“Why is art going in here? This is the ghetto”
November 7, 2013 7:13 PM   Subscribe

The Best Of All Possible Worlds - "A public art contest in Evansville, Indiana becomes a debate over race, class, and good taste." posted by the man of twists and turns (25 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I am very surprised and encouraged that my hometown is running public art competitions. That's awesome.

I am NOT surprised that someone in my hometown smashed it up.
posted by JoeBlubaugh at 7:46 PM on November 7, 2013 [8 favorites]

Funny enough, I was going to come in to write the exact same thing.

Evansville is such an odd place. They have never really been able to get it together.
posted by Tchad at 7:50 PM on November 7, 2013

Richard Florida: like Midas, but everything he touches turns to shit, and he doesn't regret it later.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:58 PM on November 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Melman also found out that an attractive, if run-down, Victorian house had stood on his sculpture site until a year or two previously. Everyone in the neighborhood remembered the house. It wasn’t hard, then, to imagine the perspective of someone who felt left out of the redevelopment effort. Suppose you’ve lived in Haynie’s Corner your whole life. You’ve been watching the city tear down houses on every block for the last several years. It’s not like you love everything about the neighborhood, but it’s home, and they’re leveling it. You may not know what their plan is, but it’s obvious you’re not the intended beneficiary. It’s not for your benefit that they’re paying people from out of state to put art where your friend’s grandmother’s house used to be.

Now there’s a ghost door that looks like it’s mocking the fact that a house used to be here, or it looks like an advertisement for the house that’s coming, a house that won’t be for you or anybody you know, and they’re calling it Best of All Possible Worlds. Demolish my house; bring in some rich people; forget I ever existed—that’s the best of all possible worlds?

posted by rtha at 8:00 PM on November 7, 2013 [18 favorites]

I wonder if without the title it would have the same effect. Put it up on the site of demolished house with that title, and it seems like a memorial, to me at least, but mocking.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:03 PM on November 7, 2013

This is an excellent story, thought-provoking and well worth reading in its entirety. Melman is an unusually thoughtful artist. I might have liked a bit more nuts-and-bolts reporting on city planning and priorities as part of this. It does capture some of the complexity of a changing urban environment, and I liked that the reporter recognized that even a marginalized neighborhood is not a monolith of opinion, reducible to an easy narrative.
posted by Miko at 8:13 PM on November 7, 2013 [8 favorites]

and I liked that the reporter recognized that even a marginalized neighborhood is not a monolith of opinion, reducible to an easy narrative.

Yes! And that those different opinions were presented in a rich enough way that I didn't feel like I was being pushed towards siding with any particular one of them.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 8:36 PM on November 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

All's for the good in
This best of all possible worlds!
posted by bq at 8:45 PM on November 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Made me think a little bit of Lucas, KS. Has anyone else been there? It's a tiny town trying to put itself on the map as a Mecca for outsider art. And it has sort of succeeded, but still seems very lonely.

Lucas's rejuvenation projects seemed to heavily involve the residents, though. I wonder why Evansville decided not to be as inclusive? [Sorry for my naivete but] it seems counter-intuitive that you'd try to make the city better by basically swapping out the population. Is that the influence of Florida's views?
posted by rue72 at 8:51 PM on November 7, 2013

What Miko said, great article that avoids the easy narrative. I wanted to hear even more voices, and was disappointed the article didn't dig into the city planning more, like this paragraph about the "creative class" guy they imported from Paducah:

Baumgart seemed to have spent a great deal of time thinking about what was wrong with the city’s redevelopment effort, which he characterized as ham-handed and a total failure due almost entirely to Tom Barnett. Barnett tried to use the Paducah arts-district cookie cutter without regard for the situation here, and he didn’t even bother to conceal his prejudices against renters, who made up the overwhelming majority of the neighborhood’s population, and against artists, who were supposed to move in and fix everything. How was it a surprise that the plan didn’t work out?

And I'd definitely have read a couple more paragraphs about this:

There was talk of the city kicking people out of perfectly inhabitable houses for minor code violations, claiming ownership of the houses, and then demolishing them in the hopes of turning a massive profit.

