"Be inclusive with neighbors."
"Reach out to those with a history in the area."
"Reinvent and help prevent gentrification."
These are a few of the comments attendees offered at a February community meeting hosted by Enough Pie, a new, arts-based community development organization working in Charleston's upper peninsula (otherwise known as the Neck).
Called the Muster Plan, the meeting was designed to bring together business owners and residents in the area — which, for the purposes of Enough Pie, roughly encompasses the Meeting Street Road and King Street Extension corridor from around Pittsburgh Avenue at the northern end to Huger Street at the southern — to throw out ideas for what the community needs. If it sounds open-ended, that's because it was. "We invited the community to come out and said what role do you want us to play, what do you think is important, what do you think is missing, what do you love about the upper peninsula, what should stay the same?" says Claire Johnson, the communications director for Enough Pie. The organization then compiled attendees' feedback, verbatim, into a report that's available on the group's website.
While there was a healthy dose of concrete input — comments like "We need bike paths" or "better bus stops" — when it came to the question "What role should Enough Pie play in the upper peninsula community?" the ideas grew a little more abstract. That's the question that prompted the "Be inclusive" and "Prevent gentrification" comments.
Of course, both of those things are much easier said than done. The room itself was proof of that. In a crowd of more than 100, there was one, maybe two African Americans, even though the residents of the upper peninsula are still predominantly African-American. The rest, including the representatives from Enough Pie, were white.
Enough Pie is in the business of creative placemaking, one of those hard-to-pin-down fields that entices a wide range of city planners, architects, community development professionals, and others concerned with influencing the way cities look and feel. The National Endowment for the Arts, which funds creative placemaking initiatives around the country, defines it as when "public, private, not-for-profit, and community sectors partner to strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city, or region around arts and cultural activities." The projects such initiatives fund are often things like parks and gathering spaces, which later host cultural events; housing developments for artists; public art events or installations; and public art, like murals or artist-designed bus shelters. Then there are specific placemaking events, like Enough Pie's recent Awakening, which drew more than 1,000 people to 1600 Meeting for a massive one-day art installation featuring local artists like John Duckworth, Alizey Khan, and Patch Whisky.
ArtPlace America, which is one of the biggest funders of creative placemaking projects in the country, has developed a list of creative placemaking principles, which include "creat[ing] opportunities for people at all income levels and backgrounds to thrive," and "support[ing] economic diversity in the community." These are meant to work in tandem with the field's basic principle, as ArtFields articulates it, which is "place artists and art at the center of planning, execution, and activity."
So it's a solid idea in many ways. From a quality of life standpoint, culturally rich communities are hands-down better places to live than those that aren't, as anyone who lives in Charleston can attest. In addition, the arts are a fairly uncontroversial topic, aside from the funding aspect — no politician is going to say he or she doesn't support the arts, even if that same politician won't support publicly funding them.
These simple facts have allowed many to ignore or push aside the problems with creative placemaking, namely its connection to gentrification and the effects it can have on low-income populations.
The topic drew greater notice this January, when Richard Florida, author of the seminal The Rise of the Creative Class, acknowledged on The Atlantic Cities website that the benefits of a town with a strong creative economy don't extend to lower-income workers. Rather, they're largely concentrated in the creative class and among highly-skilled workers — college-educated professionals and the intellectual elite. Florida's made a living off his thesis that attracting creative workers, which he says include everyone from artists and writers to tech pros, can help revitalize cities that are suffering from a "brain drain," or the loss of college graduates and educated middle-class professionals. And how to attract those creative workers? Aside from offering them jobs, it helps to develop vibrant, beautiful, culturally significant places, which is part of what creative placemaking does.
So far, so good. Most people, whether they make a little money or a lot, enjoy vibrant public spaces and a thriving creative atmosphere. But as Florida has recently found, these things can create problems for lower-income citizens. Although an influx of creatives into a city can raise wages across the board, he says, those higher wages are negated by the accompanying higher housing costs. As his research into the subject has continued, his findings haven't changed. "It's certainly true that the wages of all workers rise in knowledge and creative class regions," Florida says in an email. "But research I undertook with my colleague Charlotta Mellander disclosed a troubling pattern. Once we take housing costs into account, creative class and knowledge workers do better in knowledge regions, but service workers and blue-collar working-class members do not."
