Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
From D.C. to Dallas, cities are drafting documents to help protect their cultural resources from economic changes. But too often, these plans lack teeth.
Last Thursday, Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, D.C., introduced the city’s first-ever Cultural Plan. Five years in the making, the document spells out at length the city’s disposition on artists and creators. The plan outlines more than two-dozen policy recommendations built with the input of multiple city agencies and some 1,500 residents, performers, administrators, and others.
But nowhere in the 224-page document will you find an immediate answer to the cultural crisis unfolding in D.C.: a neighborhood noise complaint involving go-go music, the city’s signature sound.
For more than 20 years, a cell-phone store called Central Communications at the corner of Georgia and Florida Avenues NW in the city’s Shaw neighborhood has broadcast go-go music outdoors. The incessant throb of conga drums and roto-toms and bass-forward funk cranking on outdoor speakers since 1995 have turned the store, which also sells go-go recordings, into a genuine cultural institution. But the shop was forced to shut down the show after its parent company, T‑Mobile, was threatened with a lawsuit from a nearby resident. The complaint reportedly originated at The Shay, a luxury apartment building that’s home to wealthier, whiter Shaw residents.
This might sound like a minor issue to someone unfamiliar with go-go. But the District takes this seriously: Dozens of locals showed up on a drizzly Monday for a rally outside the store. Hundreds more assembled on Tuesday on U Street NW, the city’s historic Black Broadway corridor.
It’s not that D.C.’s Cultural Plan neglects go-go: The document quotes many residents and participants who might as well have been those demonstrators carrying #DontMuteDC signs. “The tastes and opinions of the very wealthy determine the course of art and culture,” reads one comment in the Cultural Plan gathered from a listening session. “[D.C.] used to have a lot of block parties featuring funk, punk and go-go,” reads another. “Respect the culture that is here.”
But the Cultural Plan might not go far enough to save go-go. There’s a difference between paying lip service to local culture and preserving it—and moreover, guaranteeing a future for artists who feel drained by gentrification and displacement. For its part, Central Communications is likely fine: By Wednesday afternoon, T-Mobile had relented, its CEO announcing in a tweet that “the music will go on.” But the residents who would rather not hear the historic sounds of black D.C. aren’t going anywhere. And the economic forces pushing artists to the outskirts aren’t abating. Any cultural plan that can address these strong headwinds would require concrete solutions.
The District is just the latest city to tackle arts and equity with a top-down cultural plan. Dallas adopted its Cultural Plan and Policy in November, and support for the arts has emerged as a pivotal issue in the current mayoral campaign. In Chicago, recently elected Mayor Lori Lightfoot was the only one of 14 candidates who outlined an arts agenda during the campaign.
“More and more cities are paying attention to the creative sector, in particular what it brings in, in income, and the quality of life it brings to cities,” says Suzy Delvalle, president and executive director of Creative Capital, a national nonprofit that supports artists and organizations across 34 different disciplines. “We would like to think the artists are demanding it.”
Cheap rents and tolerant neighbors are getting harder to come by in cities such as D.C., where the arts has helped drive the city’s explosive growth. While cultural institutions are powerful economic generators for cities, they aren’t always afforded a seat at the table. D.C.’s rising rents have pushed many artists, musicians, and performers across state lines, into Hyattsville or Baltimore in Maryland. Live venues have closed up shop. The protests over the volume knob at a single Shaw retailer represent a broader series of complaints about the way market forces have pushed artists and performance sites out, leaving behind historic murals and markers. The Cultural Plan is a response, too.
Residents are calling for leadership. In D.C., people from across the city who spoke with city leaders about the arts during listening sessions anticipated cultural conflicts between the mostly white newcomers and the largely black communities into which they are moving. Whether D.C.’s Cultural Plan can do much to mobilize and defend black art forms in an increasingly white city depends on how it’s implemented and what lessons leaders can take from past failures—and that’s just one of the city’s goals.
The plan calls for two big near-term changes. The city’s Office of Planning will hire an arts planner, a sort of cultural czar who will oversee policies and initiatives under the Cultural Plan. To implement those policies, the city aims to appoint a steering committee, comprising three seats from the “arts and creative economy,” plus six figures from various city agencies and one representative of D.C.’s Business Improvement Districts.
The Cultural Plan outlines recommendations for cultural creators, cultural spaces, and cultural consumers. (It does not include a chapter dedicated to cultural colonizers, the issue currently gripping the city.) It will be up to the city, the future arts czar, and the steering committee to bring those recommendations to reality.
The devil is in the details, of course, and cultural policy platforms fall to the wayside when they are merely documents that spell out policy suggestions, according to Kristina Newman-Scott, the president of BRIC, a nonprofit organization that directs free cultural programming in Brooklyn. As the former head of arts and culture for the state of Connecticut and the former director of cultural affairs for the city of Hartford, she has served as both a creator and consumer of municipal arts policy.
“When I think about cultural policies in general, rather than doing broad brushstroke approaches, I really think it’s about working incrementally with people on the front lines of issues and helping them understand how the arts can actually move the issue forward,” Newman-Scott says.
Too often, cultural plans fail to spell out real metrics for measuring a city or state’s goals. Newman-Scott says that people across the state helped to shape the Connecticut Office of the Arts’ READI program—which stands for Relevance, Equity, Access, Diversity, and Inclusion. (“White-noise words,” she says. “If you don’t define them, what do these things even mean?”) With detailed, measurable goals in place, Connecticut has made progress in addressing language as a barrier to entry for agencies and organizations seeking federal or state arts funding.
Neither Newman-Scott nor Delvalle were familiar with details of D.C.’s brand-new Cultural Plan. However, Creative Capital works with municipal and arts organizations all over the country. Delvalle says that arts policies that elevate artists directly into decision-making roles are the ones that stand out in her mind. In New York City, for example, the Department of Cultural Affairs works with other agencies across the city to create artists residencies that address specific needs. Creative Aging, to name just one example, is a collaboration between the arts department and the Department for the Aging to place artists in residence in senior centers in all five boroughs.
“Artists hold a mirror up to society. They shed light on issues we don’t see or in some cases don’t want to see,” Delvalle says. “They encourage us to have these conversations and think about how we best navigate these interesting times that we live in. Why not have these creative thinkers and creative problem solvers at the table when you’re negotiating these policies?”
D.C.’s Cultural Plan includes one recommendation that might address the go-go standoff: This corner could be designated as a “frequent expression zone,” a commercial area with reduced barriers (such as permits) for performances. The place is already a frequent expression zone: Steps from the historic Howard Theatre (and its funky public plaza), on a strip where rooftop bars can be heard from blocks away. The city merely needs to formally recognize that the rights of longtime black cultural consumers, cultural producers, and cultural spaces outweigh the interests of new residents who move to this high-decibel nightlife strip and then demand that it change.
Avoiding cultural crises in the future means giving artists, producers, and administrators some say in decisions that affect them, whether it’s crafting a noise ordinance or matching tax credits with developers who dedicate space for bands to use to practice or preserving naturally occurring affordable housing. Any plan that stops short at acknowledging problems that affect the arts, without providing tools for solving them, is only a hefty PDF.
“At the end of the day, policies are great, but you need money to put it into practice,” Newman-Scott says. “A policy for policy’s sake will just sit with all the other policies that are not acted upon.”