By Robin Inman
Greg Cook, a long-time Malden resident and creator of Wonderland magazine, loves this city. But he fears that – like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz – something is lacking. A heart.
“Malden struggles because it doesn’t have a geographic heart. It struggles to have places where people mix and share ideas. Places where people meet, bump into each other and learn new ideas and hear what each other is doing; are inspired or challenged to do even better,” says Cook, who works as publicist for the Cambridge Arts Council, creates festivals with the Somerville Arts Council, and was a reporter and art critic for WBUR’s The ARTery.
Having a heart or a sense of place is not just a lofty ideal. This is integral to the concept of Smart Growth, which can guide a city in creating a prosperous and livable community. A key factor in creating a heart or a sense of place is arts and culture.
According to Smart Growth America, “We believe that art and culture play a crucial role in supporting this vision by providing an organizing force for residents, business owners, and other stakeholders to work towards strengthening neighborhoods, by revealing the authentic character of communities, and by connecting citizens with decision makers to collectively pursue smart, equitable policies and projects.”
“Creative Placemaking” is an evolving type of smart growth that intentionally leverages the power of the arts, culture and creativity to serve a community’s interest while driving a broader agenda for change and growth in a way that also builds character and quality of place, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. Examples include re-purposing underutilized spaces and structures, sponsoring festivals, creating cultural districts and installing public art.
“Once you start kind of stringing those things together and you start building an expectation that people are doing that, they’re going to be expecting it. It’s going to bring more people in,” says André Leroux, of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance. “But you do have to be willing to be flexible around your regulations. If you’re going to make it hard for someone to hold a festival or whatever, and you regulate them to death with red tape, they’re not going to go to your community.”
In other words, creative placemaking thrives when partnerships between private, public, non-profit and community groups strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood around arts and cultural activities. Each project is site-specific and can enhance quality of life and economic prosperity.
Naomi Brave, founder of Malden Arts, is helping to launch just such a project, called ARTLine. ARTLine is a collaboration among Malden Arts, Beyond Walls, Groundwork Somerville, and the City of Malden. According to the Malden Arts website, “The ARTLine will be a premier public art gallery with miles of professional murals, sculptures and community hubs. These hubs will feature bursts of art, greenscapes, pedestrian and bicycle accommodations, and gathering spaces which will fuel economic growth through the act of creating unique and interesting places throughout Malden.”
The first ARTLine mural, at the David R. FitzGerald Park on Exchange Street, honors Malden-born children’s illustrator Ed Emberley. Subsequent murals will honor additional Malden artists, including Frank Stella and his mother Constance Stella, Keith Knight, and Norman Greenbaum. Malden Arts has been awarded a matching grant for ARTLine from Mass Development, confirmation of its visionary potential.
Greg Cook believes that Malden is an exciting place right now with numerous resources drawing people here, including affordable housing, an attractive housing stock, the Orange line, access to highways and diversity that makes the community rich. Creative placemaking is a concept that would work well with these resources.
“I’m hoping that we could have a geographic center that feels like the center of town,” he says. “It needs to feel like home, to feel like the emotional center of town, where we develop the ideas that energize and improve the community.”
Ose Schwab, owner of Malden Creates, LLC, founder of Malden Pops Up and currently director of The Gallery, agrees that Malden would benefit from having a “permanent, dependable space, visible to the public, that showcases art in some way and offers a warm welcome to other events/activities that exist.” She stresses the importance of building expectations based on consistent experiences, such as regular monthly events, to lure people in.
Schwab’s current solution for an art center is The Gallery, a longer-term gift shop and performance and exhibition space centrally located downtown where Malden Pops Up has been held. “In The Gallery, I have noticed a cross section of residents from every country… excited to see art and know there are possibilities to experience art in Malden,” she says.
Both Cook and Schwab feel that the city needs to better coordinate and utilize existing resources and organizations such as the library, Malden Arts and Malden Reads. Cook says, “I’d like to see the library grow. There’s been talk for a number of years of developing an art center in town. I’d really like to see something happen in the old section of the library.”
Schwab laments, plain and simply, “we have no arts/culture calendar, no directory of venues, no directory of artists/musicians/actors, etc., no complete directory of arts/culture organizations or opportunities to connect to.” Cook agrees, saying, “we need a clearing house, places for people to find out what’s going on.”
Brave would like to see Malden grow in accordance with the Malden Vision created in 2009. The Vision plan states, “the city will promote local arts and cultural resources to encourage visitors, community engagement, and leisure opportunities for the region to encourage its growth and development.” In addition, “The heart of our community, Downtown/ Malden Square, will be a revitalized, vibrant and livable place that: encourages a mix of uses; provides daytime, evening and weekend attractions; offers a variety of restaurants, coffee shops, cultural venues and activities; and encourages a viable retail district.”
“Arts in the community gives residents pride in the neighborhood, a sense of place and belonging. It increases their sense of well being, inspires people in their own lives, makes them care about their community more,” Brave says. Similarly, Schwab believes that enabling the arts can “increase morale, give people hope for their community, and brings in money.”
Lack of diverse leadership is an obstacle to growing Malden’s arts and culture community. For Cook, the city’s rich diversity “isn’t really reflected in the city leadership.” He says, “I’m not sure that the city leadership has been as savvy as the people who are moving here about the value of the community” and about how to benefit from the new energy and resources that newcomers bring.
Yet he’s “hopeful that we’ll see that diversity reflected in all aspects of our community, and bring that richness of experience into the leadership of the community” in the future.
Budgetary constraints can also limit growth of the arts. Brave would like to see the city adopt percentage-for-art legislation for new construction in the city, whereby developers must devote a certain percent of their budget to art and culture; for example, a mural or a sculpture. Somerville, for example, has implemented zoning that requires 1% of new development budgets to be devoted to art to enhance the infrastructure. Brave also believes Malden would benefit from hiring a part-time arts coordinator. Both she and Cook point out how much more arts programming Somerville is able to provide with one full- and two part-time positions on the Somerville Arts Council.
Schwab is excited about the direct economic benefits of growing the arts. “Arts events draw visitors and this draws money. When art or other events draw in visitors to a city, statistically visitors spend almost twice the amount of money than a resident might: parking, meals, retail purchases – about $45. Abundant cultural opportunities and activities also appeal to young professionals as major criteria for the decision about where to move. If they move in and buy, this adds property tax revenue for the city. And if performers rent the venues the city owns, this adds fee revenue to the city earnings.”
To make The Gallery financially sustainable, Schwab envisions tapping diverse revenue sources such as investors, developers and sponsors. Creative public-private partnerships would also add to the mix.
Despite obstacles, the dream is powerful. Brave’s vision for Malden would be to “be able to walk through any square in Malden and see visible signs of a thriving arts community, such as a mural, a painted switchbox, a gallery, a bookshop, a theatre,” etc. Cook says that successfully growing the arts would “makes the community a more exciting place to live, more meaningful and lively.” And Schwab notes the bridge-making power of the arts to engage residents and build community. “Arts are a necessity,” she says. “This is going to happen.”
In a series of articles , Neighborhood View has examined the issue of Smart Growth and how it can be applied to Malden in areas such as traffic, housing, the arts and quality of life.
Other articles in this series: