Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Quest for Public Art

Overflow parking, by artist Blue Sky, is among the most recognizable pieces of public art Downtown. (I won't even get into the discussion on "parking as art")

As I have mentioned before, It was the arts community that initially attracted me to downtown. When standing outside of "The Local" I would stare at the city surrounding me and realize how false the clichés used by my peers to describe Flint really were.

The arts bring a lot of people downtown. Second Friday ArtWalks have been gaining momentum for years, the nearby cultural center has been an artistic draw for decades and it is rare to find a weekend where there aren't at least a few live shows happening at various venues downtown. This is not all that unusual, as center cities are often the hub of the local arts culture. One component often found in such hubs is public art ( often traditionally thought of as large scale, outdoor sculptures, murals etc.) Public art can be, and often is very symbolic of the community in which it is displayed. Pieces such as Chicago's "bean" Detroit's "Spirit of Detroit" and Ann Arbor's "Cube" have all become adored icons of their respective cities. It was with this in mind that I began to wonder.."Where and what is Flint's public art?" and "What do these pieces mean to our community?"

"The Big Gay Thumbprint" as it is affectionatly known as on campus, is a large scale, outdoor sculpture on the U of M Flint campus. However its placement in a courtyard, away from the street prevents most off campus traffic from enjoying it.

A walk through the grounds of the University of Michigan Flint will take you past a small collection of sculptures and of course the nearby F.I.A. proudly features many large scale works on their grounds. These pieces don't feel....public to me though, as you have to physically enter the grounds of the institutions to view them, instead of simply encountering them when turning a corner on your morning commute. So where is Flint's public art?

Our community does have its own collection of public work. The tongue-in-cheek "Overflow Parking" mural on the side of the Flint Journal building is a beloved downtown icon, however, the majority of public art seems to be concentrated on the grounds of various downtown institutions instead of the parks, sidewalks, and storefronts where they are traditionally installed. Riverbank park once claimed to be home to the "world's longest mural" however after years of defacement, the city simply covered the work with beige paint. Riverbank park also was home to a small collection of impressive sculptures. However, after the largest of the pieces toppled over from a gust of wind a few months after the park opened, several other pieces were removed from the park, leaving only two; a small steel piece in the amphitheatre block, and a statue of Casimir Pulaski tucked away in the trees of the Archimedes Screw block. So what does the fact that much of our public art has either been removed or hidden from casual view say about our communities commitment to such art?

Interestingly, there was community uproar when MTA manager Robert Foy used federal grants to install several pieces throughout their various facilities, including two outdoor sculptures at the downtown station (although most of the upset seemed to come from the fact that the majority of the work was placed inside the administration building where the public could not easily enjoy it.)

This also could open up a discussion about what actually counts as public art. The Vernors Mural, and the Saginaw Street Arches are both artistic and symbols of Flint as a whole, but were originally installed with much more utilitarian purposes. Some may consider such places as the "waterwalls" or the "Grand Fountain" at riverbank park to be public art, and the role of guerrilla street art has been gaining momentum in Flint and worldwide. Overall, public art adds color, whimsy, beauty, and fun to the public realm. However, the importance of such characteristics to our community can only be decided by us.

Works like this dot the downtown street scape, and certainly add to the character of our city center. Do you consider this public art?

What do you think? Do you feel that public art plays an important enough role in the urban landscape to encourage, even demand a continued devotion to it in downtown Flint? What are your favorite pieces locally or elsewhere?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Low Key is Key

In recent years summer has been the season when downtown pulls out as many stops as it can in order to draw crowds back. With much success highly publicized events such as the Crim and Back to the Bricks have briefly brought crowds of hundreds of thousands to our own little city center. These events have undoubtedly given people who had never been downtown (or had given up on it) reasons to support it, both in spirit and finance. However it still seemed that once the weekend of races, or roars of engines had ceased the visitors would retreat for the winter, having not found a reason to appreciate downtown outside of those few brief weeks in August.

This past weekend exemplified, in a really lovely way, a very different approach to downtown events. Instead of one massive, expensive affair, bringing thousands of people into our neighborhood interested in a single interest and event; several small events catering to many interests brought life to the city center all weekend long. On Friday the GFAC brought local authors together to present their works to the public, Saturday included the Farmers' Market Bar-B-Q off, a benefit concert at The Good Beans Cafe, and the "Keep on Keepin' on" festival at Riverbank Park. On Sunday afternoon downtown hosted the inaugural "Le Champion Pavé" bicycle criterium.

