Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Boston Theatre - Artists Versus Affordables

Union Square in Somerville, MA is a neighbordhood in flux. And it is about to get more flexible with the extension of the MBTA's Green Line from Lechmere.

The neighborhood has always been a vibrant mix of ethnicities. My friend Heather Townsend was commissioned to create a bench to be placed on the plaza in Union Square, and her finished work represents the cultural mix and the changing landscape.

Using her unique method of writing on glass, she composed a narrative of the Square's history in the shape of a river, (one used to run through the area,) and she used 16 different languages that have been spoken by the families and residents over the years. (To get an idea of Heather's work you can go here.)

Artists have been an institution in Union Square and many art projects, sponsored by the Somerville Arts Council and other organizations, have taken aim at revitalizing the area.

With the prospect of a main subway line on the horizon, major redevelopment of the neighborhood has shot past desireable and gone right into inevitable. The City of Somerville seems to want to keep it the type of neighborhood that will draw the creative economy's main drivers. But, as Richard Florida points out in his studies about the Creative Class, keeping the balance of a creatively rich region involves many moving parts. The danger of inequality and class separation is always right in the center of the churning mixture.

Case in point: a zoning meeting that recently took place in Somerville regarding Union Square. The Somerville News covered it:

The proposal was presented by Monica Lamboy, Madeleine Masters and Rob May of the city's planning and development office, who explained the new zoning will create six distinct districts to manage development in different ways, according to the character of the areas.

In one of the districts, the Arts Overlay District, the city will offer incentives to developers for building arts-related businesses and live and work spaces available only to Somerville-certified artists.

But the arts-centric approach was not enough for some advocates who are asking the city to designate at least 15 percent of the rezoned area as affordable. “Please do what you can to make Somerville affordable,” said 16-year-old Anthony Soto.

The Somerville Community Corporation and Save Our Somerville have both asked the city to increase the affordable housing allotment in anticipation of the Green Line's arrival in the neighborhood.

Arists, Gentrification, Affordable Housing and Diversity. It's a tough storm to weather. Can communities work proactively to maintain the balance that is needed to keep the Boston region competitive in the global landscape of the new creative economy?

For instance, Davis Square in Somerville is undergoing a rapid change and recent news is that that a Hotel is being proposed. Yet, the Jimmy Tingle Theater in the heart of that Square still remains vacant to the best of my knowledge. Performing arts that take place at small and eclectic venues are a crucial piece of an urban neighborhood's makeup and for a thriving cultural scene. But are artists or the arts to be given incentives or benefits over anybody else who must struggle to compete in the market of today's urban redevelopment plans?

1 comment:

Rolando Teco said...

This is an age-old problem. We see it here in New York, where Williamsburg has become more and more like SoHo as artists get pushed out further and further. I have a friend who is convinced that in 25 years or less, Manhattan will be a cultural wasteland, with nothing but Disney musicals on Broadway and no small theatre to speak of. I hope he's wrong but sometimes I'm not sure.

One thing lept out of this post, however. What exactly is the meaning of "Somerville-certified" artists? Who does the certifying and based on what criteria?

Sounds vaguely Stalinist to me.