When “Go Play In The Street!” Is Meant To Encourage

Via CityLab is a NY Times story about how the Boyle Heights community in Los Angeles has recently hosted a “play street.” The program, which apparently started in London, shuts down a street to provide kids with a place to play.

A quick glance on the web shows that both NYC and Seattle have similar programs. I am sure there are more cities participating. They both have some good best practices guidelines.

NYC has put together a listing of organizations that will go to play street events in different parts of the city to provide a whole range of services from dance class, bike lessons, double-dutch workshops, healthy cooking demonstrations, music lessons, etc, etc.  Programs like this are a great opportunity for an arts and culture organizations to make themselves more accessible to the community–including talking with people to learn about how to become more accessible to them.

You may have read in the news that residents of Boyle Heights have been actively opposing galleries which opened in the neighborhood, seeing galleries as harbingers of gentrification which will eventually displace them. A few galleries have decided to close as a result.

The tension between both wanting and fearing improvements to the neighborhood is evident in the NY Times article.

“There’s a difference between making something beautiful to sell it and making it useful,” said Leonardo Vilchis, co-director of Union de Vecinos. “So the question is, can we make this place more livable for people living here now?”

With tensions about gentrification running high, the community’s decision to embrace the play street concept was not a casual one.


The residents chose Fickett Street with the intention of providing a safe space not just for children but for the community, said Chelina Odbert, KDI’s co-founder and executive director.

“What a play street is not is a replacement for permanent parks,” she said. “But it bridges the gap in a way that’s really needed.”

Even before I read the line about play streets not being a replacement for a park, I was hoping the city didn’t see closing off a street for play an acceptable substitute for a park. There is a lot of conversation about neighborhood which are food deserts, but there are probably a lot of social benefit deserts for things like play out there as well.

In the last couple years a small herd of boys has started ranging across the lawns of the neighborhood acting out various scenarios. I made it clear to their parents that I had no objection to picking up nerf darts when I mowed and having their “dead” bodies strewn across my lawn because it meant that they weren’t inside watching TV or playing video games. (In fact, as I write this, there are kids hiding behind my house.)

Provided there are sufficient traffic controls to make it safe, it would be a good sign if neighborhoods exercised their communal will to create an environment where kids can safely play in the streets without overt barriers.

The Road To Creative Enlightenment Is Paved With Cardboard

I have written before about the visual arts fair I started about two years ago to provide an opportunity for students and artists in the community to sell their work and get experiencing talking about it with people who don’t share their vocabulary.

Two weeks ago we had the fifth iteration of the event and we think it was easily the best one we have had thus far. We have experimented with the time and date a little bit. It appears that Spring is more popular than Fall in terms of artists having the time and material to participate.

We had so many applicants, that we decided to expand into a new area of the building. Previously, we had been concerns that if one or two people were placed into the overflow area that was slightly apart from the main area, they would feel slighted. Having reached a certain critical mass, we had the numbers to better populate that area. Additionally, a recent re-lamping project provided much better illumination.

A year ago we started placing art works in area businesses prior to the art fair event. We posting pictures daily on social media so people could find the artworks and at the very least generate good will for the business.  This year we saw an increase in participation by both artists and businesses. In one case, I ended up placing a work in a business on the other side of the county 45 minutes away.

Based on this alone, I would feel like we were making progress toward a goal of helping people recognize their capacity to be creative in line with the effort to build public will for arts and culture with which I am involved.

However…once again I partnered with my frequent collaborators, The Creative Cult who designed a “creative journey” visitors to the arts fair could embark upon. The journey took people along the fringes of the art fair and across three floors of the building in an attempt to find the guru who would provide the answer to creativity.

Here is a map of the odyssey

Participants were placed in the role of subjects of a tyrant who suppressed creativity. In order to escape, each party had to construct an item from a pile of supplies that would help them escape the walls of their prison. People made everything from drills to ray guns to bombs.

The next station was a field of strange flowers. When people touched the flower, they were overcome with the image of a monster. They had to draw the monster which was preventing them from being creative that day (which could be anything from lack of confidence to obligations) and a weapon with which they would slay the monster.

Next they ascended to a chasm guarded by a troll who asked riddles. The bridge was made of broken planks–but the only safe path was to step in the empty spaces rather than on the actual planks.

On the other side, they met “Steve” a guy playing video games and surrounded by half finished drawings. He never completes anything due to lack of confidence and commitment. There is always a last touch that needs to be added. There is a puzzle that needs to be solved to open the door at the top of the next level where they meet the guru face to face.

As to what the guru tells our intrepid questors, well that is for them to know.

Among the benefits I saw in this whole endeavor was that attendees were offered an alternative hands on creative activity in which they could participate at the visual art fair. If you were feeling uncertain about how to react to what you saw on display on the artists’ tables or how to interact with the creators, you could always run over and check out the crazy guys leading people around the building.

