a mural project created in partnership with public housing tenant associations. Housing developments in each of the five boroughs created new murals—15 in total—by engaging hundreds of young NYCHA residents to develop designs and transform vacant walls throughout the developments. The murals promoted the history, hidden treasures, and strengths of each development captured during community interviews, surveys, and personal narratives. As part of the project, residents also envisioned how they could bring about positive changes in their communities.
However, many communities face barriers in sustaining, let alone celebrating, their cultures. Safe, reliable, and affordable spaces in which individuals and organizations can function are becoming increasingly scarce. CreateNYC engagement participants identified the lack of dedicated funding sources as a primary threat, and the lack of support for geography-specific cultural groups creates an environment where even sustaining operations—not to mention expanding them—can be a daunting challenge.
INTEGRATING CULTURE INTO NEIGHBORHOOD CHANGE
By prioritizing arts and culture in official review and zoning practices, existing cultural communities can sustain growth. A healthy cultural network can then contribute to local development as a process that can make meaningful contributions to the culture and character of neighborhoods, instead of diluting them. This is especially important in parts of the city where new investments are transforming neighborhoods that have suffered from historic underinvestment. Supporting collaboration and partnerships with local institutions is a powerful way to do this.
This approach has been successful in New York and across the nation. Among the most successful and transformative examples is Project Row Houses in Houston, Texas. In 1993, artist Rick Lowe and his collaborators purchased 22 derelict row houses and transformed them into a community anchor in Houston’s northern Third Ward, one of the city’s oldest African American neighborhoods. The project has grown to include 40 buildings that today provide a center for education, affordable housing, public exhibitions, and community, breathing new life into a struggling area. Resourcing visionary projects like this point to ways we can tap into the existing strengths of our communities.
Whether by enhancing existing zoning practices for targeted cultural goals, increasing support for innovative ownership models, or leveraging local history to inform neighborhood growth, by centering culture within practices of community development the City can approach change in a powerful way. Through collaboration with communities, City agencies, and philanthropy the following strategies allow better support for cultures thriving in place.
NC.1 Support arts, cultural, and science programs in all neighborhoods, in all boroughs
Map more inclusive data on cultural participation and inform equitable resourcing of support.
- Collaborate with communities and researchers to identify cultural assets and distribution of funding.
- Survey communities about their cultural priorities and access to culture.
TIMEFRAME: Medium PARTNER(S): DCLA, Private Sector
Resource local arts councils to play a greater role in the support of cultural organizations and individual artists with funding and technical assistance.
TIMEFRAME: Medium PARTNER(S): DCLA, Cultural Community and Arts Councils
NC.2 Raise awareness and promote belonging in neighborhood arts and cultural environments
Support coordinated marketing campaigns and information sharing to publicize existing neighborhood assets and programs across all boroughs.
- Leverage existing platforms for coordinated citywide campaigns to more widely communicate neighborhood-based arts and cultural information to New Yorkers.
TIMEFRAME: Medium PARTNER(S): DCLA, MOME
Partner with City agencies and community stakeholders to support cultural development in neighborhoods across all five boroughs.
TIMEFRAME: Long PARTNER(S): DCLA, Cultural Community, HPD, Landmarks, MOME, NYCEDC
NC.3 Ensure that the support of neighborhood-based arts and culture enables existing communities and cultures to thrive in place
Baseline DCLA’s Building Community Capacity program and target support in high-needs neighborhoods such as those identified by the Social Impact of the Arts study.
TIMEFRAME: Immediate PARTNER(S): DCLA
Encourage private philanthropy to support local arts and culture in low-income neighborhoods and diverse communities.
TIMEFRAME: Short PARTNER(S): Private Sector
NC.4 Strengthen and protect the existing cultural infrastructure of New York City
Incorporate local arts and cultural organizations and priorities in neighborhood planning and re-zoning processes, such as PLACES and Neighborhood Planning Playbook.
TIMEFRAME: Medium PARTNER(S): DCLA, DCP, NYCEDC, HPD
Support Urban Design Pilot Projects. Utilize collaborative partnerships to create urban design projects that strengthen local identities alongside re-zonings.
- Collaborate with community organizations, artist groups, business improvement districts (BIDS), and others in neighborhood-based design projects.
TIMEFRAME: Long PARTNER(S): DCLA, Private Sector
STATEN ISLAND ARTS FOLKLIFE PROGRAM
Staten Island Arts’ (SIA) Folklife Program presents a model for protecting and strengthening the neighborhood character. The program documents and shares the heritage of Staten Island’s waterfront, and its ethnic and maritime communities through technical assistance for artists and public programming.
Funded by DCLA through SIA, “Staten Island’s Working Waterfront: Maritime Folklife of NYC’s Forgotten Borough” celebrates the music, food, and traditional knowledge of the waterfront. The initiative establishes the waterfront as a destination, integrates local artists with real estate and industrial development projects, and draws attention to historic and emerging sites and businesses.
By building pride and appreciation for maritime heritage, the programming helps sustain the unique qualities of these places, promoting positive economic development. SIA Director of Folklife Naomi Sturm shares:
Our commitment to this project stems from our deeply held belief that folklife both sustains community values and quality of life and makes community interesting. Interesting communities thrive.
The very same authentic qualities that make a community unique can also make it a magnet for cultural heritage tourism, not to mention a highly attractive place to live and work.
Additionally, the SIA Folk Fellows Institute trains local “community scholars” for research and participation in folklife projects, building community capacity for understanding and celebrating neighborhood culture and character. SIA’s partnership with Napela promotes economic development tied to unique neighborhood culture and the Park Hill African Market is “the only example of a community-led, culturally specific economic venture in NYCHA housing.”
WHAT WE CAN LEARN
Established organizations like SIA are well-positioned to invest in creating and supporting long-term partnerships, encouraging self-sustaining community-based programming.
These relationships can be leveraged to promote culture and strengthen neighborhood character by bringing diverse cultural communities to the table to achieve complementary goals.
Director of Chinese Community Initiatives
Flushing Town Hall
Even schools from out of New York have bused their students, for years, to enjoy Flushing Town Hall’s extraordinary workshops, such as traditional dance and Chinese calligraphy art.
I am very grateful that the Cultural Plan team picked Flushing Town Hall as the site to host a conversation to engage the Chinese-speaking constituents.
Surrounded by a growing Chinese population in our immediate community, we understand the need of actively reaching out to the Mandarin-speaking audience members, artists, entrepreneurs, and community leaders. We not only aim to bring things that inspire them, but also want to be inspired by them.
With more sessions like this, I fully expect to see the community members of all backgrounds bond more closely and deeply.