How local arts organisation, CoBALT Connects, is transforming the dialogue on culture planning and neighbourhood revitalization
By: Michaela Kramer, Evergreen CityWorks, Intern
There is no one route for engaging communities and improving neighbourhoods, no singular stream for achieving success. While the traditional drivers of neighbourhood change, being that of top-down municipal projects or profit-oriented development, have proven powerful in the past, there is nonetheless room to challenge this process. That has been the inspiration behind CoBALT Connects, a Hamilton, Ontario-based non-profit organisation that has been transforming the dialogue on culture planning and community participation over the past decade. Their work has sought to bring together the local arts community to a broader public and, in doing so, empower neighbourhoods to evolve in positive and inclusive ways. CoBALT’s success is clear from the many projects they’ve facilitated: from turning vacant buildings into creative spaces to developing cutting-edge research methods for neighbourhood planning, and hosting hundreds of events throughout the province. Their philosophy rests on the power of connecting otherwise separate groups of people, like artists, entrepreneurs, and municipalities, that when aligned together can lead to inspiring neighbourhood revitalization.
The roots of CoBALT Connects
It all started ten years ago in downtown Hamilton where vacancies and a reputation for crime and deviancy had come to plague the neighbourhood. Frustrated by this, local artist Jeremy Freiburger, began on a quest to fill empty buildings with the community of artists around him. He created an organisation, then called the Imperial Cotton Centre for the Arts, that would operate as a facilitator to landlords to fill unused spaces with creatively-oriented tenants. In return, Freiburger would get a cut of the profit which he could funnel back into new projects.
Freiburger says that “artists” and even “non-profit organisations” were dirty words in Hamilton a decade ago.
Business plan in hand, Freiburger began to approach property owners to sign up. Initially, they scoffed, hearing ‘arts and culture tenants’ as ‘people who won’t pay rents’. As Freiburger puts it “artists” and even “non-profit organisations were dirty words”. But slowly things started to materialize and they got their first contract on Sherman Avenue.
Jeremy Freiburger, Source: CBC
Since their inauguration CoBALT has successfully intervened in four buildings in Hamilton and eight more throughout Ontario. The result has brought new life and cultural identity into the neighbourhood, as well as changing the public perception of downtown. The repurposed buildings act as cultural amenities that, along with other factors like Art Crawl- a public art event that draws 5,000 people each month, have served to reinvigorate the area. Moreover, it has opened up a conversation about the role that culture can play in revitalizing neighbourhoods, both socially and economically.
Inspiring a changing local arts scene
This success has allowed CoBALT entrance into various other projects. A recent example of this is Hamilton’s Community Supported Arts program (CSA), which CoBALT spearheaded. The project, with similar examples in cities across the US, is based off the format of Community Supported Agriculture. In that case, CSAs connect local farmers to people who pledge to support them for the growing season. The exchange addresses the vulnerable incomes of farmers by developing an alternative system of food distribution for those interested in supporting local agriculture.
The average Canadian Artist lives below the poverty line while at the same time struggles to connect to audiences of buyers in the public and business world.
This model can similarly be applied to local art, since many of the same problems exist. The average Canadian artist lives below the poverty line while at the same time struggles to connect to new audiences of buyers in the public and business world. These issues hit especially hard in Hamilton where the arts industry is now bigger than steel. CoBALT sought to confront this problem with the creation of a CSA.
They hired professional curators to pick a few of their favourite Hamilton artists to create collections for the project. Once underway, CoBALT reached out the largest employers and networks in the city to spread the word. Emails, newsletters, and ads invited Hamiltons to purchase a collection of local art, which included photography, illustration, or fine craft, at a price of $350. By the end of the December Art Crawl, the CSA sold $12,640 in collections. While the money was shy of covering some of the operating costs of the program, it went a long way in developing more secure income sources for local artists and bridging the gap between them and the rest of Hamilton. Another component of the project that Freiburger is particularly proud of is educational, in that it opened up “a conversation with public about art”. He says the organisation is about responding to the needs of the community that already exist, that is, leading projects so that others can reach their potential.
