This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 16, 2012 - Todd Swanstrom and Karl Guenther were given a seemingly paradoxical charge by the steering committee overseeing a Kresge Foundation grant: Find neighborhoods with the elements for a spontaneous explosion of the arts so local organizations could help build those spontaneous arts.
Swanstrom, Des Lee professor of Community Collaboration and Public Policy Administration at the University of Missouri - St. Louis, and Guenther, Community Development Specialist at UMSL’s Public Policy Research Center dug into the data, along with researcher Will Winter. They soon emerged with a few maps and a handful of recommendations for which areas were most primed for what Swanstrom called "a naturally occurring arts district."
On first glance, the mish-mash of shapes and colors that comprise the maps can seem mystifying, the highlighted neighborhoods arbitrary and the whole project wonky. But beneath the surface lies a complicated and specific set of guiding principles and data collection, organized and curated by the enthusiastic and passionate Swanstrom and Guenther -- an intelligent duo who are eager to finish each other's sentences and perpetually build upon each other's points while explaining the magic of mapping, say, income diversity.
According to Swanstrom, the arts-based grant is all about "fostering great place making." And the best way to blaze the trail? "Data and GIS mapping," Guenther said. (GIS stands for geographic information system.)
The Kresge grant's steering committee, comprised of a collection of more than a dozen St. Louis funders, artists and community advocates, will ultimately choose which neighborhoods will be selected for help with community arts development planning. But the board's recommendations will rest solidly on the behind the scenes work of Swanstrom and Guenther, who are creating what is the backbone of the Kresge's vital data-driven method.
“We’re not choosing areas for an arts initiative. We’re choosing areas that will have the right social structure,” Swanstrom said for their arts-development initiatives to succeed.
Swanstrom and Guenther are the sages of census data, the keepers of the geographic information system, the purveyors of a fresh new approach to defining which neighborhoods are fertile soil for the arts that is gaining attention across the nation.
For the Kresge grant selections, hard data are essential. The committee's goal of capitalizing upon and developing existing assets within neighborhoods as a to build community via what they called "the embedded arts" requires a special sort of neighborhood.
“We’re looking to be able to leverage something,” Swanstrom said. “What we’re talking about is embedded arts, not arts on the hill; we’re talking about people who are in storefront arts.” He offered examples, such as street artists and culinary artists.
“The absolute antitheses of what we’re doing -- and I love them, by the way -- are the institutions in Forest Park. They’re great, but they don’t interact with the community,” he said.
To find the sort of neighborhood that would best cultivate a grassroots arts scene, Swanstrom and Guenther applied a specific calculus to the St. Louis area -- a mix of walkability, of pre-existing orgranizations and of economic and racial diversity.
Guenther and Swanstrom pointed to research done by the Philadelphia-based The Reinvestment Fund and University of Pennsylvania's Social Impact of the Arts Program (SIAP), as well as evidence from smaller projects done across the nation (including the local Regional Arts Commission) that show these elements most often corresponded with naturally occurring arts district.
"While the arts are commerce, they revitalize cities not through their bottom-line but through their social role. The arts build ties that bind — neighbor-to-neighbor and community-to-community. It is these social networks that translate cultural vitality into economic dynamism," Mark J. Stern and Susan Seifert write in a paper for the SIAP entitled Cultivating "Natural" Cultural Districts. The report describes the assets as the key ingredients for a proliferation of the embedded arts and the growth of a "natural" arts district.
These naturally occurring cultural communities are fertile ground for grassroots neighborhood development, as the immediate residents shape the progress of the community. It is a "rare mix," Guenther said.
Following that logic, implementing this specific grant would rely heavily on the existing mesh of specific communities. Enter the research and maps.
Each criteria was represented in a number of maps, presented to the steering committee.
The two defined Walkability through a “Street Smart Walk Score” derived from an algorithm used by walkscore.com. The algorithm, which can be found on the walkscore website, factors in proximity of amenities such as grocers, restaurants, etc., as well as the length of blocks and number of intersections in an area.
The city of St. Louis, as a whole, scores a 66 -- lower than Chicago’s 74, but higher than Kansas City’s 38. Different neighborhoods within St. Louis are given vastly different scores. Dense, bustling locales such as the Central West End, Downtown and Benton Park are a dark green on the map, whereas heavily residential areas with a sparse smattering of commercial services are an orangeish-red.
“Places where you can mingle, all other things being equal, are more conducive to the arts,” Swanstrom said.
Swanstrom and Guenther culled locale-specific racial and economic diversity from census data and presented it through several geographic information system (GIS) maps, the bread and butter of public policy folks. (Reminder, see below for larger map images.)
One map shows the economic diversity of a neighborhood in hues of red and blue. Areas filled with residents who make roughly the same amount of money, be it a lower, middle or upper-class neighborhood, are a glaring red. Neighborhoods with a wide range of incomes glow blue.
A “Poverty-Professional Areas” map highlights areas in which a higher-than-average proportion of its residents live in poverty and a higher-than-average proportion of its residents are professionals.
According to Swanstrom, Poverty-Professional Areas create “a hothouse for the arts, by having different perspectives, different cultures, it helps the arts take off.”
Existing community assets
Lastly, the two mapped out such things as tax-exempt nonprofits, community development corporations (organizations that provide programs and services for specific neighborhoods) RAC-funded organizations and artists based on RAC’s self-reported "artist census."
Mapping organizations and artists helps determine whether "there's a good mix of social service agencies that are dedicated to the area, and a neighborhood association, all coming together to make a sort of infrastructure of civic institutions that mingle with one another and connect the residents,” Guenther said.
Guenther said that after neighborhoods are selected, a consultant would do further research in the neighborhood to help define “the connective tissues” within specific neighborhoods. A model that is site-specific, understanding the respective and unique qualities of each neighborhood, would inform the actual implementation of any programming.
"Our job was to tee up the sort of place where this was happening," Guenther said.
Not by data alone
Of course, the data are only half of the project’s planning -- the human touch, whether through anecdotal evidence or on-the-ground experience, is the bulk of conversation. Some of the highlighted areas were not included in Swanstrom and Guenther's initial maps.
"And that’s fine,” Swanstrom said. “You have to understand the sort of local investments going on in places, and arts things can be incredibly successful in any neighborhood -- we’re just saying here are places where you’ll have somewhat natural factors that will help.”
It is key that a neighborhood could grow the program itself with support, but not dictations, from the outside. While every neighborhood can benefit from the arts, Guenther emphasized that a self-sustaining program centered in the arts that maximized social benefit to a community ruled out more distressed neighborhoods, which would likely benefit from different programming.
Most important is that "the residents have ownership," Guenther said.
The St. Louis Beacon has been following the project for several weeks, reporting independently. Its reporting is supported by the Kresge grant. Johnny Buse is a freelance writer.