This problem is exacerbated by the increase in economic segregation. "A 2012 study by the Pew Research Center found that segregation of upper- and lower-income households has increased in 27 of the 30 largest US metro areas over the past several decades. The full effects of this sorting are even more insidious than job and wage statistics can show ... Where our lower wage workers are concerned, we can't put our faith in trickle-down theory," Florida says. "If we want more economic diversity, we are going to have to create it. Diversity matters to thriving, vibrant communities."
Enough Pie was founded last year by Kate Nevin, the wife of developer and owner of 1600 Meeting Lindsay Nevin. Although Enough Pie will be relocating to 1600 Meeting once the building is ready for tenants, the organization is a separate entity. The group aims to support and further develop the creative businesses and the communities that exist along the Morrison Drive-Meeting Street Road corridor, an area which is being termed, among other things, "the creative corridor."
The originally industrial area is home to businesses like Ahern's Anvil, artist Sean Ahern's metalworking studio; Blu Gorilla Tattoos and Pepper Shade Tattoos; DwellSmart, an eco-friendly furnishings store; several design groups; the local foods warehouse GrowFood Carolina; as well as manufacturing and trade businesses, like Southern Lumber and Millwork Corp. and Coleman Marine Supply.
The predominantly African-American North Central neighborhood runs more or less parallel to the corridor, on the western side of I-26. One of the anchors of this neighborhood is the John L. Dart branch of the Charleston County Public Library, which was the first library for African Americans in Charleston. Its programming and services are designed to serve area residents "from the cradle on," says manager Kim Odom, and she stays busy welcoming everyone from toddlers at storytime to seniors who come in to read the news or use the internet. The Dart functions as a de facto community center, although it doesn't have the funds or the space to offer everything Odom would like to.
On the other side of I-26 are a few streets with older homes between Meeting Street and Morrison Drive, as well as the recently developed One Cool Blow, which contains condos and office space. This is the area that Enough Pie's work will affect, both culturally and financially.
As for what that work is, Enough Pie's Johnson and executive director Chris Burgess say that it involves outreach to the creative community as well as providing micro-grants. Right now, they're in the outreach and information gathering stage. "In the coming year we're going to use everything we've learned in our first six months, all the people we've met, all the artists we've worked with, to take this placemaking initiative, continue to put arts at the core, but put it in the hands of the community," Johnson says. "We don't want to come in and say, 'We think you need this. So we're going to stick this here and leave it and hope you enjoy it. That's not our approach. Our approach is kind of information gathering, and to know what this community really values and thinks is important, and getting to know as many people as we can."
Burgess adds, "It's a true collaborative effort. That's what I really want us to get involved in."
Late this year, Enough Pie will launch its Community Project Grant program, which will provide small or micro-grants to help fund neighborhood projects that people in the area propose. Those could include anything from providing art supplies to a school to buying paint for public art. "You said you want bus benches, you said you want bike lanes," Johnson says. "We're not going to come in and do it — we're going to help you lead the initiative ... it's going to be their project, not ours. So that's how we plan to keep the future of this community in the hands of this community."
In addition to a 12-person board, Burgess and Johnson work with a Community Stakeholder Committee, which consists of 21 people representing 17 small businesses. "Our stakeholders add meaningful insight to all of our projects, events, and overall strategy, as many have been working on the upper peninsula for years and know the community well," Johnson says.
While Enough Pie is largely focused on "artists, entrepreneurs, and diverse, local businesses," according to their website, they also emphasize the importance of inclusive development. "It comes down to inclusive, smart, sustainable growth," Burgess says. "Growth is coming to the area, and we don't view that as a bad thing at all." Johnson chimes in. "As long as it's done mindfully."
But if the growth in the upper peninsula is really going to be inclusive, it's got to take into account the people who've been living there for generations, whether or not they attend Enough Pie's events.
