With the Green Line project improved and more stops included in neighborhoods that needed them most,1 attention turned to the next phase of the Green Line: planning and construction. While local arts groups did not spearhead the early organizing efforts, artists of all stripes would play a role in what came next.
To understand why the arts and culture became a focal point, it’s helpful to understand a few other factors that came into play. The Central Corridor Funders Collaborative was thoroughly committed to investing to strengthen businesses and neighborhoods in the corridor.2 The Twin Cities region has a robust, socially engaged, nonprofit arts scene funded in part by a portion of the state sales tax dedicated to the arts. And regional leaders by this point were committed to making decisions that would benefit everyone.
A small federal grant program was also helping to spur coordination between government agencies and local grassroots groups across a range of issues including housing, transportation, water and other infrastructure investments to make neighborhoods more prosperous.3
In an environment where hyper-local organizing had already shifted regional thinking, and arts and culture organizations were well-funded, knowledgeable and eager to help, it was not a huge leap for local entities to consider working with these nontraditional partners. In this context, arts and culture caught on and thrived as a means to engage with and celebrate diverse communities as well as to boost local economies.
Surviving disruptive construction with creative engagement
The construction process for the Green Line would be long, and such disruptions could fragment communities and hurt businesses located along the route. In response, the nonprofit Springboard for the Arts proposed the idea of supporting businesses and residents alike during the construction process through artist-led creative placemaking installations in a groundbreaking program known as Irrigate.
The idea behind Irrigate was simple: Any self-identified artist (professional or otherwise) who lived, worked, or had a connection to the six neighborhoods along the line could attend a training workshop and apply for a grant, up to $1,000, to do something creative with a local business, non-profit or neighborhood group. This could be a temporary activity, such as performances and chalked poetry, or a more permanent installation, such as landscaping and unique art. The idea was to both boost activity in the corridor, and make it easier for community members to have a voice and a space to address opportunities and challenges associated with change in their communities.
To learn more about the projects that community members developed, check out Irrigate’s Youtube playlist above.
Once artists started rolling out their projects, positive press about interesting performances, events, and installations happening in the area popped up, tweaking the dominant narrative about construction disruptions and shifting public perception about the rail project.
Instead of negative media coverage about businesses being shuttered, media outlets were filled with reports showing residents and neighbors participating in the fun things that artists, businesses and community groups were putting on throughout the corridor to draw people out and keep businesses afloat.
While the City of Saint Paul tried feverishly to garner positive coverage for the benefits of transit that the Central Corridor would bring to the community, their positive message was consistently diluted in the media by negative stories about the impact of construction. As Irrigate projects began popping up along the Corridor in unexpected ways, the disruption of the many small projects quickly had a surprising impact. The magic of art started a different conversation, something that couldn’t have been predicted but was such a blessing. Irrigate’s public process engaging artists from the community to support local businesses provided a nimble and creative way to influence the narrative and change community perceptions of the value of community development. Irrigate’s approach taught the public sector that sometimes it’s all right to let go of the bureaucratic process to allow for a more organic process of community engagement. – Nancy Homans, Policy Director, City of Saint Paul.4
By training over 600 local artists — 220 of whom did 150 projects — Irrigate generated over 50 million earned media impressions. More importantly, Irrigate catalyzed new narratives of community, new relationships and new ways of working for artists and community & business collaborators that will continue long beyond the limited scope of the rail project.5
- Creative engagement can develop a sense of ownership for community members.
- Arts and culture-driven events can give the media something positive to focus on. Trying to counter negative stories in the media about disruption today with boring data or statistics about the eventual benefits of a project tomorrow was no competition. The drumbeat of continual events provided a new focus.
Arts and culture spurred continued involvement and action
Perhaps the biggest change as a result of the Irrigate project was in pioneering a new model to engage people in a dialogue about the future of their communities. In a community already empowered by the addition of the three, closer stations, the creative placemaking grants from Irrigate provided a venue for community members to creatively engage, spur imagination for what their neighborhood could be, and to form relationships with others to bring that vision to life. These positive interactions built momentum in a virtuous cycle of civic engagement and action.
