by Jeff Sykes

While the $60 million dollar plan for the Tanger Performing Arts Center gets all the headlines, it’s the collection of small street art projects known as tactical urbanism whose sum could eventually transform the true character of Downtown Greensboro.

The monied interests of the city have the power to change the skyline by demolishing entire urban blocks in order to erect new buildings “” hotels, apartments, civic centers “” but without a street-level adhesive holding together the unique character of the place, such development risks hollowing out the creative youth culture Greensboro’s leaders say they are desperate to retain.

It doesn’t take a high-paid consultant, or an expert source with inside knowledge, to recognize the transformation and tension at work in the downtown business district. Elected officials and booster organizations alike seek to capitalize on the momentum at work in projects like Union Square Campus, Bellemeade Village, and the TPAC. Economic development leaders point to the multiple hotel projects planned for downtown as proof of such progress.

But what will be left, and who will Downtown Greensboro be for, once the big-money transformation is complete?

That’s just one of the supporting principles of Elsewhere Museum’s South Elm Projects, which seek to take the museum’s philosophy of creative play outside the walls of its building in order to enhance what’s already there.

Similarly, Arts Greensboro’s participation in a state funded SmART Initiative brought fresh creative eyes to the downtown streets last fall. The process resulted in new perspectives on Greensboro’s existing street character in addition to suggestions for street art projects that could enhance public space.

Taken together, these projects have the potential to serve as a form of economic development, one that creates a story, giving Greensboro that elusive “wow factor” with which to entice more of its creative class to stay.

That’s one of the unique challenges facing Greensboro so far in the 21st century. In addition to competing against Charlotte and Raleigh for jobs and new businesses, the city is painfully aware each year of the flight of recent college graduates.

“Greensboro is a college town, but not a lot of those students stay here,” said Reggie Delahanty, small business coordinator for the City of Greensboro. “There are a variety of reasons why. One of them is that there are places they deem cooler to be in at the age they are at in their lives than Greensboro.”

Greensboro officials made Delahanty available for an interview when YES! Weekly requested someone to discuss placemaking as economic development. Delahanty’s primary job is to serve as first point of contact for people looking to start small businesses in the city. He’s often involved in many of the initiatives looking at ways to increase the city’s appeal to young entrepreneurs, or to increase its “cool factor.”

Delahanty said the city views placemaking as a serious part of its economic development strategy.

“There is an economic argument that could be made for placemaking and doing those things that create a more vibrant downtown environment,” Delahanty said. “Ultimately what you’re dealing with is human capital. It’s not just about where the job is, there’s a factory here, that’s where we will go because that’s where the job is. Now it’s more than just where the job is, but is that a place that I want to live? ” Cultural vibrancy often is the first factor, not just in terms of events and lifestyle options, but even something as simple as being stimulated more by other urban environments.

Several initiatives in the city are doing a good job of laying the groundwork for entrepreneurs, Delahanty said, led by the Greensboro Partnership’s Entrepreneur Connection, Collab, the Entrepreneurship Center at UNCG, and the Small Business and Technology Development Center. Keeping that creative class here for the long haul is a larger challenge.

“The economic argument is that if you are losing those highly educated folks locally, they are not taking highly paid positions here and spending that money locally,” Delahanty said. “They are going to other communities. We’re also not attracting folks from those other communities … that have invested in placemaking.”

Delahanty cited the TPAC and LeBauer Park as recent examples of the city’s focus on placemaking.

“You can walk down Davie Street now and you can feel the excitement from the stuff on the ground, on what are essentially placemaking initiatives,” Delahanty said. “To put in a LeBauer Park next to (Center City Park), and the PAC will have placemaking as a huge part of the entire project. You’re creating this cultural district at some level that doesn’t only become attractive to talent, but it becomes a tourist destination as well. So there is an economic outcome related to tourism that placemaking created.”

While the new things to come are emerging on the north side of downtown, Elsewhere Museum launched its South Elm Projects recently with the goal of preserving and enhancing the character of its neighborhood. One piece of the mission is to preserve what’s already in place in order to help shape the scope of the transitions going on in Greensboro.

