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Are artists the secret to revitalizing Main Street?

 

The long, imposing brick buildings of the Alexander Smith Carpet Mills
are a local icon in Yonkers, New York, sitting alongside the Saw Mill
River as it winds its way into the Hudson north of New York City.

The Smith Mills, impossible to miss dominating their block, remain a
fixture even in a city which can claim other industrial innovations like
the Otis elevator and early Bakelite plastic. But beyond their brick
fronts, they also stand as constant reminders of the city's industrial
past, as well as just how much that industry has changed.

In 1894, only 20 years after Alexander Smith opened his first mill building, The New York Times
said "the sweetest music that has been heard in this city" was "the
music of the looms" as they ran at the mills. By 1954, though, the
Yonkers factory had shuttered, a victim of a changing market,
cost-cutting, and greener pastures down south. Other Yonkers-based firms
followed suit, liquidating or moving elsewhere in search of lower
costs. 

By the time Harlan Rose and his father arrived in the 1980s, the mill
buildings had been barely used for 20 years. Their move to the mill was
purely practical, at first — they needed warehouse space for their
growing Asian antiquities business. But they liked the place, and they
thought others might, too. In 2000, they bought one of the mill
buildings. 

"It was a good luck building to us," Rose said.

Rather than fill the empty factory floors with light industry, they
had a different goal. They wanted the space to be turned over to
something new, something that would draw attention to the old mills and
to Yonkers, too. Rose calls their solution a "creative building."

Today, they have more than 30 tenants, and Rose estimates 90 percent
are "creative businesses" — artists, photographers, theater production
companies, even a costume designer with more than 20,000 square feet of
Broadway outfits. Neighboring buildings house even more — he estimates
there are 60 artists working in the mill building next door.

So, this year, Rose and his fellow owners plan to unveil the Carpet
Mills Arts District, a destination which many cities use to set aside a
neighborhood for primarily arts-based industries.

In doing so, they are tapping into a concept which has existed for
decades but which more and more cities are turning to in hopes of
restarting economic engines in sometimes forgotten neighborhoods and
downtowns.

Rose looks at the explosive growth of neighborhoods in Brooklyn and
southern Manhattan, many of which first attracted new residents by
appealing to artists, designers, and other creatives. He says Yonkers
could use the same appeal. 

"If the city really wants to have a resurrection, which it certainly
does, artists are the first people in," he said. "Just look at the Lower
East Side, look at Brooklyn, artists were there first." 

And resurrection is exactly what many small and mid-sized American towns and cities have been seeking.

As companies — especially big manufacturers — downsized, relocated,
or merged in the 1950s and 60s, many American cities felt the effects,
hard. When industry departed, city leaders were left rushing to fill the
void, to find jobs for their residents and to stabilize their
finances. 

During that era, planners frequently focused their attention on a
city's downtown core — their proverbial main street — which had often
been hollowed out as residents lost jobs and cut back on spending, said
Amanda Johnson Ashley, a professor of community planning at Boise State
University who studies the economics of arts.

With industry fleeing, city officials turned to other sources of revenue, including drawing visitors back to their city centers.

"They were looking to build a tourism economy, a replacement economy
for what downtowns or other parts of the city had been losing," she
said. Many city planners looked to the prominent example of Manhattan's
Lincoln Center, the arts complex built as part of an urban renewal
program in the 1960s, as the gold standard for what arts could bring to a
city. 

But in the last decade, cities have begun turning to artists
themselves to stimulate struggling neighborhoods, Ashley said.
Individual artists and community-based non-profits are increasingly
creating environments geared towards creative professionals, not just
visitors.

And cities are encouraging the development of formal 'districts'
through tax incentives or business improvement programs, she said.

"It's not just tourism anymore," Ashley said. "They are interested in
community development and artist incubation. And it's not just
downtowns, but in the urban fringe and suburbs, also."

Even the definition of an arts district has evolved. Where prominent,
bricks-and-mortar projects like Lincoln Center once defined a city's
relationship to the arts, increasingly arts districts are becoming as
diverse as the cities they represent. The Gordon Square Arts District in
Cleveland — which the National Endowment for the Arts has called one of
the most successful in the country — is anchored by three performing
arts theaters, while Pittsburgh's Mattress Factory supports a network of
artist housing in surrounding neighborhoods. Even casino-centric Reno,
Nevada now features an arts district, where kinetic sculptures dance on
the streetlights. 

In some states, the economics of arts districts have had a measurable
impact on city bottom lines. In Maryland, one of the states which first
used an official arts district label, the impact remains "relatively
moderate" but "durable" over time, according to Daraius Irani, a Towson
University economist who studied the impact statewide. Arts districts in
Maryland accounted for more than $36 million tax revenues for the state
in 2013, as well as jobs for more than 5,000 residents, his analysis
said.

For smaller cities and towns, a well-managed arts district could be
as lucrative as their traditional main street, Irani said, and could
incorporate businesses not traditionally linked to the arts — such as
craft spirits — that nonetheless qualify as creative.

"It's an opportunity to re-think main streets and places that have
lost some of their vitality," he said. "Art is really as we define it." 

But change — which often fuels art itself — is also a factor in these
districts. Districts can have different goals depending upon their
location — some geared towards supporting professional artists, others
to growing jobs and creative businesses, still others towards trying to
keep neighborhoods together.

For that reason, Ashley says, it can be hard to definitively measure what a "successful" arts district looks like. 

"Success is a really tricky concept. There are many different
versions of success," many of which can't be measured through
traditional economic indicators, she said. 

Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of arts districts is that
they are still being used. Local governments invested more than $770
million in the arts — including designated districts — in 2014, a 7
percent increase from the prior year and a gradual rebuilding from sharp
drop-offs during earlier recession years, according to data from
Americans for the Arts, an advocacy and research group. 

Harlan Rose hopes Yonkers' art economy can benefit from increased investment and attention, as well.

"Right now, high-end designers from New York City are intimidated
coming up to Yonkers," he said. "But we can make this a destination
point."


They are already planning their first signs.

Matt Hansen