Why does poverty in Lafayette, Louisiana, teach us about developing creative talent?

Edinburgh: not among the cities that's short of venues. Image: Getty.

Can a new perspective on urban regeneration change the way we develop creative talent?

This study on the city of Lafayette, Louisiana can change how we think about how our cities incubate and support creative talent. Reported in urbanism blog Strong Towns, the author, Charles Marohn, discusses the findings of a study his firm conducted on Lafayette.

They analysed how the city makes and spends its money, finding that lower income neighbourhoods earn more for a city than higher income areas. They map income inequality through property values, job retention and demographics, and compare what Lafayette spends in each of its wards against the amount of revenue, per head, it retains in tax. And Lafayette, like most mid-sized American cities, is a market failure. To break even, each tax paying household would have to increase their contribution by $8,000. This is not improbable. It is impossible.

Lafayette, like all cities, has grown outward, with wealthier suburbs and housing estates dotting the outer reaches of the city. These areas are richer than its inner city, per capita. But it is the dense inner city that is more economically valuable for Lafayette, not the richer, larger and more spread out suburbs. This is backed up by examining the demographics of each ward and comparing against each other, both the wealthy and deprived neighbourhoods.

In Lafayette, poorer areas have narrower streets and higher population densities. They are cheaper to maintain (as they are smaller) and interventions impact more people (because there are more people). Large acreages create more servicing costs, be it watering a lawn or fixing a street lamp. Therefore, Mahorn concludes instead of spending on larger, more geographically expansive projects, such as suburban subdivisions and the utilities to service them, smaller, more varied investments in poorer neighbourhoods make the most fiscal sense for Lafayette to continue to tread water and avert bankruptcy.

This thinking is not restricted to housing, infrastructure and utilities. As our cities – large and small – continue to grow and compete for new talent, Lafayette’s story has stark parallels to how we plan and maintain our cultural infrastructure, and music’s role in particular. Around the world, cities are involved in large scale infrastructure projects involving music, much of them complex, expensive exercises that are often over budget and controversial.

In Hamburg, the beautiful Elbharmonie opened seven years late and €700m over budget, in some assessments. In London, the proposed Centre for Music in the City of London is now in doubt, as there is no consensus on whether it is needed. At the same time, local schemes that support talent development - across all artforms - are struggling. In London, it is widely accepted that 35% of grassroots (i.e small) music venues have closed since 2007. While yet to be counted, it is estimated that such a percentage is true across the UK.

In Toronto, 2017 has seen two iconic venues close - The Hoxton and Hugh’s Room. Music education remains for the privileged few at the highest level, with STEM subjects seen as more important. And at the same time, community centres, youth clubs, programs for the elderly and other local initiatives are closing due to council budget cuts. While not restricted to music, the smaller spaces often lose out, while these larger projects continue. Cultural infrastructure grows outward, like the suburbs in Lafayette.

The development methodology in how we support music and creative talent in cities is much like what happened in Lafayette. In the end the system is unsustainable, seen as a market failure, with investment shifted from the grassroots to larger projects, because they are seen as being more economically viable. Similarly, the outward growth and focus on the suburbs was seen as a way to support wealth generation, like building a large concert hall or arena. However, too much of a focus on these initiatives blinded Lafayette to the most fiscally valuable residents, those in lower income, higher density neighbourhoods. And while their value stabilised, the services to support their growth stagnated.

Back in music, the live sector is in bullish health in many respects. The O2 Arena, for example, is Europe’s most ticketed venue. However, small ecosystems are struggling; And what’s missing here is while we recognise the value of an arena or a festival, we ignore the small venue, DIY rehearsal space or community centre. However, each grassroots music venue in the UK contributes £500,000 in direct investment in new and emerging talent, according to a new report by the GLA. But we’re developing talent in the same way we’re building suburbs and at the same time, ignoring the economic value the lower income areas bring.

The authors of the study state; “What is obvious here is that the poor neighborhoods are profitable while the affluent neighborhoods are not.” They go on to state that in the manner Lafayette’s coffers are spent, the less invested in poorer neighbourhoods, the more value, per dollar, they return to the city. This is compelling. To combat this, they argue for a redistribution of city resources to much smaller investments across poorer neighbourhoods, as many as possible, so the poorer neighbourhoods develop at the same rate as more affluent ones, and the gap between how much poorer and richer areas contribute to Lafayette shrinks.

Without that, the poorer area will still contribute more, but be poor. In regards to our cultural infrastructure, let’s take Lafayette as a lesson. If we ignore the value of our new and emerging talent infrastructure, their contributions will outweigh their growth. In other words, the more shining concert halls we have, the less talent we’ll develop to perform in them and the narrower talent development pathways that service these projects will become. By focusing more on smaller, more diverse interventions –such as improving equipment in a venue or improving permitting procedures – the pathway expands.

Shain Shapiro is director of the music consultancy Sound Diplomacy and founder the Music Cities Convention.


America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.