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Roosevelt Row CDC is a 501(c) 3 non-profit community development corporation established to further the unique cultural character and creative assets of the Roosevelt Row Arts District, to advocate for the continuing presence and role of the arts, and small business in the revitalization of the district, and to foster a dense, diverse and walkable urban community.

Roosevelt Row CDC is deepening its community engagement through ArtPlace support in order to foster a community-driven consensus vision for future development of the area, piloting an urban infill and business incubator program through shipping containers as a tool for temporary activation of vacant land and collaborating with the ASU Art Museum and a range of community partners and stakeholders on “Feast on the Street” that will bring a half-mile long dining table to downtown Phoenix with artistic direction from London-based artist Clare Patey and Phoenix-based artist and fourth-generation farmer Matthew Moore.

ArtPlace spoke with Roosevelt Row board member Greg Esser about the skills needed for successful creative placemaking.

ARTPLACE: Is there a new challenge that engaging in creative placemaking presents for you, your organization and the artists who work with you? Are there new skills required?

ESSER: The skills required for successful creative placemaking are those that artists in particular cultivate and foster. These include imagination and vision, choreography, composition, creation and translating among others.

The most important aspect of creative placemaking, and where artists are absolutely critical, is the ability to see potential where others do not. Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Where a developer may see a building that should be torn down for future development, an artist may see an incredible venue for community engagement. This has been the on-going challenge facing our immediate neighborhood for the last fifty years. Forty percent of the land here is currently vacant, a result of economic redevelopment and zoning policy decisions made in the 1970s. Single-story buildings, re-zoned for high-rise development that the market cannot bear, have been systematically razed and acquired for larger and larger assemblages of vacant land, usually by out of town investors. Speculation and height variances have also tremendously complicated the ability to recover the needed density and in-fill required for a successful and vibrant urban environment.

ARTPLACE: What are the other artistic skills that lend themselves to creative placemaking?

ESSER: Translation. As our political process demonstrates, words are particularly powerful, meldable and deeply persuasive if not altogether reliably accurate. One person’s vacant lot is another person’s unprogrammed open space. As a community, broadly defined, we share a vision here for where we would like to be, but we don’t always agree on the paths to reach that vision. It is important to understand that we are often speaking different languages, literally and figuratively, even though we might be saying the same things.

The type of rigorous discipline that artists apply to honing their craft is also critically important to creative placemaking. William Stegner refers in his work to the “stickers,” dedicated people that are in for the long-term. These are the key stakeholders that weather the numerous storms that pass through. These people are the resiliency that ensures continuity over time and through various changes, both good and bad.

Change takes time. Inclusion takes time. Incrementalism takes time. The return on investment for each of these is difficult if not impossible to measure, yet critically important to maintain for the long-term health and vibrancy of our community.

Artists need to not just be at the table, but, at times, in the driver’s seat of developing a vision for how things can be because of their ability to use imagination and portray compelling options and outcomes. Development of downtown Phoenix has stagnated for many decades because we have had a simpler, more predictable cookie-cutter model of fringe development of detached single-family homes, a legendary and flavorless sprawl, with more predictable rate of return for investors and developers. With few exceptions, very little of the wealth extracted from this model of development has been reinvested in our local economy.

Artists look for potential where developers typically look for a bottom-line. The idea introduced by sustainability advocates of a triple bottom-line has been at the heart of creative placemaking from well before creative placemaking was understood as framework or term.

We have a challenge to understand, respect and reconcile what has come before us, our complex context, with an unpredictable future that we cannot fully anticipate. We can, however, make educated guesses that inform how the decisions we make today will impact future generations. The cost of a gallon of gasoline in 1972 was $.32. The cost today is $3.89. If gasoline continues to increase in cost at the same rate over the same amount of time into the future, excluding the potential premium of peak oil and probable scarcity, we can estimate that a gallon of gas in 2052, another forty years, will be around $32. Filling a 20-gallon tank will take about $640, or about the cost of monthly rent today in Roosevelt Row.

We have an unprecedented opportunity now to develop an eclectic, mixed-use, mixed-income and mixed-density corridor that is pedestrian-and bicycle-friendly with arts and culture as a defining character element.

The more successful our area becomes, the more people want to take part and own some element. They may or may not see the overall framework or history that have lead up to our current conditions. Blogger Taz Loomans says, “It only matters how good our city is today, not how far we’ve come over the past decade.” ArtPlace support is helping Roosevelt Row CDC to increase the capacity of our organization for community engagement and to create more opportunities for more people to help shape our shared future.

PHOTO: Chili Pepper Festival at the Roosevelt Row A.R.T.S. Market in September, 2012 with new in-fill housing going up. Photo by Andrew Pielage.

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