I love that all of these events happened independently of each other. Even though each appealed to very different demographics and interests, they undoubtedly fed each other and, in turn, gave authentic energy to downtown. What I hope they did, however, was show those who attended that there does not need to be a giant event to make downtown a vibrant living place. Moments like this happen year round. What I enjoyed most about this weekend, though, was that that it felt like it was a weekend for the downtowners. As fun as the larger events are, they depend (and rightfully so) on the tourist dollar. It is the small things, the intimate outdoor concerts, and the exhibit of a local artist that say "community" to me..and truly represent the types of civic life that make a city vibrant.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Bolingbrook IL.

"What a nice day, I think I may go for a drive through the subdivision, then a few parking lots, so I can take a stroll through the city center complex"

It is Monday. Monday mornings combined with my inability to get to Good Beans before heading to the office often result in a very slow start to my work day. On days like this, I often go through the "Yahoo Stories" which tantalize me with colorful stock photographs and catchy article titles, and are placed strategically right under the summarry of my work inbox. So naturally, when given the choice of "Re:Re:March 2009 Board Mtg. minutes update 3a" or "Are Silly Bandz just a fad?" I tend to go the silly bandz route.

On this caffeineless Monday, I innocently clicked on "America's best places to live" and casually scrolled through the list of towns I had rarely to never heard of. The descriptions were vague, and the photos clearly directly from the board of tourism, but I wanted to see if any local burgs had made the cut. The 100 city list did eventually give Ann Arbor some love (the only Michigan city) but it was actually number 43; Bolingbrook, Illinois that caught my attention.

It was the photo that initially grabbed my attention. While most of the other profiles featured images of quaint downtowns, forested parks, or laughing children, this one was an aerial shot of a "lifestyle center" type shopping mall. Why would this manufactured cartoon of a traditional downtown full of national chain retail be chosen to symbolize what the experts(?) at CNNmoney chose as the 43rd best place to live in America? I quickly read the included description and conducted a little research on my own to figure out more. What I discovered was a town that was completely devoid of pre-world war 2, pedestrian oriented planning, and forced it's residents to rely almost completely on auto transport.

In fact the first large developments in Bolingbrook were two subdivisions built in the early 50's known as "Westbury" and the "Colonial Village" These were quickly followed by shopping centers, apartment complexes and housing subdivisions, all charmingly named. This mash-up of disconnected development of course leads to a lack of community identity, to the point that an atlas actually listed the entire town as "Colonial Village." Perhaps this identity crisis contributes to why this city of 70,000 people considers itself to be a "village"

Beyond Bolingbrooks issues with identifying itself, it also seems to be having a hard time figuring out what a town really is. As I stated earlier, the town does not appear to have any sort of traditionally built city center, so a mall development company was kind enough to manufacture one for them. The photo of this "lifestyle center" actually makes it look rather pleasant, it seems to have many of the attributes that urbanists appreciate in a place, narrow streets, on street parking, outdoor seating, and pedestrian scaled architecture....but then you take a look at the
big picture. What seemed to be a progressive pedestrian oriented commercial corridor is actually surrounded by acres and acres of paved surface parking lots. Even though the mall company released this p.r. photo to make the mall seem quaint and pedestrian friendly, what they ended up creating was a place that you had to be a motorist first, and a pedestrian second.

Other gems include the inclusion of a "fishing lake" on the "town center complex." Any time you have to refer to your town center as a complex, you know you are doing something wrong....and what kind of town center has room for a fishing lake?! The description includes such charming retail options as IKEA, and Macy's to give you that authentic one of a kind down home Bolingbrook experience. My favorite inclusion, however, was the disclaimer at the end of the article saying that event with all of these fabulous things, most residents of Bolingbrook must make the 30 minute drive to Chicago for employment.

...As you can tell this all touched a nerve...

Bolingbrook looks great on paper. The median family income is near $100,000, there is 21% job growth, and 66 % of the residents went to college. But aside from the statistics, the closest thing this town has to an identity is a "Town Center Complex" with a side of fishing lake. I have not spoke with any Bolingbrookians, but I wonder how they would answer if I were to ask them what their town looks like...feels like

Flint has not had a great relationship with top 100 lists, so perhaps I should not be so quick to pass judgment on this town. However, what I really hope to learn from this is how we define places as good or bad. As livable or hostile.

How would you define Flint?