By Morgan Drewniany
In a time when Springfield is trying to re-define itself as a strong and successful city, public officials have recently focused on three topics: improving public safety, expanding educational opportunities, and developing a strong local economy with plentiful job opportunities. These points have since been echoed by local leaders and community councils as the keystone to revitalization. The way I see it, arts and culture address all three of these topics in an interdisciplinary manner that will increase Springfield's safety, marketability, and perception.
Before getting into the details, the current cultural climate in Downtown Springfield should be stated. The Springfield Central Cultural District is a coalition of 22 member organizations representing $37 million in revenues and 2.5 million visitors annually. The title of "cultural district" was bestowed upon the organization by the Massachusetts Cultural Council as a form of recognition of an area densely populated with historical, architectural, and cultural assets. This is a powerful group, but citywide efforts to support further growth and development are necessary to move us all forward.
Locally, Springfield arts and cultural organizations foster a vibrant cultural economy ecosystem, and support for this structure will only result in further positive job and economy growth. Across Massachusetts, the cultural economy as a whole supports more than 45,000 jobs, spends $2.1 billion, and generates $2.5 billion in economic activity annually. Events such as the Jazz and Roots Festivaland Dr. King Day Celebration are just two examples of Springfield events that bring thousands of people into the City limits that then feed into the local economy. If we do not continue to capitalize on these events, as well as create further activity, we will certainly miss out on dollars that will be spent elsewhere by a growing population of adults that crave cultural activity.
Education is an important asset for many reasons; a good education system attracts families to move within city limits, and creates responsible, independent citizens. We can take a look at the effect groundbreaking programs within Springfield are having. The SciTech band and the Community Music School's Sonido Musica programs are exponentially increasing graduation rates and breaking class barriers by engaging students in arts education. It would be foolish to say programs such as these should not be grown! Given the world class public/private partnerships that have been forged in our City at the intersection of art, science, and technology, more coordinated events and programming among arts and cultural organizations would further raise the profile of Springfield as a City that people want to be a part of.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we look at solving the issue of public safety and perception in Springfield with the arts. Activating public space has been one of the most efficient mechanisms in increasing public safety. Research shows that community arts venues play an important role as civic spaces, allowing for social interaction and fostering dialogue across generations, ethnicities, race, and color. Communities that understand and support one another are safer, more welcoming, and have a more positive perception overall. Some may claim this is a "pie in the sky" hope, but its efficacy has been proven repeatedly by programs such as Waterfire in Providence, RI, and the Artists for Humanity programs in Boston.
Walkability also markedly increases public safety, as Evan Plotkin has explainedmany times in his op-eds. Public art and placemaking activities increase walkability by creating a safe and welcoming environment at street level. Humans are visual creatures, and will feel more comfortable walking past a beautiful mural than a dark, vacant storefront. Public art gives people a reason to walk and bike, rather than use their car for transportation, and also attracts visitors as an independent economic driver. Crowded, pedestrian-friendly, active spaces are safer, more economically productive, and more conducive to healthy communities.
If we are to continue attracting employers and residents to our City, we must pursue arts and culture not as an elective activity, but as a mandatory pillar. We must create a coordinated, powerful force for achieving the goals of improving public safety, creating jobs, and enriching the educational landscape for the future global citizens, and I am certain that we can do that through citywide support for the arts.