Yesterday’s post on the extraordinary rice paddy art of the Japanese village of Inakadate got me thinking about the power and purpose of art, public art in particular. Japan’s well-documented generational flight from the country to the city has gutted many rural communities that will likely become ghost towns once their predominantly elderly inhabitants pass on, and forgotten completely once their buildings rot. Yet here is Inakadate, drawing 150,000+ visitors annually to a village of fewer than 9000 residents 400 miles from Tokyo to stare out a tower window at rice paddies. Such is the power of art.
A recent article on the proposed razing of the infamous Jordan Downs housing project in Watts raised some questions for me about the underlying intention, the core goal, of urban renewal. Racism, classism, and other prejudices are probably inescapable, but I don’t find them to be legitimate motivation. Isn’t the point of urban renewal—as a process, not a product—to provide a struggling area with a neighborhood it can be proud of? After all, people who take pride in where they live also take care of it. They maintain it, cultivate it, activate it, personalize it, beautify it, protect it, and adapt it to their particular needs and desires. They become a true community, the Jane Jacobs kind.
Architecture plays a major role; enormous Communist Bloc-style “human warehouses” don’t make things easy, and demolition isn’t always a bad thing. But architectural interventions are expensive, laborious, and disruptive. Artistic ones, in comparison, can be much cheaper, more inclusive, more dynamic. They can create a unique sense of place, inspiring residents to take pride in what they already have—who they already are—instead of suggesting that nothing here is worth saving, the slate should be wiped clean. The inclusion of art suggests a process of improvement, not replacement. This is certainly not novel thinking. Still, I wonder how many failed urban interventions might have been successful had public art been a genuinely considered agent of change.
Of course, areas targeted for urban renewal (by whatever name) typically have more pressing needs than civic pride: education, opportunity, health care, nutritious food, a healthy home. Art might not feed the hungry (though Inakadate proves it can), but why should renewing dilapidated and impoverished areas be a linear process? If it requires engagement, communication, and commitment at all levels, then can’t art play a significant role? Whether it’s rice paddy art, city buses, murals, civic graffiti, chalk art, sculptures, building facades, signage, horticulture, folk architecture, or any other form, public art can help bring a community together. It can be a powerful force of renewal, without destruction, displacement, or disparagement.