The city of Newark, New Jersey, has indeed seen worse days as it grapples with its economy in what has historically been a predominately black and brown urban center. In the last 20 years, Newark has tried to overcome its “poor city” image as it seeks to birth and nurture its own downtown renaissance. One way it aims to do this is through the creation of an Art District anchored by Newark’s existing cultural/educational institutions supported by new apartments and condos.
Recently, I had the opportunity to work with the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) to conduct a series of “community conversations” (another word for focus groups, actually 50 of them) to be able to solicit a wide range of voices on how an Art Center can make a difference in a city devoid of a deservingly artistic life. More importantly, how can an Art Center eliminate this invisible barrier that is keeping the city five wards from ”belonging, benefiting and contributing” to its downtown renaissance (no small feat). Residents, teachers, students, artists, and community groups had no shortage of ideas on the challenges and the opportunities that an Arts Center can offer its citizenry. By all means, a first promising step in being that important catalyst for bridging and connecting the city diverse yet disconnected neighborhoods.
One of the most successful community development tools cities use to revive their business corridors and neighborhoods is the concept of Creative Place-Making, a deliberate and focus planning process using art and culture as the two main ingredients in creating a vibrant destination place that draws artists, newcomers, homeowners, businesses, and tourists. Keep in mind, that the success of this process will change and, in some cases, gentrified cities and their neighborhoods. Here is why…
Art is a powerful draw that inspires folks to want to be part of it. Here where it disappoints … art is not inclusive, it miserably fails at diversity and equity, and yeah… it displaced long time residents changing the cultural fabric of what communities were like. Only through awareness and thoughtful planning can creative place-making benefit everyone, especially the next generation of young artists. This brings me back to why ”voices” need to be heard to ensure the integration of the new and the old in ways that benefit everyone.
Hands down best focus groups were those middle school children who met with me as part of their after school program to share what they wanted to see at this newly planned Arts Center. With markers, pencils, and paper in hand, they wasted no time designing what the center should look like as I had promised a pizza party afterward. I happily share the faces and vision statements of these children who, when given the opportunity to use their imagination and creativity, did not disappoint.
What next? Lots of challenges to overcome, making this a gem of a project for the city and its people. Kudos to NJPAC.
I want to thank New Community Corporation and La Casa de Don Pedro After School Programs for facilitating the focus group sessions with the middle schools.