Wednesday, September 8, 2010

(Punk) Art and the City

I’m not an expert by any stretch, but I’ve been observing and writing about the productive relationship between cities and the arts since I moved to Baltimore in 2004.  In fact, my involvement with Pages & Places and its annual book festival stems from my awareness of reams of researching pointing over and over and over to the fact that cities heavily invested in a vibrant, diverse, street-level arts and culture scene are far more likely than their counterparts to thrive in the 21st century, and Liz Randol’s vision for the twin-themed Pages & Places Book Festival spoke directly to current best practices that cities like San Jose, Houston, Denver, and Memphis are struggling (some more successfully than others) to implement.

What folks like me all around the country have been pining for is a government—ideally a city government, but a county or (god forbid) a state government would be perfectly wonderful—that understood this arts/city relationship as well as the yearly waves of talented twenty-five to thirty-five year-olds who leave their homes and schools for the greener pastures of Seattle or Austin or Portland, Oregon or Chicago.

The extraordinary circumstances I want to describe here are born of the results of Iceland’s first, panicky election following the collapse of the nation’s financial system, and I learned of them only after Pages & Places had signed Bragi Olafsson, the Icelandic novelist and publisher and founding member of The Sugarcubes, to serve on the festival’s literature in translation panel.  Turns out that Bragi can add a political position to his resume: personal advisor to the mayor of Reykjavik.

It seems that amidst the moral and economic anxiety of the last year, Comedian Jon Gnarr founded the Best Party in effort to satirize his country’s political systems, and he ran what was initially regarded as a joke campaign for mayor of Reykjavik that featured a music video set to Tina Turner’s song “The Best” in which Mr. Gnarr posed with a stuffed polar bear and affectionately petted a rock.

Mr Gnarr also promised free towels at swimming pools, and to a classroom of kindergartners he put himself on the line to build a Disneyland at the Reykjavik airport.  Moreover, he argued that “No one has to be afraid of the Best Party, because it is the best party. If it wasn’t, it would be called the Worst Party or the Bad Party. We would never work with a party like that.”

But the joke became something else when Gnarr won Reykjavik’s elections with 34.7 percent of the vote, becoming the city’s fourth mayor in four years.  The Best Party won only 6 of the City Council’s 15 seats, so Mr. Gnarr needed a coalition partner.  Having ruled out any party whose members had not seen all five seasons of “The Wire,” Gnarr eventually forged a coalition with the center-left Social Democrats and went to work filling out his cabinet.

Gnarr has stocked key positions with well-known figures from Reykjavik’s arts and music scene, including Olafsson.  Ottarr Proppe, for example, is the third-ranking member of the Best Party.  He had played with the cult rock band HAM and the punk band Rass and become a central figure in Reykjavik’s famous punk scene.  But now he sits on the city’s executive board, where he will be deciding matters like how much money to allocate for roads.

As unlikely as Gnarr’s administration is, he has big ambitions—like turning Reykjavik, with its plentiful supply of geothermal, into a hub for electric cars—but for folks like me, Gnarr’s line-up of advisors and off-beat approach promises that Reykjavik will be a first of its kind testing ground for an arts-based approach to urban renewal.

What we’ve long known is that the arts can be a driver of vitality.  Museums and concert halls aside, a dynamic art scene shapes a city’s street-level experience.  It shows up in street music and murals and creates a vivid atmosphere.  Cities with an abundance of street level art create opportunities and incentives for residents to spend time in the heart of the downtown, in restaurants and cafes and boutiques or simply on the corner, and as Jane Jacobs tells us in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the mere presence of pedestrians on a street changes the way we experience the city.  She asks us to perform a simple thought experience:  imagine two streets at dusk, one crowded with people and the other empty of them.  Which feels safer to you?  Which feels more inviting?  Which are you more likely walk down?

Out of this simple test comes the most reliable approach to cities and city planning.

Since scholars began reevaluating their key assumptions about how cities and urban economies work, it’s become clear that people, especially the most hirable twenty-five to thirty-five-year-olds, no longer move to where the jobs are.  Instead, they move to where they want to live, and the employers follow.  And the entrepreneurs.  Just ask Google and Adobe, who are brilliant at recruiting the best talent in the game, only to see that talent gain vital experience and then leave for the cities everyone leaves for.  At a conference three years ago, Adobe execs complained about how much money they spent contracting with former employees in Seattle and Portland and Austin.

Those cities best able to create an event-like feel are those most likely to produce a simple desire to be there, part of the mix of things and therefore mostly likely to attract desirable populations and, in turn, employers.

The hardest part of all this—speaking out of my own experience—is finding political leadership sensitive to the research and willing to take risks.  Scranton is extraordinarily lucky to have Chris Doherty at the helm.  He gets it in the way few mayors do, and that’s been key to Pages & Places’ success, not to mention the increasingly stunning revitalization of Scranton itself.

We’ll see what becomes of the Gnarr administration.  It could certainly be that a city government without special interests to serve and powerful constituencies is doomed to failure.  But it could also be that the creation—or restoration—of arts-fueled excitement will prove more than enough to guarantee success.  Either way, I’ll be watching.

The author of this article is Bill Black.


  1. Spot-on commentary on the arts as a critical means to revitalize our towns and cities. Carol-Ann's posts on Sarasota, FLA, and WOS's on Phoenixville, PA, demonstrate this, too. As for Iceland, fascinating to learn of this. Reminds me a bit of Minnesotans and Jesse Ventura, though let us hope Reykjavik has better luck with Gnarr.

  2. Dear Raining Acorns,
    most often I correspond with Caroll-Ann, I suppose - so: Hi Bill!
    I just came to have a look at your blog as a little rest from the task of translating a text from German Cultural Studies about Street Art, Obey Giant, turns etc (with very demanding sentences and words - normally I only translate from English into German, but this time my friends were in great need, so I gave in, dabbling of course) - and then I see that in a way you have a very similar theme on your post! :-) Although yours I can simply enjoy! Thank you, it's very interesting!

  3. Good luck to the Gnarr administration - what a world it would be if all government (city, state or, dare I say it - national) could succeed without bowing to special interests.


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