Getting to the bottom of that "talk of the city kicking people out of perfectly inhabitable houses" seems pretty central to understanding this story.

I've long thought Richard Florida is a shyster, mostly, and the creative class stuff useful but hilariously overblown by city officials all over the country, but the sculptor seems about as respectful as he could have been in that situation, and seems to really understand how art can work to enrich a neighborhood experience.
posted by mediareport at 8:52 PM on November 7, 2013 [5 favorites]

The destruction of the sculpture really does just sound like dumb vandalism, especially considering how engaged the artist was with the community and how much they really seemed to love the piece.

The article made me think of all the places I used to live, "bad neighborhoods" where no artist could ever afford to live now. Developers love to see artists move into cheap houses and set up studios in all but abandoned warehouses - in five, ten years, those will be condos and none of the neighborhood will be left, except for some pictures of fresh scrubbed artsy types on billboards and in brochures.
posted by louche mustachio at 9:40 PM on November 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Wow, great article. Echoing comments above, it's fantastic to read something that is exploring the complexity of a story rather than just going for the cheap hook. (Though I thought the bit at the end about the Picasso gemmail seemed kind of tacked-on.)
posted by desuetude at 10:49 PM on November 7, 2013

Reminded me of this Danish artist's door installation, smashed and thrown into a pond.
posted by bonobothegreat at 2:28 AM on November 8, 2013

Evansville is such an odd place. They have never really been able to get it together.

I dunno. As far as Indiana's second-tier cities go, Evansville tends to rank with Fort Wayne as being a "city that got their shit together". Come to Muncie if you want to see what "never really been able to get it together" looks like.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:31 AM on November 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Just playing devil's advocate here:

If gentrification is bad, but economic growth is good, what should a city like Evansville do to encourage economic growth? There are dozens of cities like this in the Midwest – I know, because I've lived in them. It seems obvious that a city like Evansville needs real-estate investment before any of the other big changes could happen – companies relocating, establishing a large tax base, residents with discretionary income to spend in local businesses, etc. Perhaps the 'arts district' idea is a bad way to go about it, but giving incentives to artists (or anyone else) to invest in housing in the area seems correct, at least in theory. Drive up home prices and improve the aesthetics of the neighborhood, and maybe you'll draw 1-2% of residents from the more expensive neighboring metro area, which will attract businesses, etc. etc.

What is permissible for a city government to do in an effort to draw investment? If there is some magic formula to turn a city like Evansville into a tiny Portland, OR, is the displacement of long-term residents of disinvested neighborhoods an acceptable casualty? Or is that idea too morally repulsive to be considered an option, even in the depths of our current economic doldrums?
posted by deathpanels at 5:54 AM on November 8, 2013

This is where more info about what actually happened in Evansville would have been useful. What was the "prejudice against renters" about from the Paducah guy they brought in? How did that play out in the lives of residents in neighborhoods targeted for "economic growth"? Were perfectly inhabitable houses destroyed so, say, the land could be handed over to developers who donated to city council elections? We really don't know what happened. Gentrification may be inevitable and/or desirable in some places, but the way it happens is key to any kind of understanding (moral or otherwise) of what kinds of "encouragement" the city was doing. There are strategies that at least attempt to honor existing residents and strategies that say "fuck those guys, we're coming in," and probably lots in between. I liked the linked article a lot, but we don't get enough about that piece of the puzzle.
posted by mediareport at 6:05 AM on November 8, 2013

If gentrification is bad, but economic growth is good

I don't think anyone, even the piece, is arguing that. It's definite that cities need to attract a virtuous cycle of engagement and investment to sustain themselves, not really controversial. But there are more and less wise, inclusive ways to do that. With the piece lacking some planning context, it's really difficult to assess the wisdom of the city's efforts without that deeper reporting about the policy, politics and personalities surrounding the creation of this plan initially.
posted by Miko at 6:09 AM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Worth noting again the quotes from local residents who were happy to see the new folks moving in.
posted by mediareport at 6:13 AM on November 8, 2013

If gentrification is bad, but economic growth is good, what should a city like Evansville do to encourage economic growth?

