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Garden State Topic: What the Arts Can Do to Help Rebuild the Jersey Shore

After a disaster, the arts can help restore a sense of community -- and of wholeness -- to devastated towns and cities

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While NJ Spotlight is on winter hiatus, we wanted to make sure that our community of readers didn't lack for compelling stories on subjects that are at times overlooked. We'll post new Garden State Topics throughout the week.

Meanwhile, this is the perfect opportunity to thank all of you for your ongoing support in 2012. We could't have done it without you. See you next year.

“Maybe everything that dies someday comes back,” Bruce Springsteen sings in “Atlantic City.” His adopted town of Asbury Park is coming back, mostly because of creative "placemaking." It’s a set of strategies to make places better through the arts. It can do a lot to help the Shore rebuild after Sandy.

Rebuilding the Shore means more than just replacing boardwalks and houses. To make it work for the long term, leaders also need to deal with the emotional and economic issues of placemaking. If the Shore is not going to come back the same as it was, what will it be? What kind of place should it be? What should be remembered, repaired. or replaced? How do we make it prosperous again -- not just for businesses, but for as many people as possible?

We need to be creative.

The arts and creative people are probably in every community in New Jersey and have been for a long time. It’s easy to overlook the sculpture in the park, the little gallery, or the small theater because they're part of the background of so many places.

Have you noticed all the artists and people working in the arts in your community? Probably not, because despite the myth of the weird outsider, most creative professionals in small towns and suburbs blend in.

When most people think of “artsy" towns in Jersey, Belmar doesn’t always come to mind. But the Belmar Arts Council has attracted hundreds of artists since it started eight years ago. Now the Arts Council, at the request of the town, has organized one of the most interesting post-Sandy art projects: painting the barricades put up after the storm.

The artists in Belmar brightened up sad reminders of Sandy’s devastation, but there’s a lot more that the arts and artists can do to help rebuild communities.

Artists in Belmar brightened up the sad reminders of Sandy’s devastation.
Artists in Belmar transformed the sad reminders of Sandy’s blunt force.

Rebuilding works better when the people who are most affected are ready to move on. Places that have been damaged need to restore or recreate new infrastructure, both to spur other development and to show that the place is moving forward. And people will be more likely to rebuild if they believe they can get the benefits of prosperity in the community.

The arts can provide emotional support, help people express their concerns and aspirations and help people be more creative. Arts organizations and businesses can help rebuild local economies by attracting people with money and creating jobs. Boardwalks may be closed for the time being, but theaters and galleries are open.

In their own work, artists can help express what their neighbors are feeling, or aspire to. Creative people also can help others express themselves, and become more creative. Joplin, MO, was hit by deadly tornadoes in 2011. Soon after, artists worked with more than 300 residents to help them design a community mural.

“The project brought together diverse groups and helped initiate conversations about Joplin and our experiences that crossed generational, cultural, and economic boundaries,” writes Sharon Beshore, a Joplin resident “As we began work, mixed feelings regarding our recent losses were shared. As much as citizens wanted to record our history prior to the tornado, we had to acknowledge that the tragedy was now part of our story. We could move forward by putting this event in the context of our past successes and challenges.”

The mural project, she said, “brought together our community to begin healing in ways no one could have anticipated.”

In Belmar, artists have invited the public to join in the painting of barricades. The new Atlantic Highlands Arts Alliance -- a partnership between creative professionals, the business sector, and other communities in the borough -- is looking to use its connections to help in rebuilding efforts.

When people become more creative, they see issues and problems in new ways. They come up with new ideas because their minds aren’t leading them to the same solutions.

As a community and economic development planner for the last 15 years, I found that one of the biggest stumbling blocks to change was that people assumed that whatever was there had to be there. After 9/11, I helped lead some small, informal visioning sessions for rebuilding the World Trade Center. I shared maps of Lower Manhattan that only showed blocks and streets, and encouraged the participants to draw what they would like to see there. They came up with a wide range of ideas because I told them to look at Lower Manhattan as a blank canvas. Later in the Listening to the City sessions, thousands of people were encouraged to think as freely as possible about the future of the World Trade Center and lower Manhattan. This helped lead to new streets and pathways that will make the World Trade Center easier and better to walk around, and made it into a place that mixes business with reflection.

Similarly, Creative New Jersey has a public engagement process that opens up creativity. The model they use -- Open Space Technology -- challenges participants to ask any questions they’d like on a big topic (such as how to increase creativity and innovation in New Jersey) and lead conversations with others in the room.

Participants treat the topic like artists -- as a blank canvas -- that they fill out with their peers. In traditional public meetings, the topics and sometimes the range of solutions, are chosen by the organizers or their consultants. (Full disclosure: I am on the board of Creative New Jersey.)

Around the United States, there is a lot more interest in the arts, often for one important reason: economic development. The arts tend to attract people with money, who attract other types of businesses (restaurants, stores), who attract residents, who attract other types of businesses (professional services, supermarkets, offices), who attract more artists . . . and so on. According to ArtPride New Jersey, the nonprofit arts industry in New Jersey contributes $1.5 billion a year to the state’s economy. This is both from spending on arts activities and related spending (at stores, restaurants, and more). This generates about $40 million in sales and income taxes.

Even communities that aren’t destinations like Red Bank or Asbury Park can benefit from the creative economy. Not everyone can live and work in the gentrified arts centers. And some people want to be close to, but not in the middle, of a vibrant arts scene. So Red Bank’s success can help both Middletown and Shrewsbury in different ways.

A second reason the arts are a good economic vehicle for the Shore is that creative industries are mobile and can fit in a lot of places. An empty storefront can easily become an art gallery for a month. A big empty space can become an open-air theater. And as Belmar has shown, even construction equipment can become canvases for public art.

Arts and culture quickly rebounded in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina hit it in August 2005. Within seven months, according to a state report, there were actually more jobs in the film industry than when Katrina landed. Hundreds of musicians had been displaced or moved out because of the storm, but were coming back for gigs. Even though about 30 percent of performing arts venues studied in the report were still shut by March 2006, the performing arts and sports industries had added 1,000 jobs since the storm.

And the third reason: There are leaders from all along the Shore committed to making it happen. In Monmouth County, more than a dozen organizations have joined to create the MoCo Arts Corridor. Its goal is to make the Shore from Keyport to Manasquan a regional arts destination -- like the regions in and around Santa Fe, NM, and Asheville, NC. The Long Beach Island Foundation is leading an island-wide effort to make the arts a bigger part of LBI’s community and economy. Atlantic City is working on an arts district. Cape May has been a center for arts and culture for years.

How should Shore communities take advantage of all the benefits the arts, and artists, can provide? Projects are good, but they’re not enough. They do bring attention and give participants a sense of accomplishment and team spirit. But the feelings and impacts can fade quickly if there is no followup. Creative placemaking can help.

Creative placemaking builds connections among people, sectors, and projects. Those connections not only help make things happen faster and better, they make the impacts bigger and more lasting. Just like a great song, it’s not just about the notes, the lyrics, the instruments, or the musicians. It’s about how they come together.

Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP, is a national award-winning community and local economic development planner. He is the executive director of the National Consortium for Creative Placemaking and Senior Associate for the Nishuane Group in Montclair. He also worked with the Atlantic Highlands Arts Alliance and MoCo Arts Corridor as a community coach.

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