As one member of the Frogtown neighborhood told a Transportation for America staff member on a tour of the corridor:
Art is relatable. You can’t change a community overnight, but when people complete something small and tangible, and they see that they are able to influence people, they feel empowered and more able to have a real impact. It’s hard to engage people in community meeting after community meeting, but it’s easier to get people to something like a movie. That builds momentum and positivity to keep people involved. So you’re building relationships and building momentum and it’s positive and fun and now people are hooked.
The momentum continued. Neighborhood groups that formed to do the work in the small-scale creative placemaking grants came together in other ways, to do things like work with the City of Saint Paul to secure streetscape improvements, or seek out and recruit developers to build or preserve affordable housing. Groups that were already organized grew closer, like the volunteer-led Victoria Theater Arts Initiative, which spearheaded a successful fight to preserve a local center for community arts.
As our tour facilitator explained, “Now, people in the community won’t take anything lying down. Early successes, like the groups winning the stations, and the creative strategies helped really engage people. And now they’re set on keeping the area their own.”
These activities strengthened ties and built on trust already established by local initiatives like the Central Corridor Development Strategy, a vision and set of strategies for how University Avenue, the Capitol area, and Downtown would grow and change in response to the planned investment in light rail transit.6 An unprecedented engagement effort led by the City of Saint Paul fed into the plan, asking corridor-wide questions about what members of the community want, what it should look like, and how to get there.
“Time and again I’ve heard community members exclaim that they “saw their fingerprints all over the document,” says Mary Kay Bailey, project director of the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative. “Its six principles are all about placemaking and community building.”7
The philanthropic community responds with strong support
Regional and national philanthropies, some of whom had already funded Stops for Us organizing efforts, came together to establish the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative, with the goal of making investments that would maximize the light rail line’s benefits for both the regional economy and the line’s diverse and low-income neighborhoods. The group provided funding for local working groups to address:
- Safer Streets Local community organizations serve on The Friendly Streets Initiative, which identifies priority streets for bike and walking improvements, provides support and technical assistance, engages residents and seeks design input, and coordinates joint capital improvement requests to improve streets and sidewalks.
- Affordable housing With the participation of numerous community groups, The Cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis and the Twin Cities Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) is working to create or preserve up to 4500 units of affordable housing along the Green Line.8
- Preserving small businesses Leading up to and during the construction of the Green Line, a partnership of business associations, nonprofit community developers and local and regional governments provided a variety of supports to businesses and property owners to survive the construction period and thrive after.
- Elevating cultural assets: Twin Cities LISC coordinates a working group of seven place-based initiatives focused on lifting up the ethnic heritage and cultural assets of these districts to advance economic opportunity.9
- Workforce and economic development Using a navigator model, the Corridors 2 Careers project sought to connect unemployed corridor-residents with transit accessible training opportunities and employers.10
- Community partners who feel like they have a voice will be more likely to solve some of their own challenges
- A strong philanthropic community can contribute to more comprehensive local area planning, community benefit agreements, and community participation initiatives.
- See that story on the previous page if you missed it.
- You’ll learn more about this group of funders a little further down on this page in the last section.
- The Metropolitan Council had received a grant from the Housing and Urban Development’s Partnership for Sustainable Communities program. Read more about that HUD program here: http://www.sustainablecommunities.gov/mission/about-us
- Source: http://springboardforthearts.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Tunheim-Irrigate-Media-Audit.pdf (pdf)
- You can access a free Irrigate toolkit on the Creative Exchange, Springboard’s national platform for storytelling and resource-sharing around artists, creativity & community. The toolkit is a step-by-step guide to tap into the creativity of local artists to address community challenges, from construction projects to natural disasters to economic development and equity.
- View the Central Corridor Development Strategy (pdf)
- Read more at http://www.stpaul.gov/index.aspx?NID=156
- More about LISC’s affordable housing effort.
- See more at https://www.facebook.com/C4wardArts/