IT IS A LONG-STANDING argument that maintaining strong creative and artistic cultural presence is a pivotal part of a flourishing culture. This argument has been used to fight for arts funding and promote culture as a civic responsibility. Frequently, these arguments have fallen on deaf ears, particularly because most people don’t see a direct correlation between a large presence of art and a healthy economy. Many voters see art as an expensive luxury and not a necessary building block of a strong economy.
As America and the rest of the world begin to move away from the economic model of making and selling (largely because of dwindling natural resources), new ways of generating fiscal health are being examined. People like urban-studies theorist Richard Florida, have begun to investigate how globalization has reduced the importance of manufacturing in the economy and increased the value of art-related jobs and creative fields. It was Florida who coined the term the “Creative Class,”—an idea that artists and creative types will lead the new economy as we begin to adjust to a decrease in natural resources.
Florida’s research has focused on how successful cities have reinvigorated urban culture. Places like Miami, Las Vegas and New York have reinvented themselves for new generations, sometimes in very short time spans. For example, it was just thirty years ago that these cities were written off as lost, but innovative developers identified key factors that were crucial in shifting the urban paradigm. Miami, which was known for their retirement culture, began to promote nightclubs and beaches, Las Vegas began to focus on family entertainment by developing relationships with companies like Cirque de Soleil (instead of gambling and gaming relationships) and New York cleaned up Times Square by closing the adult cinemas and inviting companies like the Walt Disney Corporation to develop retail and theater.
When describing the success of a city, Florida talks a lot about the three T’s: talent, tolerance and technology, with a special emphasis on diversity. Says Florida in a 2008 Vanity Fair article, “In a nutshell, we found that creative people are attracted to, and high-tech industry takes root in, places that are high on our basic indicators of diversity.” This means that talented people gravitate towards areas known for being liberal, which then lays the foundation for new business capital. He suggests attracting and retaining high-quality talent, instead of just focusing on projects such as sports stadiums, new buildings, and shopping centers, as a better use of a city’s resources for long-term prosperity. Even locally, the former mayor of Berkeley, Shirley Dean, utilized similar ideas to re-gentrify downtown Berkeley; she invited artists to build new theaters and jazz clubs, created tax breaks for local community-minded businesses, and facilitated a region with many destinations that helped stimulate a more diverse population.
Locally, while San Francisco has always rated high on the 3T’s index, Central Market Street (5th Street through Civic Center) has struggled for many years to find an urban identity, other than for social services and strip clubs. In the not-to-distant past, mid-Market flourished with movie cinemas, shopping spots and polished restaurants but by the mid-seventies, many merchants moved outside of San Francisco and BART made it convenient to bypass this section of the city and travel to other destinations, in or out of the city.
Recently, San Francisco’s Mayor, Gavin Newsom, announced a comprehensive revitalization initiative for the Central Market Area and the arts are the centerpiece. “We looked at the assets that we have in Central Market and the adjacent Tenderloin and SOMA neighborhoods, and it is clear that the arts establishments are a treasure we can build on” said Amy Cohen, the Director of Neighborhood Business for the Office of Economic and Workforce Development. To enhance the arts district, the Mayor has allocated $11.5 million in low interest loan money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for commercial endeavors that enhance the arts district; these resources have been designated as the Cultural Loan Program. San Francisco was also recently awarded a $250,000 grant (the highest amount available) from the National Endowment for the Arts for arts programming in the neighborhood. These initiatives have spurred local dance organizations to help stimulate the burgeoning culture in this sector of San Francisco and to partner with the city’s political infrastructure to find ways of strengthening the presence of local contemporary artist organizations. As a result, companies like LINES Dance Center, KUNST-STOFF Arts, The Garage, and Denia Dance have banded together to create Central Market Arts’ 24 Days of Art, a festival of outdoor shows and events, co-produced by the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development and the Central Market Community Benefits District.
The first annual event will begin with a three-day kick-off at Mint Plaza on September 24-26, featuring over twenty dance and performance companies, including contributions from Tanya Bello, LEVY Dance and Kathleen Hermesdorf. Throughout the weekend there will be lunchtime concerts and a special evening performance on September 24 featuring live music and contemporary dance. Says local hip-hop performer and featured artist, Josh Klipp, “Community festivals introduce artists and audiences who otherwise might never meet. It’s a chance to connect with passersby—with more than the rare hello—to create a moment of openheartedness with complete strangers by singing to them, sharing what I love.”
After the kick-off weekend, a series of events from September 27-October 17, including discounted classes, free performances and open houses, will help promote local arts organizations. Some of the dance organizations participating are Studio Gracias, the SF Conservatory of Dance, Margaret Jenkins/CHIME, Shoebox Dance Studio and CounterPULSE.
It’s too soon to say if San Francisco has finally found a solution for Central Market. Newsom’s a sharp politician who’s open to forward thinking (gay marriage, Twittering City Hall updates, universal health care) but if he becomes California’s Lieutenant Governor in January, he’ll probably leave San Francisco before all the HUD money is distributed. Fortunately, his staff has shown a real dedication to creating a cultural district in Central Market and it’s encouraging that they have reached out to the artistic community to help lay the foundation for a revitalized neighborhood.