In Charleston, the upper peninsula is swiftly becoming gentrification central, as young, middle-class families move into what were once solid working-class neighborhoods. As they move in, home and land values rise, which means property taxes rise. Soon, what used to be affordable is no longer. Of course, this is nothing new. The same progression has happened all over the city in different places at different periods of time, says Dr. Ade Ofunniyin (or "Dr. O"), who is the founder of the now-closed community center Studio P.S. and a professor at the College of Charleston. "Charleston used to be 70 percent African American not too long ago, in my lifetime," he says (Dr. O is in his 60s). "People were forced out. You had the building of the Gaillard Auditorium — that was a black community. You had the building of I-26 — that was a black community. You had a lot of development that displaced people."
Obviously, what's happening on the upper peninsula is different from building a massive performing arts center or a highway, but the end result could easily be the same. That's why those involved in creative placemaking have a thin line to walk — they have to execute their projects, which are specifically designed to make communities more desirable to middle- and upper-middle class residents, while trying not to contribute to the forcing out of poor or minority residents. Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, who is principal of the creative placemaking consulting group Metris Arts Consulting, lectures and writes widely on the topic, and is deeply familiar with the economic and cultural divisions that creative placemaking must deal with. "When we're talking about public or quasi-public space and aesthetics in the public realm, who feels welcome and who is economically excluded still ethically matters very much," she says. "We need to consider historical precedents and current policy and zoning that affect how people and economic enterprises carve up landscapes." When asked about how Enough Pie is thinking about these issues, Burgess replied, "There are sometimes unintended consequences of creative placemaking ... and any growth in general. However, we hope our approach is different — we are trying to work from the inside out by promoting the businesses and creative energy that already exist on the upper peninsula. There are few places for Charleston to significantly grow but north, so we are hoping that by being proactive we can have a positive dialogue about how arts and culture can help inform the way this city expands."
Dr. O is good friends with Kate Nevin, the founder of Enough Pie, but is very clear about the racial issues he believes the organization will have to take into account. And they're big issues, with long histories. "This [racial] sickness, this disease that lives in Charleston — it's generational. We didn't treat it 200 years ago, we didn't treat it 100 years ago, we didn't treat it 25 years ago, and we're still not treating it. We're just moving along." He compares the remaking of the upper peninsula now to the remaking of historic Charleston a century ago. "They wanted to preserve the antebellum, nostalgic sentiments around what Charleston represented and its past so they assembled some artists and poets and intellects to create that. It's the same way that they're being assembled now to create a new Charleston. The upper peninsula — you've got your artists, poets, intellects, and so on. In the same way that the African-American community was not included in the design of historic Charleston, they're not being included in the design of the new Charleston. I can't say that they're not included because a deliberate attempt is being made to exclude them, but if you're not invited to the party, then you're not going to show up at the party."
No one could accuse Enough Pie of trying to exclude anyone from their meetings, but it's probably fair to say they've underestimated the complexities of their chosen region. North Central, for example, has undergone major changes in the past few years, many of which have made life more unpredictable for longtime residents. The Dart library's Odom can speak directly to the changes she's seen. "It's different from the gentrification that's going on in, say, the Eastside," she says. "[Here], homeowners are aging, and the trend has been younger people moving in. They're buying up the houses, but they're not necessarily staying." This creates higher home values and higher taxes, which is putting many people who've lived there for years — many of whom are elderly — in the precarious position of losing their houses because they can't pay the taxes. "It's an incredible tax on the community," Odom says. "There's so much change impacting their truth, what they live day to day."
One of the most telling signs of change is a new, private Montessori school, Sundrops Palmetto campus, that recently opened on Simons Street. "We've got this Montessori preschool where there was once a Head Start," Odom says. "That's a private school instead of what it used to be: a thriving place for the kids who needed it." Tuition at Sundrops ranges from $6,350-$13,650 a year, depending on the child's age and whether they attend a full or half-day.