Days later when I had a little follow up conversation with one of the Creative Cult members, he remarked on how freeing the act of roleplaying was. A particularly shy member of their collaborative had fearless jumped in with both feet because he equated the whole activity as playing a Dungeons and Dragons character rather than himself leading a group of strangers.

As someone in the performing arts, this benefit of roleplay has long been apparent to me, but for people who identify themselves primary as visual artists, this was something of a revelation for them.

As they got excited about the prospect of adding roleplay to their toolbox, I started to consider how the resurgent popularity of games like Dungeons and Dragons might be employed to the benefit of arts and culture organizations.

The Creative Cult guys made a recap video of the experience that can be viewed on Facebook. I am having some problems getting it to embed successfully.


There is a conspiracy to keep your creativity in a box Photo credit: Carla Bentley

Creating Connections To “Why Didn’t I Think Of That”

Last week Arts Midwest held a webinar to provide some examples of the way in which different arts organizations were putting the Creating Connection messaging and research into practice. They had representatives of the Eugene Symphony and two arts organizations from Klamath Falls, OR present talk about some of the successes they have seen.

Each of the organization links above will take you to pages with examples of brochures, videos, social media campaigns, letters and other pieces each of the organizations used.

There were a couple programs that stuck out for me as I was watching last week. One of the biggest “duh” moments for me was the Eugene Symphony’s use of a white board in the lobby to collect feedback from audiences. All those times we have tried to figure out how to get better response rate on surveys, something like this never occurred to us. So many grant applications ask for summaries of the feedback you have collected from the audience. It can’t hurt to have pictures of people enthusiastically participating in writing on white boards.

The people from the Eugene Symphony also spoke about how they shifted the focus of their fundraising efforts. At their gala auction, they placed fewer items up for auction and spent more time on storytelling about creating connections. In their donor appeal letter, they changed the message away from “support our excellence.” Instead, when deciding what to include in the solicitation letter, they ask themselves, “Is this going to be the story of their growth, their voice, their well-being or their happiness?” The repeated “their” being the letter recipient.

The images in their publications are focused on the experience the audience will have rather than on the organization. The “Meet The Conductor” video only shows Music Director & Conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong in the concert hall or in the process of conducting for a few seconds. Most of the video is him hugging people at picnics and while walking down the street, chatting at ballparks and sidewalk cafes.

Social marketing consultant Crystal Muno talked about work she did with the Ross Ragland Theater and Linkville Players in Klamath Falls, OR.  She said the Ross Ragland had been faced with the perception of being elitist. To combat that, they worked on messaging that presented the theater as a “kooky, enthusiastic, maybe a little eccentric aunt.”

One of the things I liked was that they used the image of a stick figure hugging the silhouette of the theater for all of their giving programs – donations, volunteer solicitations or asking people to join their guild. Depicting volunteers as loving the organization in the same way as large donors do has a certain appeal.

Crystal also spoke about how the Linkville Playhouse’s Little Linkville program, a group of adults who do shows for kids, started having kids usher the shows and design posters as a way of improving the connection with their core constituency.  She also talked about how their costume and prop philosophy was that they could only use and wear things that could be found around the house so that if the kids wanted to go home and replicate what they saw on stage, there would be few barriers to doing just that.


Probably The Only Time Comic Sans Is Appropriate In A Planning Document

Back in February CityLab covered an effort by residents of the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul, MN to get people invested in contributing to the Small Area Plan for their neighborhood.  This was in part driven by the experience the Frogtown Neighborhood Association voted to refurbish an historic theater in town but the mayor choose to direct the money to a police shooting range because the theater wasn’t in the neighborhood’s small area plan.

Because Small Area Plans, like strategic plans tend to be dry documents that get put on a shelf never to be consulted, the Frogtown Neighborhood Association were determined to make their plan a living document with which people interacted. They did this by placing the plan and the feedback they received from hundreds of residents into the framework of a comic book.

What I admire about the document is that they create 8 characters who are experts on major areas of concern like land use, housing, transportation, education, arts, health and wellness, economic vitality and resource allocation.  They make each of these people representative of different demographic segments like long time residents, house owners, apartment renters, kids, married couples, single college grads, etc.

By doing so they put a face and connect expertise to different people in the neighborhood so it is more difficult to dismiss people as gentrifiers or cranky malcontents standing in the way of progress.

They reiterate their goal quite a few times across the book to employ design thinking to “Sculpt our community into a mixed income, arts, entrepreneurship and education centered urban village.”

Because it is a planning document it is still pretty text heavy, but this is an example of what is contained within the book.  As I sort of implied before, you could probably do worse than applying this approach to your strategic plan.


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