Arts and culture are the vanguard of city revitalization, or so the common wisdom of city planning goes. A thriving artistic scene gives people a reason to visit a city, to spend money there, to move there, and to generally make good things happen. For example, Trenton mayor Eric Jackson has said the arts community will be key to bringing economic development to the city. But all that arts and culture needs a space to happen, and that’s where people like Andrew Zitcer come in.

Zitcer was just an undergraduate student at Penn in the late 1990s when he had an idea for forging closer ties between the university and the west Philadelphia neighborhood where it is located. The school had partnered with many organizations to promote public safety, education, and even retail stores. But no effort had been made on the cultural front. Zitcer wrote a paper suggesting that the university build an arts and culture center and pay people small amounts of money to hold events at the space.

“The paper was forwarded to administrators, who, very luckily for me at the time, were thinking about how to partner with organizations in West Philadelphia. They endorsed it, gave me a budget, and gave me space that wasn’t being used. They said, ‘Go for it. Just start doing some programming.’”

Zitcer will speak at the Creative Placemaking Knowledge Exchange on Friday, June 26, from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Rutgers University School of Public Affairs and Administration. Cost, $100. For more information, visit www.plansmartnj.org or call 973-763-6352.

Zitcer’s undergraduate paper became the Rotunda, a thriving venue where more than 300 events are held every year. The Rotunda was built at 40th and Walnut streets in 1911 as a Christian Science church. The building boasts a large circular main hall as well as a tile-roofed narthex, with a layout resembling early Christian churches. Penn bought the building in 1996 to further its West Philadelphia Initiatives program.

Under Zitcer’s leadership, the Rotunda became a popular venue for artists, activists, performers, and event organizers from the surrounding communities. Zitcer encouraged a wide variety of events to be held there. “On Thursday night there might be an open mic poetry performance with 75 people, and the next night there might be an avant-garde classical music concert, and the next night there might be a youth program,” he says.

Zitcer says the Rotunda became a place for people to intermingle between the diverse groups who were using the venue. People who came for the poetry would decide to branch out a bit and return the next night for the avant-garde music. It helped that the events were free. “It became this crossover place for communities to meet and for new communities to get built. They overlapped and cross-pollinated, and that’s something that’s rare in our culture,” Zitcer says.

The Rotunda had a noticeable effect on the neighborhood. “When I went to college at Penn, the 40th Street corridor where the Rotunda sits was not a destination,” Zitcer says. “There was a shuttered public library, a McDonald’s, a Burger King, and on the fourth corner there was a parking lot. This is not just because of the Rotunda, but now that public library has been re-opened, and there is a movie theater and a grocery store.” The neighborhood became a city-wide destination.

Zitcer grew up in Bergen County. His father owns a plumbing and heating supply store and his mother is a nursery school director. He earned two degrees at Penn and completed his doctorate in urban planning and public policy at Rutgers in 2013. Zitcer, who is now a professor at Drexel, has spent the last several years researching why some neighborhoods in west Philadelphia have been left out of the arts and culture revitalization that took place nearby, and has suggested ways the obstacles could be overcome. The lessons apply not just to Philadelphia, but to other places, such as Trenton, that are trying to spark an arts and culture renaissance.

As Zitcer found, there is no free lunch. Supporting an arts community requires investment from cultural organizations, philanthropic funders, and government actors. In neighborhoods where residents struggle financially, so do the arts and culture institutions there, and so they need outside support. Zitcer recommends organizations looking to fund the arts try to fund entire arts ecosystems rather than focusing on individual projects or groups.

Another key is communication. Websites and smartphone apps don’t cut it. Zitcer says a community newspaper with robust arts coverage can be a big help. “A lot of communication is done by word of mouth,” Zitcer says. “People are obsessed with things like apps and hyperlocal media, but simple, low-tech solutions like a community newspaper may be better,” he says.

Imitating a creative placemaking success such as the Rotunda would take investment from some sort of institution, Zitcer says. A community development group or an existing arts organization that decided to branch out its mission could do it, Zitcer says. “It helps to have a university,” Zitcer says. “Often it is the only large landholder and financial institution in the area.”

Zitcer believes the Rotunda was a success because it was a good fit for the people who lived near it. Any attempt to replicate it would do well to keep that in mind, rather than trying to go for a high-income audience. “When you think about Princeton and maybe New York City, there are arts destinations but they are not really community accessible. They are big boxes or maybe they are elite, or expensive.”

Zitcer says the neighborhood is much better off with an arts venue then it would have been with something like a chain store in the same place. There is no reason why this particular creative space cannot be emulated elsewhere. “Without the Rotunda, it would probably be a Crate and Barrel or something. Instead of being culturally vibrant, it would be culturally dead.”

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