Patrick McDonnell is the South Elm Projects coordinator for Elsewhere. He describes the museum as a collection of toys, materials, objects and items from a 58-year time period in Greensboro’s history. Since 2003, none of the materials are for sale. Nothing new enters the collection. Nothing leaves the collection. Artists come into Elsewhere and use the materials to create artworks that live in the museum, McDonnell said.

“That’s the concept of Elsewhere and this notion of having all these materials on hand and creating and recreating things out of them is constantly evolving,” McDonnell said. “That philosophy is translated over to the South Elm Projects, but instead of being internal, where all the objects are inside the building, now it becomes a question of how do we create things outside of the museum that will continue to evolve as the community evolves?”

The projects launched last month when an elaborate hopscotch appeared on sidewalks on South Elm Street. Beginning at the underpass below the Davie-McGee Street Trestle at Hamburger Square, artist Augustina Woodgate created a public art piece that at first seems nothing more than a simple child’s game.

“The hopscotch starts from a simple idea, let’s paint a giant hopscotch on the sidewalk and get people to play and enjoy the city,” McDonnell said. “Then you start asking questions. How can we get people to rethink, or think about, their city? What do artscaping projects mean for a neighborhood like South Elm? How do these projects come in advance of a lot of the development that is happening and preserve the culture or make people aware of the culture that exists in the neighborhood? You start with a simple idea, but then you start asking a lot of questions and it becomes a complex idea.”

The hopscotch project rolled out first partly due to scheduling of artists, but more so in order to prepare people for the many projects to come.

“The hopscotch frames the entire neighborhood that we are working, it’s massive,” McDonnell said. “The sheer scale of it is something that we wanted to get people prepared for. This is what public art looks like and feels like.

There is an element of surprise, just because you don’t know until you see it, just how big it really is.”

Fifteen more South Elm Projects are to come in the next six months. At an artist introduction meeting earlier this spring, the global collection of artists gathered at Elsewhere to discuss their backgrounds and give a glimpse of what may transpire on Greensboro’s streets this summer.

The South Elm Projects will consist of four types of projects: greenscaping, light installations, media based art, and participatory programming/socially engaged artworks.

Greenscaping, a growing field in the art world, involves creating art with living plants. Light installations that help illuminate the four project areas, coupled with greenscaping, could give an immediate aesthetic boost. Media based art is a broad category that includes sculpture, murals and projections. Participatory programming uses the project spaces for things like spoken word and other live events.

Elsewhere won a competitive grant last summer that will help fund the project. ArtPlace America announced in June that Elsewhere was one of 55 grantees selected from 1,270 applicants. The grant gives Elsewhere $200,000 to fund the South Elm Projects and “activate four alleyways and green spaces in the vibrant, naturally occurring cultural district of its South Elm neighborhood in downtown Greensboro.”

ArtPlace America awards about $14 million a year to four percent of its applicants. It is part of a broader placemaking movement that connects cultural vitality and grassroots art with economic development.

“People are attracted to other people,” McDonnell said.

“When you have good public spaces, that brings people together, allows them to bump into each other, allows them to create connections that they wouldn’t otherwise have. What’s interesting about art is it functions as a catalyst to invite people to come together.”

The unpredictable happens when people come to gether, McDonnell said, and the museum is still conceptualizing ways to measure each project’s impact on the neighborhood.

“There are things that we are noticing that are immediate,” McDonnell said. “People are randomly jumping, from little kids to families. I saw an older gentleman the other day in a suit, he was probably about 60, jumping. People outside of Beloved Community Center after church jumping. People running into each other on the street and then striking up a conversation, asking what this is, and then getting into deeper conversations about the political meaning of space, how sidewalks are public space and there are tax dollars going to it.”

When people have those conversations, McDonnell said, they can begin to look at shaping policy by asking for more public art. That in turn can help to define public space by giving definitions, and answering questions like who defines public space, who is it for, and why is it there?

