Two books arriving at the office touch on the role of arts and culture as a means to transform a city — with special attention in one to the idea of the creation of an arts district.

‘Becoming Philadelphia’

In “Becoming Philadelphia: How an Old American City Made Itself New Again”(Rutgers University Press), Philadelphia Inquirer architectural critic Inga Saffron uses 20 years of her Pulitzer Prize-winning “Changing Skyline” columns to chronicle changes to a city that had once been called “the next Detroit” but has since vigorously renewed itself.

And part of it, obviously, was culture.

As Saffron notes, in 1993 “Philadelphia’s downtown was hitting bottom” and mayor Ed Rendell “launched a visionary revival strategy disguised as an arts initiative.”

It was one designed to create a major arts district along one of the city’s major downtown thoroughfares, South Broad Street.

In a column written 20 years later, Saffron’s “What Really Happened after the Avenue of the Arts Came to South Broad Street” looks at what she says had become an outdated premise: out-of-town visitors being the salvation of a city.

Instead, she argues the following:

The challenge today isn’t to cajole suburbanites to come downtown for an evening; it’s making the city more livable for the thousands of new residents who are putting down roots in Philadelphia’s reviving neighborhoods.

No one anticipated that population surge when the avenue was created.

Inga Saffron

Without a doubt, South Broad has come a long way from its pre- Avenue of the Arts days when office buildings stood empty, prostitutes strutted near the corner of Lombard Street, and the gloomy husk of the Ridgeway Library served as the face of the city’s decline.

The Avenue of the Arts was first proposed by (city and regional planner) Paul Levy’s Center City District in 1990 as a way to clean up that mess, but it was Rendell who ran with the idea.

Rendell’s laser focus, Levy says, enabled him to attract the public and private cash necessary to bankroll a dozen arts-related projects and fund a major streetscape overhaul.

Glamorous new destinations such as the Kimmel Center, which opened in 2001, helped rebrand the avenue as an entertainment district. Historic buildings were saved; that white-columned Ridgeway is now home to the Creative and Performing Arts High School. Developers responded by renovating their mothballed Class B offices and, ultimately, dotting the blocks south of Spruce with new, high-end apartments and restaurants.

But while the Avenue of the Arts has enjoyed a respectable run as the star of the city’s revival efforts, other, more sustainable trends have pushed it off the marquee . . .

Ever since New York carved Lincoln Center out of the decaying Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in the ’60s, cities around the country have dreamed of having their own arts district. But concentrating culture is an old strategy that has run its course, says John D. Landis, chairman of Penn’s regional planning department (at the University of Pennsylvania).

What drives cities now are entrepreneurs and what he calls “the Brooklyn phenomenon.” The city, he explains, is where people go to “consume urbanism.”

Jeremy Nowak, the former head of the William Penn Foundation, agrees: “We’ve moved on to other strategies.”

Some argue the Avenue of the Arts created the conditions that made the millennial boom possible.

“Maybe the avenue isn’t 100 percent responsible, but it was the catalyst,” Rendell told me. “It got suburbanites to come in the city and eat.” It is certainly true that the fear of the gritty city has lessened in the last two decades.

But that seems more likely the result of a bundle of policies that helped the whole city to reset its image.

Attention to the so-called broken-windows crimes by Rendell and Levy was at least as important in making people feel comfortable downtown.

Without the 10-year property- tax abatement as an incentive, it is hard to imagine that Philadelphia would have seen its entire stock of vacant, early 20th-century office buildings transformed into apartments, or the subsequent boom in infill housing.

And let’s not discount the profound changes in American life over the last twenty years. At the exact moment that the millennials — a generation, incidentally, with no memory of the urban upheavals of the ’60s and ’70s — were coming of age, the Internet gave them the flexibility to live wherever they like and to work from home.

“Becoming Philadelphia” by Inga Saffron, 272 pages, $29.95 Rutgers University Press.

‘Creative Placemaking For Whom, By Whom’

The second book, a small one published digitally by the Philadelphia-based online magazine Next City, is “Creative Placemaking For Whom, By Whom.”

Also a compilation of articles, the connecting thread is an approach that, according to editorial director Kelly Regan, asks, “Even with deep community engagement, how do you place-make responsibly and equitably for the people who should benefit, in a manner that prevents displacement and gentrification?”

One answer is in the 2018 story “What If All Community Development Started With Local Arts and Culture?”

It is an answer that connects to Saffron’s idea of first building by the community — and creating a sense of place.

As Philadelphia writer Jared Brey reports:

Dee Briggs was expecting to do a routine demolition when she bought the vacant house next to her art studio in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania.

But when Briggs walked inside for the first time, she found a bunch of personal effects left behind by the families that had lived there before it was abandoned. It got her thinking about the long series of lives that had moved through and past the house since it was built in the 1870s, she says, and a normal, quick demolition soon seemed inappropriate.

“It really put me in a position to think about the people who had lived there, their relationships with the people in the neighborhood and my relationships with the people in the neighborhood, and what makes up a community,” Briggs says.

So instead of simply tearing the house down, Briggs enlisted a group of neighbors to paint it solid gold and later launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a “gentle demolition,” taking the building apart as carefully as it had been constructed.

Now, years later, she’s using some of the former materials from the house to build a new coffee shop across the street. She hopes it will be a place that will bring people together and provide jobs for young people, something that will “add to the economic and social agency of my existing neighbors,” Briggs says.

Jared Brey

At the time Briggs created the House of Gold, the term “creative placemaking” wasn’t in her lexicon, and she wasn’t trying to accomplish anything specific, says Briggs, a sculptor and trained architect.

“It was more of a feeling, a sense of responsibility to the neighborhood, to the property, and to the history of the neighborhood [rather] than having a particular goal or intention,” Briggs says.

But creative placemaking is the label the project earned, according to a report from the Center for Community Progress and Metris Arts Consulting …

“All the communities we visited want to reduce the negative impacts of vacant property, and a variety of community members, such as artists, community-based organizations, and city staff, see creative placemaking as one tool to help make that happen,” the report says. “The broader aims of each community — economic revitalization, affordable housing, or increased public safety — influence the kinds of creative placemaking activities communities engage in, but communities ultimately want to eliminate entrenched, systemic vacancy.”

“The central core of Wilkinsburg has so many vacant properties it doesn’t look like any place where people would want to live,” says Tracey Evans, executive director of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation.

Partnering with students from Carnegie Mellon University and the Wilkinsburg Historical Society, Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation helped coordinate a Vacant Home Tour, partly inspired by the story of Briggs’ House of Gold project. The tour highlighted information about property histories and included a workshop where people could learn about acquiring vacant property through city programs.

There’s a lot about the Wilkinsburg community that people want to preserve, Evans says, like the diversity of people and of architecture. But there’s a lot of vacancy, too, she says, “and we don’t want to keep that.”

Wilkinsburg needs outside investment if it’s going to be improved, Briggs says, and if the creative placemaking work in Wilkinsburg can generate more interest from outside investors, she hopes it comes from investors who reflect its population.

“I’d love to see more real estate developers of color, people nationally who are African American, to invest in Wilkinsburg,” Briggs says. “I feel that, statistically, we know that black-owned businesses and black-owned real estate companies are more invested in supporting black employees and black renters than white business owners and white landowners and white property owners.”

While the Philadelphia district project initiated success and the Wilkinsburg project is a work in progress, the two articles may be offering a key to arts and culture driven community development projects in a COVID-19 affected world: Strengthen the existing community culture and then open the door for others.

“Creative Placemaking For Whom, By Whom,” available by donation or for free at

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