Communities coast to coast have added artistic flourishes to troubled or abandoned neighborhoods. But revitalizing areas takes additional finesse — and, oftentimes, creative placemaking projects capable of connecting segregated communities. Here are some of the public art efforts that have helped do just that.
The midsize Southern enclave of Huntsville always had public art tucked in here and there, but it lacked a comprehensive way to tie those works into the greater landscape. With its profile on the rise, Huntsville created a master plan to make large-scale art more accessible and better integrated into public spaces. This targeted approach has resulted in collaborative projects like SPACES, a revolving sculpture trail with nearly 40 works by 22 artists from 12 different states. According to a report by Americans for the Arts, in 2015, Huntsville’s art initiatives generated nearly $90 million in economic activity while supporting the equivalent of 3,073 full-time jobs.
The mission of the city’s Porch Light program: to strengthen community wellness through public art. By working with those suffering from mental disorders, trauma and substance abuse, Philadelphia has shown how civic engagement can foster healing and challenge social stigmas, while simultaneously giving the existing landscape a meaningful makeover. Since the program’s inception in 2007, dozens of massive murals have been erected throughout the city, providing opportunities (like community “paint days”) for the public to contribute to the meaningful works of art. And research has shown that public art really can promote public health. Philly residents living within one mile of a newly installed mural reported an increase in social cohesion and trust among neighbors, according to a study by the Yale School of Medicine.
In 1986, troubled by the violence and blight of Motor City’s East Side, local artist Tyree Guyton began transforming empty homes and lots, as well as nearby sidewalks, streets and trees, into a massive public installation. Dubbed the Heidelberg Project, the colorful houses and funky sculptures made mostly from recycled materials and found objects, have attracted an estimated 200,000 visitors annually and generated millions to the local economy since its inception. Last year, Guyton began removing some smaller, less prominent installations on Heidelberg Street to make room for a new vision: Heidelberg 3.0, which organizers say will continue the transformation of the McDougall Hunt neighborhood “into a self-sustainable cultural village for residents and visitors alike.”
Arts programming got a boost when four Baltimore nonprofits banded together to raise the profile of the long blighted area now known as the Station North Arts and Entertainment District (SNAED). Though it lies just north of a major commuting hub, most travelers pass through the zone without ever leaving the station. To encourage passersby to stick around, SNAED holds programs and performances, such as Final Fridays, a monthly public art event, and the “Think Big” awards, which supports local artists, in empty lots and abandoned buildings. Though the neighborhood has long suffered high vacancy rates, it’s become a cultural center, with numerous arts and entertainment venues and several artist live-work spaces opening in recent years.
After plans for a roughly four-mile, multi-use walking and biking greenway started coming together in 2001, the local nonprofit Action Greensboro saw an opportunity to help revitalize Greensboro’s city center by installing public art along the route. The project Over.Under.Pass transformed a long-abandoned railroad trestle with Art Deco-style iron sculptures and interactive light displays. Action Greensboro also commissioned ColorHaus, which brought together artists to paint bright, Bauhaus-inspired murals on highway overpass concrete supports. The economic impact of the pedestrian walkway has exceeded expectations, with high visitorship in particular to the Over.Under.Pass section of the trail. “Over.Under.Pass is unlike anything that has been done before in Greensboro,” said project manager Dabney Sanders, “and the interactive aspect of the installation has been particularly well received.”
“Seeing Spartanburg in a New Light,” a dynamic public art project built as part of the annual National Night Out, promoted crime prevention, strengthened police-community relations and fostered neighborhood camaraderie. Funded by a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, “Seeing Spartanburg” brought temporary LED-light installations, including “Glow,” which transformed two of the city’s towering smokestacks into multicolored beacons, and “Benchmark Spartanburg,” a long public bench backed by pulsating lights, to 10 local neighborhoods. According to Jennifer Evins, president and CEO of Chapman Cultural Center, the project began to “cultivate relationships between local residents and law enforcement officers, which is a step towards reducing crime.”
MORE: Want to Fight Urban Blight? Wield Art as a Weapon
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Jennifer Evins is the president and CEO of The Arts Partnership. NationSwell apologizes for the error.