Through her position at the library, Odom is very active in the community, although she was not aware of Enough Pie at the time of the City Paper interview. She heads up a full slate of arts, literacy, media, and youth programming that includes everything from teen lock-ins to book discussion clubs to a monthly carpentry workshop for kids. "We've got a pretty diverse community with new folks coming in, people continuing to use our services, old, young, and in-between," she says. "We want to be all things to all people."
She knows that some of the people she sees will come in only to read the newspaper or rent a DVD, rather than engage more deeply with her programming, but that's OK. Some of them are dealing with hefty problems. "[It's so important for] people to have a place to live that's safe and stress-free in terms of the financial aspect. They're aging and thinking of ways to keep their legacy for the next generation. That's huge, and that could be a barrier to them even thinking about literacy and art because of those top-of-mind things, you know? Food, clothing, shelter." Nevertheless, she says, the arts are a vital part of life and must be kept accessible for everyone.
On that point, she and Enough Pie are in perfect agreement. The question is whether or not Enough Pie will be able to reach into the community that Odom and the Dart library serve as well as their core constituency — whether they'll be able to connect with those who live in the Cool Blow condos as well as those who are in subsidized housing, people who've recently moved into the upper peninsula and people who grew up there 40 years ago. As Dr. O says, "The Enough Pie people, they come in to the community and they're not one of them, and they don't want to be one of them, don't know how to be one of them. So it's important that we break down the us-and-them walls, the divisions."
Luckily for Enough Pie, they have a friend in Ramona La Roche, a former art teacher and owner of the Gullah tours, genealogy, and educational organization Family TYES. La Roche also works with Lowcountry Africana, an African-American genealogy research group. She's currently a member of Enough Pie's Community Stakeholder Committee. La Roche has been active in the African-American and Gullah communities for many years, and she stays involved with the North Central neighborhood through the Dart library.
La Roche echoes Dr. O's concerns about diversity in the Enough Pie crowd, but she's got some solid suggestions about how to start remedying the problem. "In going to their functions I find that there are still very few ethnicities other than Caucasian people represented. I went to one and I think that there were probably less than five of us [African-Americans]. Unfortunately or fortunately our community — and when I say our community I'm talking about African Americans from that area — they are guarded. I mean, they are losing their properties and they are guarded. So I think that Enough Pie has to develop a real community outreach person that's a part of that community that can engage those folks." The Dart library could be very helpful with that, she continues. "They need to have a really strong, connected, ongoing relationship with the Dart library. It's imperative because that's the oldest African-American library [in Charleston]. That was the library that we had to go to before integration, so that's imperative if you are talking about institutions in the community that are related and have the possibility to do community outreach."
In other words, Dr. O says, "They [at Enough Pie] have to integrate the room when they're having these discussions, when they're making these plans. Because when you go into these rooms, they're bohemians and they're really cool people, but they're all white."
When it comes to Enough Pie's focus on artists, La Roche believes that seeking out artists of color would be a good place to start. "If they would engage artists, community-based artists or social artists — because there are also elite artists that don't deal with the community, they're just kind of in their own world — that might be another way to really put out a call to have some sort of a collective of socially engaged artists of color." They're out there, according to La Roche. It's just a matter of caring enough to seek them out.
And that, it seems, is what will determine whether Enough Pie's legacy is one of truly inclusive community representation, or just another heave-ho in gentrification's continued push north. When asked about how he and Johnson are working to make sure that it's the former, Burgess says, "We make every effort to be inclusive by reducing barriers to entry and inviting as many people as we can. All of our events have been free and open to the public, with each one bringing in larger numbers and a wider demographic than the last — and we want to ensure that continues to be the case."
Placemaking comes with some serious responsibility, though, and keeping events free and inviting people to come may not be enough. The upper peninsula is going to change rapidly in the coming years, probably more rapidly than any of us in Charleston realize. Time is of the essence. "I think it's inevitable [that people will continue to be pushed out] if the conversation doesn't change," says Dr. O. "Nothing is inevitable. Everything is by design. If we change the design, then things will change. So I think Enough Pie and the planners have to be deliberately inclusive — deliberately. Not if it happens, it happens. You know, if Dr. O comes to the meeting then that's enough representation. No. No."