Maybe try projects that will boost your own citizens into better economic circumstances? Give grants and low-interest loans for small businesses. Create schemes to encourage people to shop local. Encourage involvement in community organizations. Give people a forum to contribute. I've lived in struggling midwestern towns and cities, too, one state over, and all gentrification means is that the well-off people have new scenery. They started in the cities, then moved to newly-created suburbs, then back to gentrifying cities, then gentrifying suburbs, then gentrifying cities again? That's a net zero benefit, isn't it? It's just shuffling people around, and those people will leave again if the grass gets greener somewhere else.

I obviously don't know Evansville, but I know that if, say, Akron and Canton and Youngstown all end up competing for a very small subset of well-off artsy hipster types who briefly think it's cool to live around here, it's just going to be a race to the bottom. You can't make every single city in America a tiny Portland, you know? I'd rather see Evansville be the best possible Evansville, Canton be the best possible Canton, etc. If you keep more money in the community, you can see a real bump without needing to bring in outsiders.
posted by Sequence at 6:20 AM on November 8, 2013

Did Evansville reach out to its own residents and creators for this art effort?

Regardless of good intent and Melman's outreach efforts after he got started, my first reaction as a resident would be "People who don't live in this neighborhood are plunking down artsy stuff that they outsourced to some New Yorker, WTF?!"
posted by cadge at 8:05 AM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

But there are more and less wise, inclusive ways to do that.
Hence my question:
What is permissible for a city government to do in an effort to draw investment?
What are good ways of accomplishing re-investment in a neighborhood? What are the parameters for success for a re-investment plan? Redistribute income? Progressive taxes? Increase public land? Is it even possible to increase investment in a neighborhood without supplanting low-income renters?
posted by deathpanels at 8:11 AM on November 8, 2013

Yes, it is possible. It is tricky. It is easy to make mistakes. There have been lousy efforts and good efforts in the past. There are hundreds (thousands?) of success stories. There is a shit-ton of urban studies and economic development literature about it. Your questions are really broad, but many strategies have been shown to work well; also strategy is one thing, implementation (as cadge notes - not the why but the how) is another. I am a big fan of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance's work on this. Also, one of my favorite message boards that is not MeFi is Cyburbia, an urban-planning community that discusses related topics a lot, especially on the Economic and Community Development forum.

Also I am not sure that the goal should be either to "supplant" low-income renters or to cater to low-income renters, but to reduce the number of low-income people in general. If the rising tide really lifts all boats, there should be fewer dense clusters of challenged, marginalized people struggling to survive in the economic system.
posted by Miko at 11:25 AM on November 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you want to spur economic development without gentrification, there's really only one solution: locate the unused land and buildings, and put them to positive use.

It's one thing to tear down decrepit houses that people live in, so that you can build more profitable housing...and quite another to leave those houses alone, but turn the disused factories next door into good housing and a grocery store/other amenities to support the combined, larger population.
posted by davejay at 2:50 PM on November 8, 2013

of course I might be naive and ignorant, so there's always that
posted by davejay at 2:51 PM on November 8, 2013

Is it even possible to increase investment in a neighborhood without supplanting low-income renters?

Rent control is a possible method, though that's more about not displacing people once the neighborhood is already gentrifying.

Mixed use neighborhoods are also a way of increasing investment without supplanting people. You bring in businesses, who hire people who live nearby, and those people then have enough spending money to support the businesses, who then hire more people, etc. Ideally, that virtuous cycle also includes things like property values going up, property taxes going up, more money going to schools, and on and on. In reality, I don't know how successful mixed use neighborhoods are as a way of increasing investment without gentrification, but I think that's the idea.

In a broader sense, you might want to attract to the area a large company who will need to hire a lot of unskilled labor (for example, a company that needs to open a factory). The way to attract those companies is usually to make sure the workers in your area will work for very low wages and won't unionize, which...makes the cost/benefit analysis a little more difficult on the part of the county or state hoping to attract those companies. But a lot of places still think it's worth it, especially in the South.
posted by rue72 at 2:24 PM on November 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

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