THE BLOG
03/19/2014 07:35 pm ET Updated May 19, 2014

How Culture Is Transforming our City

I know first-hand how art and culture can transform individuals and communities. I grew up in Minnesota, at a time when I thought I had to be either black or white. As an Asian American, I was neither.

It was the work of Mu Performing Arts staging plays about the Asian-American experience in St. Paul, written, performed and viewed by other Asian Americans, that made it OK for me to be who I was in Minnesota.

Through their work, I saw my story on stage. It gave me a sense of pride and identity, a sense that I could make a difference.

I've spent 20-plus years helping to build stronger communities. I've done this through my work at LISC, the largest community development nonprofit in the country; with the City of Minneapolis; and the Hawai'i Arts Alliance.

I helped launch the Creative Community Leadership Initiative at Intermedia Arts here in Minneapolis and received a fellowship to study the intersection of art and community development at the Harvard Kennedy School.

While I've had different roles and responsibilities -- ranging from financing real estate deals to running a main street program, from serving as a senior aide to the mayor to running an art center -- my passion has always been the nexus of art, culture and community development.

And so I've been excited to take part in a growing movement to foster creative placemaking, artists and other cultural-bearers working with residents to strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood or town through arts and cultural activities.

Creative Placemaking: A Powerful Force

Amazing opportunities open up when communities move beyond the idea of "art for art's sake" and embrace the full power of arts and culture to transform the places we live.

Creative placemaking not only lifts up a neighborhood physically with murals and sculpture and investments in artist housing, galleries and theaters, it helps strengthen the local economy, as eye-catching storefronts, new cultural activities and intriguing installations bring in customers and attract new businesses. It increases a sense of community identity and local pride. It can make a neighborhood a more interesting, livable place.

But most importantly arts and culture are a powerful force that help shape a neighborhood's narrative -- telling the story of what kind of place it is, changing its reputation and its trajectory.

Over the last four months, I have traveled across the country to see firsthand how creative placemaking is making a difference in low- and moderate-income communities in Philadelphia; Indianapolis; Covington, KY; Woonsocket and Providence, RI; and here in the Twin Cities.

These projects have a greater sophistication, scale and impact than I think any of us imagined (click here to see a photo essay about some of the people, places and projects we encountered). Like the bubble machine that helped attract $43 million in real estate investment, or the former steel foundry where teens learn welding and couples hold weddings.

Sharing Our Knowledge

Over the years I've seen a fair number of people in our field who understand intuitively that the arts can be an effective to support their work. Where I think we fall short is there is no body of knowledge for how it works, why it works and how to do it.

The result is a collection of piecemeal efforts, a willy-nilly approach where an arts project happening on one side of town may not be known to people working on the other side of the same town -- much less the other side of the country. That means a lot of time wasted reinventing the wheel and a lot of opportunity lost.

Now the opportunity is there for us as a field is to start to codify these effective interventions into a standard of practice. If we can shape what we know into an accessible body of knowledge, we expand our collective toolkit so more communities across America have the chance to benefit.

But even as the concept of creative placemaking takes hold, there is a growing awareness that, as Spiderman once said, "With great power comes great responsibility."

Steps must be taken to ensure that arts-based approaches to community development are inclusive and equitable, that they resonate for all residents, regardless of their economic station or color.

Community development is challenging and long-term work. Creative placemaking presents a high-impact mode of intervention that can be implemented cheaply and quickly.

That bubble machine cost $20, but it brought joy to a busy intersection in North Minneapolis where people had no place to sit while waiting for the bus. The bubbles float by, and that otherwise frustrating experience lightens a little.

In St. Paul, where we gave artists $1,000 to do small projects. one created a work of stained glass in a chain link fence. When commuters stuck in traffic see that little work of art, it says this community isn't just a place to drive through. This isn't a place of misery. This is a place of joy and delight.

We've seen for a long time how the private sector uses the arts to help revitalize and gentrify places. In low-income communities and communities of color that doesn't always happen.

Now we have the chance to unleash the potential of distressed neighborhoods through these creative media. Because whether for the artist or the audience, arts and culture invite the individual to connect to others; they help us to form a sense of "How do I fit into this place?" And that is what community is all about.

Everybody deserves to have beauty in their lives. When we provide that to people in a way that resonates for them on their own terms -- relevant and culturally specific -- we inspire in them a sense of belonging and a belief that they can make a difference.

I work with a group called Intermedia Arts (www.intermediaarts.org) in Minneapolis. Their tag line is "Art. Changes. Everything." I know this to be true. Art invited a young man longing for connection and belonging to embrace his Asian-American heritage in Minnesota.

Art really can -- and does -- change everything.