Thoughts on Creative Placetaking

From our Placemakers and Placetakers issue, released this weekend.


This is on the front of the Power & Light District or to some “Power and White.” (credit: Julia Cole and Sean M. Starowitz)

By Sean M. Starowitz and Julia Cole

“Cities are the handiwork of the real estate man” – J.C. Nichols

‘Place’ is a tricky word in the English language.  It has so many meanings and connotations that it’s hard to actually get to the semantics of it. Along with words like cool, hip, local, diverse and vibrant, ‘sense of place’ has become an aesthetic approach for architects and planners and a selling point for real-estate agents.  The use of ‘sense of place’ as a reductionist aesthetic and approach settles for the feel or look of a location and ignores many other important characteristics. The tourist industry or place-marketing approach is to commercialize the ‘lure of the local’ in our common-dwelling neighborhoods and communities.  It should be clear that these aesthetics and exploitative practices can lead to domestic and urban colonialism in a way that propels cultural, social, and economic displacement. This can be done fairly simply and rapidly through speculative real estate practices, the use of the arts as an economic development tool and a lack of city policy and planning. We have to remember that ‘place’ holds historical meaning in both a political and spatial sense: the notion of owning a home or parcel of land, or in the social hierarchy of ‘knowing one’s place’ or ‘a woman’s place’… Place has always been employed as a political tool of control and oppression.

A spirit of Frontier and Manifest Destiny mindsets still haunts Kansas City to this day.  J.C Nichols perfected blockbusting and planned suburban communities in his real estate company from the 1920’s through the 1950’s. His model was so powerful and financially rewarding that it was mimicked in many cities all over the United States. On a national level, Nichols also helped create the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), the Urban Land Institute, and the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB), all of which helped regulate housing and institutionalized racial and spatial barriers in most American cities after World War II.

The sprawling edge of the city – where it ends – is of great debate in Kansas City. To begin with, the planned community is so regimented that you’re constantly in characterless and timeless place. Then, the edge is hard to identify because there are also three civic centers: Kansas City, MO, Kansas City, KS and Johnson County. This effect was not a part of Nichols’ original master plan. When does the city actually end, and when is a suburb no longer a suburb but a new urban center? The suburbs are struggling to find a new identity and, like the young, artsy professionals living in high-rise lofts downtown, suburban residents are mostly blind to the people and places in the ring of neighborhoods that lie between the city center and the outskirts. The drive-thru experience blurs a traveler’s field of vision. Segregation, blight and poverty can’t be seen at 65 MPH, and the majority of commuters are completely unaware of the extreme act of violence that is effected by the highway system. Highways continue to be the main artery line of vacancy in KC, and mainly on the eastside of town.

Nichols’ ‘innovation’ slowly hollowed out this Midwestern metropolis. In the last ten years we have had the most pro-development city council since the Nichols era. The nostalgic streetcar is returning to downtown for a two-mile stretch. The Baltimore-based Cordish Company’s ‘Civic Center’ known as the KC Power & Light District was completed in 2006. This consumer-driven Disneyland of bars, clubs, and bowling alleys offers a ‘safe and urban’ experience for the subtle cost of furthering class and racial stereotypes via enforcement of a dress code that bans white tees, ball caps and work boots. Meanwhile, one of the most disturbing aspects of the KCP&L District is a large mural reflecting the history of the 18th and Vine Jazz District. The Mural is located 15 blocks west of where the historic district lies and culturally appropriates the history and stories of KC’s African American district in a ‘feel good’ and exploitive way.

This kind of rapid, disinvested development skews all kinds of values. We’ve lost historic homes of great musicians and Kansas Citians such as Ben Webster, Virgil Thompson and Bennie Moten to the bulldozer. Properties in the east side can be bought for as little as $900 on the Jackson County Courthouse steps in August of every year. Property values in certain neighborhoods are doubling and at the same time other neighborhoods are still only 50% occupied. Many residents are unaware of their own potential for displacement. The scent of gentrification is in the air. What is a clear path to regeneration rather than gentrification? Cooperation rather than colonization? Are there measures that we can put in place to prevent this type of rapid displacement in our urban core, in a city that has lost density and population? How can Kansas City become the model for sustainable rent, property, and anti-displacement policies that other recovering (mid-sized) post-industrial cities could adopt, much as they once embraced JC Nichols’ ideas for planned suburban communities?

In the fall of 2014, a librarian, an educator, a graphic designer, a storefront designer and two artists (including me) opened a space in Kansas City to play host to difficult conversations that asked these kinds of questions. The Talk Shop is a vehicle for dialogue – hosting public events in which people gather to discuss topics that matter in Kansas City – like education, transit or food issues. The format of the events themselves is varied, including hosted conversations, book clubs, performances, meals, or other types of gatherings that we come up with along the way. The space is only going to be open for one year due to budget and sustainable/practical reasons. We believe that many art community-based spaces suffer over-extended periods on life support.

