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Urban Renaissance

Can Arts Programming Save America's Cities?

A banner for the Youth Arts Festival at the Roslindale Community Center. The festival is part of broader efforts to reinforce the importance of the arts even as budgetary concerns put them increasingly on the chopping block.
A banner for the Youth Arts Festival at the Roslindale Community Center. The festival is part of broader efforts to reinforce the importance of the arts even as budgetary concerns put them increasingly on the chopping block.
By Ola Topczewska, Crimson Staff Writer

The question of how to revitalize struggling neighborhoods on a limited budget is among the great challenges of 21st-century urban planning. Today, Boston’s "gateway cities”—municipalities on the city’s fringe such as Brockton, Lawrence, and Lynn, many of which are reeling from the departure of manufacturing jobs—are seeking to generate civic engagement, improve urban livability, and make their streets safer.

These communities, as well as neighborhoods within Boston, are using public art initiatives and youth art education to engage their citizens and give their economies a boost. Such programs have managed to have an unmistakable impact of young people, even in the face of budget cuts and policy changes. Though not a panacea, arts programs have shown themselves to be an important part of a long-term economic strategy for urban renewal.


The city of Lynn, Mass., is an industrial city located 10 miles north of Boston. Though once a thriving manufacturing town, the collapse of the shoe industry in the 1980s has had major repercussions for its economy, and Lynn’s violent crime rate is now significantly above the state average. Centerboard is a community organization based in Lynn that seeks to support the city's revitalization and believes the arts can help effect that change.

“Not only are we giving artists a chance to show their work and be supported, we're also giving community members the chance to see some high-quality artwork in their hometown," says Carla Scheri, Centerboard’s special projects coordinator. In addition to a public gallery which exhibits works by New England artists, Centerboard has installed a series of enlarged photos on the side of the Commuter Rail stop. “Much to our delight, the photos have never been touched or defaced, and I think that speaks volumes to the value that people are placing on this public art," Scheri says.

Among the arts projects run by Centerboard is a "traveling piano" which is moved to various places in the city to encourage people to gather. Two summers ago, Centerboard hauled the piano to a train station, where it attracted a crowd of 60 weary rush hour commuters to take a break and listen to some music, or even to play some themselves.

Due in part to the efforts of groups like Centerboard, Lynn has begun to turn a corner. Recently, the Massachusetts Cultural Council designated Lynn as a Cultural District, an honor that recognizes its blend of the arts and economic potential. Scheri sees a role for the arts in building the sense of community necessary for lasting economic progress. "When you have a strong local community, everybody wins. The youth win, the homeowners win, the business owners win."


In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Boston was hit by a historically unprecedented wave of gang violence, with many youth representing the perpetrators and the victims. In the wake of this tragedy, community groups like the nonprofit organization ZUMIX sought to use arts to prevent similar events in the future.

“We started with 24 youth[s], $200, and the idea of connecting the youth with the arts, in particular to music,” says ZUMIX program director Jenny M. Shulman. “These original programs were intended to involve youth in an open dialogue about societal issues like gang violence as an inspiration for original songwriting and public performance.”

Since its foundation, ZUMIX has expanded to serve 1000 kids a year under a $2 million operating budget. It hosts a number of community events, including a summer concert series, concerts in the firehouse, community dance nights, film screenings, and open mics. This season's ZUMIX programs teach youth to play and record music, produce their own radio stories, and learn the foundations of acting and stagecraft. In addition to its founding mission of giving troubled youth a space for open dialogue, ZUMIX has also had an economic effect—the organization's Z-Tech program teaches young people how to engineer audio, and some graduates go on to work as paid sound technicians at Boston-area concerts.

Despite the runaway success of the ZUMIX project, Shulman acknowledges that there were many factors at play in the revitalization of East Boston, which is now no longer the violent area it was when the group was founded in 1991. “There is definitely less crime, the neighborhood has been cleaned up a lot, and there have been many public projects that have improved quality of life,” she says, citing the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center and the refurbishment of Maverick Station. “We certainly couldn't take credit for the change.”

Looking ahead, ZUMIX, whose projects mostly take place outside of school hours, will have to tailor its programming to changing public school policies. “The biggest challenge is and continues to be extended school days because it cuts into after-school programming,” Shulman says, speaking of the currently heavily debated “Expanded Learning Time” initiative in Boston Public Schools, which would increase the length of the school year by at least 300 hours, cutting into students’ free time.  If the initiative passes, Shulman says ZUMIX will adapt. “We are hoping to spend more time working in schools or continue credit-earning programs where kids can fulfill their arts requirements through us.” Nevertheless, the longer school day may have an effect on ZUMIX’s enrollment and program structure.

Jean S. Whitney is the executive director of the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation, which funds projects such as these. “These projects are not just focused on developing artistic form,” Whitney says. “They're also pulling in families and helping them to experience some of this art and give them higher aspirations for their kids. That's why we're interested in continuing to support these organizations.”


Acrylic painting and papier-mâché may seem like childhood staples, but they are at risk of becoming a rarity due to budget cuts in Boston Public Schools. In the face of BPS art class funding cuts, some charitable groups are stepping in to fill the gap. Nicole Murray is director of the school partnership program at the Eliot School of Fine & Applied Arts. She also works on the Roslindale Arts Initiative, a project that works with eight public and charter schools to create a cohort of schools in the Roslindale neighborhood with extensive arts programming. The program, which is a partnership with the Eliot School of Art, started offering in-school and after-school programming in Boston Public Schools.

