Walking through the streets of Chinatown, you may notice colorful murals and beautiful structures decorating the neighborhood. These pieces are known as ‘creative placemaking’, a practice used in community development and urban planning since the 1960s. Art is used as a strategy in strengthening local historically disinvested places to cultivate culture. Simply put, residents gather together within the community and become their own artists as they revitalize unused spaces or create public art.
Successful creative placemaking leverages existing creative potential. Residents can become artists and storytellers themselves. As the neighborhood looks and becomes increasingly cared for through placemaking, opportunities are created for local small businesses. Additionally, it brings the community together and empowers them to take ownership of their space. This allows them to see their own space in a different light and creates a movement for positive change.
Chinatown has a long history of engaging its residents to public art. In the 1970s, members of the community participated in the mural of the Sampan boat, which depicted the historical experience of Chinese immigrants. Chinatown now faces a new foe. Gentrification and displacement are disrupting the community and pushing out long-time locals, warranting for community organizations, such as Pao Arts Center and Asian Community Development Corporation (ACDC) to push for creative placemaking in their own programs.
Before the pandemic, ACDC youth leaders hosted Saturplay, a monthly Saturday event that features arts & craft tables and pop-up libraries in their creative and safe play-space for children. Youth managers saw how they built a better community through placemaking, stating, “As the youth who run the event, we get to know the residents and community members better while strengthening our project management, communication and leadership skills.” They hope to use this creative placemaking to push for a permanent play-space in Chinatown.
ACDC was also directly involved in the mural painted on Philips Corner, called “Tied Together by a Thousand Threads”. This was started as an ideas lab, called Think Chinatown, where residents can brainstorm ideas to transform public spaces. Hoping to share a story of a Chinatown resident, they found Yvonne Ng. Community artist Shaina Luo was in charge of translating Yvonne’s vision into a painting. Shaina had been incredibly inspired by how Jeena, the youth program director then, centered community voices. She wanted to do the same in her art, as she saw her personal role in community art as “contributing technical art skills to help bring community visions to life.” She rarely puts her own perspective in murals. This mural became a multigenerational and multi-program effort as BCNC youth, AVOYCE youth, Yvonne’s family, community members, partook in the vision or in the painting.
While Shaina serves as a community artist by translating visions and thoughts into drawings and pictures, other community artists create their art themselves and alter it depending on community input. Regardless of the artist’s course of action, the community residents will always have a voice.
While it has incredible potential in improving a community, a lack of community voices could result in an unwanted or controversial art piece. Additionally, if the art is not celebrated or remembered, it could lose its purpose.
Creative placemaking is prevalent during COVID now more than ever. As social-distance guidelines isolate individuals from one another, creative placemaking reminds us of our shared experiences and unwavering community.