One of the programs we have started is called the Funeral Parlor: where we put expired ideas to rest. The Funeral Parlor solicits conversation from everyone in attendance to offer a platform for critical dialogue and new vocabularies for contemporary issues. Each event begins with a guest moderator and brief presentation. The parlor then opens to the floor with an open dialogue around the issues, criticisms and concepts of the specific thesis…Thus far we have tackled Car Culture, Creative Class, Pseudo-Tolerance, Social Practice and Creative Placemaking. Humor is a great way to open people’s hearts and minds, and productive antagonism can be a good thing if it promotes a positive way of moving forward. Our aim is that everyone walks away being more informed, and well-versed in a language that can help start a new conversation.

On February 12th, 2015, at the Funeral Parlor, Julia Cole gave a Eulogy for Creative Q. Placemaking. The text, reconfigured for print, is included here:

When did Creative Placemaking become a term that acquired the everyday status and typicality of John Q. Public and why is it now time to lay this tired phrase to rest?

When the archaic term ‘Ms.’ was resurrected by twentieth century feminists – which seemed so awkward at the time – it opened up a new set of possible ways to think about women and the lives they choose to lead. Word choices matter because language can both reveal and conceal values. For example, when someone says ‘I don’t have time for that…’ or  ‘We can’t afford to fix that’, they are avoiding saying ‘that’s not a priority for me’, which is a more direct and politically accountable answer.

renovation W Bottoms the beginning

Artist-driven regeneration of the West Bottoms is well under way. (credit: Julia Cole and Sean M. Starowitz)

Similarly, the term ‘Creative Placemaking’ conceals an assertion that whichever environment is ‘getting the treatment’ is not already a place that has value (either physically or in terms of its history, cultural roots and so on) – in fact its ‘placeness’ doesn’t even exist and needs to be creatively manufactured. What’s more, this term evolved in an era that has reframed the word ‘creative’ from something material, messy, unpredictable and expansive, into a comfortable and tidy – perhaps quirky – bohemian flavor, used to rebrand something or somewhere and make it more consumable.

Creativity has ultimately been appropriated as a magic glue that can bind together cities and lives – ones that have been propelled into states of alienation by a broken economic system. The dangers hidden in the blanket use of ‘Creative Placemaking’ are that its standards reflect and serve the tastes of those who profit unfairly from this system, and that it perpetuates structural inequality by covering over the flaws rather than genuinely working to fix them.

In these late stages of capitalism, the U.S. is moving into economic production that is increasingly immaterial – knowledge and experience becoming our two primary products. Among the material goods Americans still consume and discard, most know almost nothing about their making or disposal. And, though most manual workers were already alienated from meaningful labor by the invention of the production line, many in the white collar world now telecommute, cocoon, specialize, narrow-cast and otherwise increasingly compartmentalize from each other.

River Market

The new/old streetcar line has jumpstarted major gentrification in the River Market district. (credit: Julia Cole and Sean M. Starowitz)

According to the United Nations, the majority of people now live in cities, and it is predicted that by 2050 two-thirds of the global population will be urban. There’s a growing realization that the atomization of community that has arisen in our systemically reconfigured cities has left its members feeling lonely, abandoned and politically powerless. In the face of this, it can be a comfort to think that the places we inhabit could be creatively remade in a way that will reconnect people to each other and to systems that sustain us. The consent to Creative Placemaking has been pre-manufactured alongside so many efficient, dreary, urban landscapes and lives.

Municipalities (especially in the ‘second tier cities’) have seized on the idea of Creative Placemaking as a way to differentiate their living/working/touristic offerings and drive their economic engines. Even more unfortunately, from my point of view, major arts grant-making bodies have come to claim Creative Placemaking as the path to greater cultural equity.

These goals are not trivial or even undesirable, they are just incomplete – and the chosen means most often deliberately avoid tackling the root causes of the systemic problems they address. Ultimately, the interests served are not those of artists, or really of anyone marginal to money-culture. Many of these grants are, in fact, underwritten by large banks and other kinds of financial institutions – which have a primary investment in economic growth, and in consumers who have been tranquilized by any means possible.

So, when we look at the underpinnings of the ‘Creative Placemaking’ movement as an offshoot of Richard Florida’s ‘Creative Class’ – that is, as a drive to create a kind of customized franchise, a uniquely hip city that will attract the high level consumers of new kinds of economic production (knowledge/data and experience) – a few principles become clear:

  1. The presence of artists in the system is a functional one – as ‘Bringers of Quirky’. We are the pioneer machine, opening up the wilderness of industrial decay by doing what we do best – revealing possibility. (My partner and I are part of this process right now, rehabbing an old auto repair shop in the east Crossroads/downtown area, and I know many others who are optimistically participating in regenerative processes).
  2. We are also a multi-use tool – kind of a Placemaking Swiss Army Knife. The majority of artists are hopelessly entangled in the system, even if we would prefer not to be. On one end of our practice we feed the cultivated tastes of the acquisitive and educated classes who drive gentrification. On the other end, if we are not very careful, we pacify the dispossessed and disenfranchised through our community engagements. We may be persuaded that we are giving a voice to the voiceless, but often we comfort and patch just enough to extend the systems of internalized control.
  3. Once we have done our work, then we’re dispensable. When we have performed the transformation in one part of the city, the ‘creatives’ (who can pay for the real estate whose value we have now increased) move in. These, of course, are the hordes of  ‘creative industry’ workers who design, package, brand, and sell data and experience to themselves and others. The artists and their quirky lives get moved on to the next frontier.
  4. Any territory that has not yet been prettied up is fair game. Most artists are looking at cheap rents in neighborhoods that have big old buildings (like old warehouses and offices) that will make great studios. Once we have established these outposts, the whole neighborhood is up for grabs. Some slumlords play this game ferociously and with malice, allowing properties to fall into blight so that eventually even the marginalized will be happy to see middle class homesteaders moving in and bringing with them city services that they have been denied: like street lights and sidewalks, storm drains that work, functional public transportation, better schools, grocery stores, lower crime rates, libraries… Soon after that the family homes, mom and pop businesses and tiny restaurants are all swept away in the tide of revitalization.
  5. Once the process has begun it is unstoppable – at least within the current framework. Disempowered people, by design, often have no fight left in them. Within a short period of time all vestiges of the poor and needy have been erased from public spaces, neighborhoods and memory, except for a few antique touches retained for the aura of authenticity. The underclass, the gritty realities of contemporary urban life, remain the secrets of our economic system to be carefully hidden from sight.
  6. Most embarrassing of all, the poor and disadvantaged have often been lured into compliance with the process of their own erasure by the kind of Creative Placemaking that highlights the authenticity of their cultural heritage or working class roots. The artifice of ethnic flavor or artisanal simplicity, the illusion that art is being made somewhere in the neighborhood, draws the seekers of ‘genuine experience’ in droves.

False decorative façade on a street where business once operated. (credit: Julia Cole and Sean M. Starowitz)

This brings me back around to the beginning. Richard Rorty asserts that truths are made not found – that they are a language manufactured by humanity rather than discovered somewhere out there in a mystical cloud. The ‘first world’ lives inside a truth that capitalism reflects the greatest social good, that its inequalities are necessary, and that success is material. Even if the words ‘Creative Placemaking’ are buried here today, they will not die as long as the current dominant mode of thinking lives on. They will rise again and again, because they are a signature code for what Guy Debord identified as ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ – a cultural evolution in which being becomes having, and having slides into appearing.

Is there no positive side to the process of social engagement by artists? Yes, I believe there are many hopeful strategies and alternative futures. But I think they begin with us examining the language we use, and uncovering the implicit meanings and systemic pressures they encode and conceal. Since language both shapes and limits the way people think – can we not invent better terms that reject business as usual and open up real possibilities for more equitable, imaginative futures?


Artists and their quirky lives are soon moved on to the next frontier. (credit: Julia Cole and Sean M. Starowitz)

All those of us who are gathered here today to bid a fond farewell to this most insincere phrase might consider our strategies for the moments when its coffin lid begins to creak open again:

Let’s begin by giving the majority of Creative Placemaking endeavors their real name of ‘Rebranding Campaigns’.

And then let’s consider alternative terms like ‘Ms.’ that disturb the normative, and uncover dissent and oppression rather than conceal it. Let’s struggle harder to find words that reflect respect for the diverse assets communities already possess.

Demo-construction (2)

This map shows the image of a city in simultaneous growth and collapse, its patterns aligned with Kansas City’s persistently unequal distribution of privilege.

Resisting duplicitous terminology is a relatively simple means to raise consciousness in everyday conversation, but it is not necessarily easy to do. Perhaps no single term can ever escape the empty universality of a franchised word. In dumping the label, in refusing its pre-packaged ideas, we may need instead to stumble awkwardly through countless fresh attempts to describe places that are truly alive rather merely ‘vibrant’.

Perhaps, honoring such a courageous and inventive spirit, you will raise a glass to this timely demise, and join me in toasting: ‘So long, CQP, may you rest forever in a Disney-sunset peace!’


New forms of gentrification happening on Main St. where the street car line runs parallel. (credit: Julia Cole and Sean M. Starowitz)

Historic eastside blocks of Woodland Avenue and 39th Street now vacant. Also, is flanked by Highway 71.

Historic eastside blocks of Woodland Avenue and 39th Street now vacant. Also, is flanked by Highway 71. (credit: Julia Cole and Sean M. Starowitz)

Ben Hlavacek, The New Edwardsville, KS. Postcard Series. 2014.

Ben Hlavacek, The New Edwardsville, KS. Postcard Series. 2014.

A spirit of Frontier and Manifest Destiny mindsets still haunt Kansas City today.

A spirit of Frontier and Manifest Destiny mindsets still haunt Kansas City today.

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