Artists: The Urban Crusaders

Photo from Market Wired

Even America’s most struggling cities are showing signs of resurgence.  In increasingly larger numbers, corporations are choosing to move their offices away from the silence of the suburbs to the excitement of bustling downtowns.  Downtown occupancy rates are increasing significantly, leading to construction of new apartments and condos even in some of America’s poorest cities.  However, a city needs more than just businesses and residents to thrive.  The role of arts in this urban revival cannot be ignored.

The artistic community often plays one of the most significant roles in gentrification.  From the Paseo Arts District in Oklahoma City to the Westside Arts District in Atlanta, artists have gathered to open galleries, renovate neglected buildings, and create a sense of community that fosters further development.  Where crime was once rampant and buildings were vacant, artists moved in and created vibrant neighborhoods.  These artists, like crusaders, make a concerted effort toward a worthy cause: reviving our cities.

Artist-driven urban renewal has been met with so much success that it is now common for cities to specifically target artists to revitalize struggling neighborhoods.  For example, Cleveland’s Gordon Square, historically the economic cornerstone of Cleveland’s West Side, experienced a severe decline in the 70s and 80s. However, through the efforts of the Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization, the Gordon Square Arts District was established and the arts community stimulated the revival of the district.

In addition to creating a strong community, an arts community can  also help contribute to the physical makeup of the city.  The state of a city’s public space can make a city feel welcoming or downright unfriendly.  The arts play a very important role in making public urban space aesthetically pleasing, thus improving the city as a whole.  A public space that is welcoming will promote a safer environment where street life thrives.

In theory, it is easy to create a park or plaza.  A park only needs some grass, trees, and benches.  However, it takes a certain skill to make public space appealing; the skill of an artist.  Flint, Michigan has learned to embrace public art as a way of improving public space and bringing the community together.  The Flint Public Art Project focuses on reclaiming abandoned parts of the city through public art.  Within the last year, the Project has held the Flat Lot Competition, which brought over 200 designs from across the world; the Three-City Art Festival, which temporarily reclaimed an abandoned manufacturing site; and the contest at Spring Grove, which is seeking designs to restore abandoned silos near a nature reserve.

More and more cities are using these types of artistic gatherings to boost their economies.  Also in Michigan, Grand Rapids hosts the ArtPrize competition which draws artists from all over the globe.  This year it will be held from September 18 to October 6.  Time Magazine listed ArtPrize as one of the “Five Festival Events You Won’t Want to Miss in 2013.”  CEOs for Cities’ annual national meeting will be held in Grand Rapids on September 29, 2013, to discuss the “Art of the Collaborative City.”  Attendees will also be able to attend this year’s ArtPrize competition and witness first-hand the positive influence of the arts in our nation’s cities.  Join us for our conference and live the art movement in a distinctive city by registering for our national conference.


Ethan Lawson is a CEOs for Cities Summer Success Fellow.  Ethan is a senior at Baldwin Wallace University, majoring in political science and history with a minor in urban studies.  He has also spent time studying at the University of Cape Town in Cape Town, South Africa, while also volunteering for the SHAWCO program, which provides education for low-income children in the greater Cape Town area.  He plans on pursuing a graduate degree in Urban & Regional Planning after graduating in 2014.

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