Hamilton CSA Infographic, Source: CSA
Redefining culture planning
The latest endeavour for CoBALT has been their Expressing Vibrancy project, which was publically released on July 24th. The mission was to improve the effectiveness and measurability of culture planning in Hamilton, a problem Freiburger says the organisation experienced during their work in writing culture reports over the past few years. He’s noticed that the literature around culture in cities is often vague and lacks a concrete method for measuring the success of culture projects as well as holding communities and municipalities accountable. While older reports and plans would repeatedly use the word ‘culture’ as an undefined ideal, today similar problems exist with the term ‘vibrancy’. Cities and organisations talk about wanting vibrant neighbourhoods or creating vibrancy hubs without explaining what that truly means.
Freiburger says that contrary to what these plans assume, culture and vibrancy are incredibly personal and contextual qualities. What feels vibrant to one group of people might be off-putting to another. So in order to understand, and ultimately promote vibrancy, it is important to more deeply engage with what vibrancy means for the people a city is trying to serve.
A neighbourhood might poses many of the qualities traditionally associated with vibrancy, yet rank poorly in the eyes of the public- or vice versa.
To address this, CoBALT began by collecting an inventory of data in several neighbourhoods across Hamilton- from demographic statistics to number of trees, air quality, languages spoken, cultural centers, festivals etc. They then hosted walking tours with the public to discover their perceptions of those same neighbourhoods. All this information is now available in neat graphics on the Expressing Vibrancy website, where users can explore Hamilton neighbourhoods both in terms of the facts of what exists there and through the qualitative experiences of the public. Interestingly enough, a neighbourhood might poses many of the qualities traditionally associated with vibrancy, yet rank poorly in the eyes of the public- or vice versa.
Soon to be added to the site is more data that CoBALT collected at McMaster University’s LIVE Lab where participants were hooked up to devices measuring their brain waves, heart rate, perspiration levels, and breathing patterns as they looked at videos and pictures of the neighborhoods. The idea was to test people’s public opinion against their physiological reaction to various features of a place. Together, all this information serves to expose a deeper understanding of what vibrancy is for a particular community and helps planners to become better at achieving it.
The heated debate on gentrification
Yet despite these accomplishments, CoBALT’s work is not always well received. Some have criticized the organisation for being leaders of gentrification in Hamilton’s downtown. Today James Street is not only home to arts and culture spaces but also to banks and condos. While the creation of an arts hub on James might be exciting to some, it’s not necessarily inclusive to everyone. Many worry about the rising rents of the neighbourhood and how long time residents and business owners will be able to afford this exceedingly trendy neighbourhood.
Freiburger resists the notion that CoBALT is rightfully to blame for gentrifying James Street.
Freiburger says that this argument has been present since he started and while he appreciates the importance of having this dialogue, he rejects the notion that CoBALT is at fault for gentrifying the area. He says that they represent the arts, who are a mostly low-income community. If artists coming into a neighbourhood bring energy and excitement to it, which in turn becomes interesting to investors, he shouldn't have to shoulder the blame of new development.
Furthermore, Freiburger says that people should stop polarizing the gentrification debate and see it as the multi-dimensional phenomenon it is. For example, the first building that CoBALT repurposed was previously home to just two tenants living in extremely poor conditions. When the building was converted, they found the tenants safer accommodations on the same street, and one was even hired by the building owner during renovations. Freiburger sees this as a positive aspect to what some might call gentrification. He also points to fact that much of the events that have been brought into the area, like Art Crawl, are free. He claims that the people making changes in the neighbourhood, his organisation included, can be sensitive to issues of gentrification and are capable of introducing new ideas in inclusive ways.
The future role of culture in urban planning
This will likely continue to be a topic of conversation as CoBALT moves forward into future projects. They are looking to shift their area of focus away from property management and into bigger ventures such as larger cultural spaces, landmarks, and heritage sites. Freibuger also wants to play a greater role in public art and continue on the work they’ve been doing in research and planning, both within Hamilton and beyond.
Overall, there is a lot to be learned from the Hamilton story and the work that CoBALT has engaged in there. Yet Freiburger is cautious to replicate it in other cities across Canada. He says that the success of CoBALT is directly linked to the particular context form which it operates. It’s necessary to focus on the local situation to understand what kind of work can be done. He hopes not to import his work to other places, but rather, to share what he’s learned and hear about the stories and experiences of other cities too. However, what is universal is the power that culture has in neighbourhood, whatever the local context of that might be, in leading to important change for cities at large.
James Street during Art Crawl, Source: Flickr