“Our goal would be for every school to have a full time Boston Teachers’ Union art teacher, but now with budget cuts and school funding being what they are, schools have made decisions that have made that impossible,” Murray says. “Our goal is to show schools the value of arts education so that at some point, in the future, they might hire their own art teachers. In the interim, we fill a gap.”

The Roslindale Initiative culminates in two public art exhibitions every year, one in June and one in November, where students, families, and communities can see student art displayed at the Roslindale Community Center. “Every art teacher has challenges—maybe they're the only art teacher in the building, or they don't have money for supplies...and [the exhibition] makes it a community that is more united through the arts. it makes it so teachers feel proud, parents feel proud, students feel proud, principals take note,” Murray says. “Families are struggling so not everybody comes, but enough come to demonstrate that people are excited about the arts.”

Murray says some clear markers of success from the program are already visible, such as starting a conversation about the need to fund the arts and getting students excited about classes. “We've had several students who were middle school kids who took our classes [for free]. The next year, we gave them a job working as a classroom aide in our program and they've gone on to Boston Arts Academy or to high school, really with the sense that they are an artist.”

According to Murray, the biggest impact is on children’s self-confidence. “The value of art as not another test is huge. It just makes kids happy. We see that again and again in our surveys. Especially when we hear from teachers that someone who is struggling in their classes is doing well in art class, that's a serious impact. And for that child—that's immeasurable. And that happens every day.”


Many clubs at Harvard, including CityStep and HARMONY, seek to enrich the lives of Boston’s youth through exposing them to dance, music, and art. The Student Theater Advancing Growth and Empowerment—or, as it's more commonly known, STAGE—is one such group that uses arts as a vehicle for social justice. STAGE’s after-school theater program addresses the same loss of arts funding that Murray speaks of. The program, which works with five schools in the Boston area—two of which are in Dorchester, an area with a reputation for crime—teaches young kids how to act and write their own plays, helping them to develop public-speaking skills and confidence.

On the group’s Campus Day in the spring, elementary students are invited to come to Harvard to work on their plays and sets. In May, the year of work culminates in a public performance for students from other schools, teachers, and the Harvard project team.

Erin A. Lotridge '15, STAGE co-president, says the program offers students a rare opportunity to join a structured extracurricular activity.

"[In the] second semester, the kids actually write a play themselves, and then they come to Harvard and perform it. Their parents come to Harvard to watch the plays and we all gather to watch the performance," she says. Many of the STAGE students come from low-income families with working parents for whom taking time out of the day to attend a performance can require sacrifice. Still, Lotridge says, many parents make the effort to drive over and support their children.

According to Lotridge, the program has a substantial effect on the young students it mentors. "It really does inspire their confidence and social skills. A lot of the after-school programs are homework-based, and even if they have other programs, they're not clubs, they're activities that vary day to day. STAGE is special because it's something structured that they get to do all year, and at the end they have this performance."


In 2002, Richard Florida, former correspondent for and current American urban studies theorist at the University of Toronto, published "The Rise of the Creative Class," a sociological study of what he termed the "creative class"—a category that includes not just artists but anyone who works with ideas and intellectual properties. His study sheds light on the ways that investing in the arts can lead to economic benefits through sales revenue, advertising profits, tourism, and job creation.

Florida claims that there are three factors that attract creative talent to a region: existing talent, technological innovation and the capacity for further technological growth, and cultural tolerance. Cities that position themselves as attractive places for artists along these three axes stand to benefit economically from the industry. “The economic benefits [creative clusters] provide are less direct, but nonetheless significant,” says Florida.

Though some had speculated that this trend was limited to pre-recession times of economic prosperity, in 2012, Florida updated the statistical analyses in his work and found that the increasing economic importance of creative clusters continues to be a reality supported by data.

Florida emphasizes that the arts are not a magic bullet for struggling communities and that a major university, hospital, or natural resource will have a more immediate effect on economic growth than an arts cluster. Still, he asserts the importance of the arts as an economic driver. “Creative clusters give rise to creative businesses—art galleries, clubs, performance spaces, publishers, recording studios,” Florida says. “That in turn attract[s] people who might not be culture workers themselves, but who are educated, aesthetically attuned, and very likely work in creative professions.”

All across Boston and the surrounding area, youth in programs like ZUMIX, the Roslindale Initiative, and STAGE take part in an art education system whose cumulative effect is to materially change their communities. For these kids, focused on producing a catchy new song, memorizing their parts in a play, or completing a painting assignment using materials more exciting than standard markers and crayons, the arts are a way to express themselves and work with peers. Focused on their individual projects, these students aren’t necessarily aware of the community-level effect of these initiatives—but they are unmistakably there. While art is not a universal cure for urban economic woes, it is an increasingly common part of comprehensive revitalization strategies. These initiatives hold that art has the power to engage youth, both intellectually and in the form of art-related jobs, and to be the spark for a creative economy.

–Staff writer Ola Topczewska can be reached at

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