“I would say that placemaking is trying to create an identity for a certain part of a neighborhood, to create a character, or magnify what is already there,” McDonnell said. “That’s another way that art can draw that out. If there’s already stuff happening, just shine a light on it.”

With so many large development projects in the area, McDonnell said the city needs to account for how to maintain the unique character of the South Elm neighborhood.

“I don’t know if people understand it, but massive change is occurring right now in this neighborhood,” McDonnell said. “I’m hopeful that our project will help get the neighborhood to come together and to think about all the projects going on. The idea of placemaking as an economic driver, I think, is a conversation that hasn’t been had yet in Greensboro. I don’t think it’s on the city council’s agenda. They don’t account for how public art will act as an economic driver. I would definitely like to seem them start conversing about it.”

Understanding the different scales of art is important, he said, so that the focus is not always on the multimillion building or the $400,000 sculpture.

The South Elm Projects fall between $2,000 and $10,000.

“You can do one $400,000 project or you can do 400 $1,000 projects,” McDonnell said. “That notion of 400 projects, small projects, but aggregated together, touches so many more people than just the one project where you had one artist and one architect and a few people sitting on a panel. We are learning very quickly that the South Elm Projects are more about the sum of its parts rather than the individual pieces.”

Micro projects are an emerging field in the arts world, often called tactical urbanism. The goal is to alter space immediately and have people respond to the environment. McDonnell said it would be a good fit for Greensboro because of the city’s history as a maker culture given its history of textiles, furniture and other manufacturing.

“This idea of doing small, DIY projects that everybody can invest in, as you keep building on top of them, it eventually becomes one big initiative,” McDonnell said.

Tom Philion, president and CEO of Arts Greensboro, said he too experienced the cumulative power of small change when he was in charge of bringing the Eastern Music Festival back to prominence in the early part of the last decade.

EMF was struggling in 2000, he said, so much so that when he got off the plane to interview for the position, the fate of the festival was the topic of that night’s television news.

Thanks to a lot of community support, Philion said, EMF was stabilized relatively quickly. A lot of it had to do with the interesting risks they took.

Philion said the EMF’s Fringe Series was one such risk. With downtown quiet at the time, the Fringe Series staged concerts and performances at The Depot, then vacant spaces downtown, eventually settling in at Triad Stage.

“We did it because it reached a whole different audience,” Philion said. “It was great economic development for downtown because there were not a whole lot of clubs operating at that point.”

Philion said those performances helped build a buzz downtown in addition to helping bring the EMF into a new period of success.

Philion left Greensboro for Seattle in 2008, but was recruited back to take over at Arts Greensboro a few years ago. Increasing the “wow factor” of the city, and its cultural vibrancy, is at the forefront of his effort.

“What can we do to make this place the city where everybody wants to live, as opposed to ‘well we have to live here but we want to go to Charlotte, or we want to go to Cary, or Carrboro, or whatever it is? That’s what we try to stay focused on,” Philion said.

One of those initiatives is the result of winning a state grant last year to study ways the arts can impact economic development.

The NC Department of Cultural Resources awarded Greensboro a SmART Initiative grant to study streetscaping possibilities.

“We talked about the need to revitalize downtown in the context of … what kind of whimsical fun things can we do downtown that just get people excited about being there,” Philion said.

At the end of the process in December, artists were invited to walk downtown and make suggestions for engaging with the public through various art projects. Most of the concepts are similar to the South Elm Projects, involving a range of ideas that included lighting train trestles, reactivating alleyways, improving pedestrian crosswalks, and ad hoc seating downtown.

Two possibilities include improving pedestrian safety and slowing traffic beneath the train trestle in Hamburger Square and reactivating the alleyway from Washington Street that runs behind Scuppernong Books to the city parking lot in between Ham’s and M’Coul’s.

“The thing that really jumped out at me after that day-long session was that there were a lot of possibilities and they weren’t high-cost possibilities,” Philion said. “This town already has the beginning of great stuff, and a lot of great stuff already. We are not starting from zero.” !