Communities In The Midst of a Renaissance

Chris Latham
Contributor

What separates striving communities from suffering ones?

The presence of growing companies and skilled workers, as well as artistic and cultural venues. Communities that can add jobs will see workers flock there. Communities that can beautify their surroundings through public and commercial projects will attract tourists and new residents. Together, these forces can sustain economic optimism.

Jersey City, Baltimore, Detroit, and Little Rock present vivid examples of challenges that divergent communities can face. These areas also point to how communities can find themselves in the midst of a renaissance.

JERSEY CITY

In the first half of the 20th century, Jersey City was a booming town with many jobs in manufacturing and railroads for large numbers of European immigrants. In 1950, the city’s population was 299,017 people. By 1975, local political instability and economic stagnation had led to a net loss of 75,000 residents. Between 1975 and 1982, Jersey City lost 9% of its workforce crime surged during this time.

Then Jersey City’s renaissance began. Since its founding in 1980, the nonprofit Jersey City Economic Development Corporation (JCEDC) has worked with local officials and small businesses to foster growth. The JCEDC has done this by helping entrepreneurs with securing loans, education on book keeping and property maintenance, marketing tools to promote local shops, as well as branding Jersey City as a premier destination for leisure and business travelers.

In tandem, real estate developers built up the city’s waterfront and established a financial district that features some of the country’s top banks. The population has rebounded to more than 265,000 residents, and Jersey City’s median household income of $66,264 is above the national average of $60,336.

During the past 30 years, Jersey City’s arts and cultural scene has developed through the loose-knit cooperation of various organizations. The city’s Office of Cultural Affairs supports the Jersey City Art & Studio Tour (JCAST), which showcases hundreds of works by dozens of local creators. In 2019, JCAST celebrates its 29th year and is sponsored by Bank of America.

In 2013, the Mayor’s Office initiated the Jersey City Mural Arts Program. This program enables painters to put colorful imagery on buildings and structures throughout the city, while engaging residents and reducing graffiti. And since 2016, the nonprofit Jersey City Arts Council has bolstered the city’s visual aesthetic by helping artists promote their work as well as find funding, studio space, and event venues.

BALTIMORE

Baltimore was once a national hub of shipping, automobile manufacturing, and steel processing. But starting in the late 1960s through the last few years, the city had endured an exodus of industrial businesses and several racial riots. Critics point to decades of political mismanagement as an important factor. As recently as July 2019, Baltimore had suffered population decline for four consecutive years.

Yet Baltimore’s economy has improved considerably throughout the past several years. Amazon opened two huge warehouses there, employing thousands of workers, in 2015 and 2017. Under Armour, whose headquarters are in Baltimore, opened a new warehouse there in May 2019, employing over 2,600 people.

The city has benefited from the sixth consecutive year of job growth. In each of the past three years Baltimore added about 12,000 jobs, with property wealth surging at twice the pace of the rest of Maryland and household income also outpacing growth in Maryland during that time.

In terms of arts and culture, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Peale Museum both received major upgrades over the past decade. Furthermore, this year Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue was designated as a Black Arts and Entertainment District. Then there is the work of Sandy Hillman, former head of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and Tourism, who has been essential to some of the city’s biggest cultural revitalization projects.

She crafted messaging and brought together key stakeholders to turn the Baltimore Inner Harbor into a national tourist destination that features the Port Discovery Children’s Museum, the National Aquarium, as well as an assortment of well-preserved historic ships. Now a communications consultant, in recent years Hillman has worked with Under Armour on development initiatives such as refurbishing Baltimore elementary schools with painting and gardening projects.

DETROIT

The 2008 financial crisis accelerated longstanding decline in Detroit, which was linked to the woes of the auto industry.

Between April 2000 and July 2009, unemployment rose from 5.1% to 28.3%. As the crisis raged, Detroit-based General Motors and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy and took government bailouts. Other businesses closed, its population and housing values dwindled, and Detroit itself declared bankruptcy in 2013.

In 2018, Ford Motor Company bought the 600,000-square-foot Michigan Central Station, and numerous other landmarks are being renovated. Detroit’s population and housing values also have started to tick back up. Today, Detroit is back on the upswing with a booming downtown and significant investments from local leaders such as Dan Gilbert, the billionaire co-founder of Quicken Loans and owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Even as the city’s economic woes were nearing their depths, its artistic renewal began to take root. In 2012, real estate developer Derek Weaver began commissioning local artists to paint murals on the outside of abandoned buildings. By 2019, almost 100 murals had been completed along the seven-block stretch that became known as the Grand River Creative Corridor.

Other artists soon began to elaborate on the idea. Murals have appeared elsewhere in Detroit, as have outdoor modern art exhibits in abandoned lots that showcase everything from painted vehicles to decorated trees. Detroit’s street art has become a popular attraction for tourists and is promoted on the city’s Visitors Bureau website.

LITTLE ROCK

Little Rock gradually developed in regional importance throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Yet throughout much of the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, Little Rock suffered from pervasive poverty and violent crime, while also lacking well-known cultural attractions.

Arguably, the city started its upswing in the mid-1990s by embarking on a strong public safety campaign. Next came the 1996 opening of the downtown River Market, a sprawling complex with a massive indoor food hall and outdoor farmers market. The launch of the Clinton Presidential Center in 2004 was a vital force in the city’s economic revitalization.

Since then, a fledgling cultural scene, an influx of visitors, and the development of numerous hotels and condos have occurred in tandem with an improved labor market. In January 1992, Little Rock’s unemployment rate was at 6.9%. In December 2004, unemployment was 4.7%. In July 2019, it was 3.6%.

The Arkansas Arts Center, which is largely funded by private donations, is undergoing a major renovation and expansion project in Little Rock’s Macarthur Park that will continue through early 2022. Renowned architect Jeanne Gang, who runs the Chicago-based practice Studio Gang, has designed a campus that includes a theater, restaurant, courtyard, and “cultural living room.” Stephens Inc. President and CEO Warren Stephens, and his wife, Harriet, are co-capital campaign chairs for the new Arts Center.

Another top venue, the 2,222 seat Robinson Center for performances and conventions, also underwent a two-year renovation that was completed in 2016. Stephens Inc. was the senior bookrunning manager for the issuance of bonds to finance that project. There is even a Museum of Discovery, a big children’s attraction focusing on science and technology. It was revamped in 2011 and now hosts a monthly “Science After Dark” cocktail evening for adults.

RENAISSANCE CITIES

The European Renaissance saw countries such as England, France, Spain and Italy undergo vibrant rebirths though the alchemy of economics, arts, and culture. On a local scale, something similar is transpiring in these U.S. cities. As demonstrated by Jersey City, Baltimore, Detroit and Little Rock, when businesses, nonprofits and local governments can figure out how to cultivate a community’s resources for its residents and workers, positive change occurs.