Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts

A few months back, Interboro introduced us to the concept of the NORC, or naturally occurring retirement community. This got us wondering, what other kinds of uses tend to cluster, all on their own, in certain areas? Below, Tamara Greenfield, executive director of Fourth Arts Block (FAB), and Caron Atlas, a cultural organizer with the Arts + Community Change Initiative, share their thoughts on how better understanding of Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts, or NOCDs, can help inform a more holistic approach to cultural policy.

Few would argue with the notion that a robust cultural life is good for cities as well as neighborhoods. But how best to support it — through investments, incentives, philanthropy and public policy — is up for debate. Create new institutions and venues? Fund specific artists or projects? Incentivize cultural groups to move into your development or neighborhood from outside? Or learn from those examples where cultural opportunities emerged from the ground up? Fourth Arts Block, an organization comprised of 17 arts organizations located on a single block of East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and the Bowery, is a powerful example of the latter. It’s also a unique case where the complex histories of immigration, labor organizing, urban renewal and eminent domain intersect with the resourcefulness of New York’s artists. And as Manhattan’s only officially designated cultural district, FAB is a natural partner to work with the Arts + Community Change Initiative to increase recognition and support for NOCDs. To that end, FAB and Arts + Community Change have convened a series of roundtables in New York City with arts leaders, policy makers, and academics to develop a definition, identify support strategies, share effective case studies and initiate a working group that will continue advocating for policies to support existing NOCDs, while offering technical assistance to nascent organizing efforts in New York City. Read more about their initial findings in the interview below, and, while you’re at it, get a history lesson on one of New York’s most storied blocks. -C.S.

Update: You can now read a series of profiles of Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts, including Corona, Queens; Fort Greene, Brooklyn; Hunts Point, Bronx; and St. George, Staten Island, compiled here.

In 1775, what would eventually become East 4th Street was near the southern edge of the Stuyvesant farm (pictured left). By 1920, it was home to a number of theaters and social halls (including Astoria Hall, pictured right) catering to the needs of immigrant populations and labor unions. Click to enlarge.

In 1775, what would eventually become East 4th Street was near the southern edge of the Stuyvesant farm (pictured left). By 1920, it was home to a number of theaters and social halls (including Astoria Hall, pictured right) catering to the needs of immigrant populations and labor unions. Click to enlarge.

First off, what is a Naturally Occurring Cultural District? How is it different from institutionally organized arts and culture districts and why is the distinction important?

Tamara Greenfield: A Naturally Occurring Cultural (or Arts) District is distinguished by both its origins and organization. A NOCD (for lack of better term) supports existing neighborhood cultural assets rather than imposing arts institutions somewhere new. Traditional cultural districts are often used as a promotional tool to import visitors to a downtown shopping or commercial district and are generally centered on large institutions. The difference is important because each idea represents a distinct set of public values about what’s important to cities and what’s worth supporting. Understanding NOCDs can provide a framework to recognize and support a more inclusive, equitable vision of a neighborhood’s culture.

Caron Atlas: Another important reason to make the distinction is that institutional arts districts are often more visible, whereas naturally occurring ones are more rooted in the neighborhood fabric and might therefore be invisible to those outside the neighborhood. If a cultural district has emerged “naturally,” then it grows from, builds on and validates existing community assets rather than importing assets from outside a community.

Historical highlights of Fourth Arts Block properties over the years, adapted from a lot-by-lot history of East 4th Street compiled by the Lower East Side History Project | Diagram: Purva Jain.

Historical highlights of Fourth Arts Block properties over the years, adapted from a lot-by-lot history of East 4th Street compiled by the Lower East Side History Project | Diagram: Purva Jain. Click to enlarge.

What are some common reasons for diverse cultural opportunities to cluster in particular urban areas?

Caron Atlas: I find an ecological perspective to arts and culture to be helpful in thinking about this. Healthy systems are composed of diverse and interdependent parts. In this way, NOCDs often demonstrate more decentralized, and resilient, support networks than conventional institutions. Like any community of common interest, they can also respond to both threats and opportunities with a louder voice and more unified actions.

When I was doing interviews with the Urban Institute around artist support systems in nine cities across the country, what really struck me was how often artists spoke about the importance of being in places where they can share and be challenged by other artists and audiences – this was often as important as monetary support. They not only stimulated each other’s creativity, they supported one another in many different ways ranging from barter to social networks to hiring one another.

Club 82 was a legendary drag cabaret club located at 82 East 4th from 1958 to 1978.

Club 82 was a legendary drag cabaret club located at 82 East 4th from 1958 to 1978.

Tamara Greenfield: The story of Fourth Arts Block is perhaps illustrative of some broadly shared trends. Of course, over the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, cultural groups clustered activity because artists collaborated, socialized, shared information and resources, passed spaces on to each other, promoted each other and lived in the community. But another key reason was the appropriateness of spaces for their needs: many of the buildings were City-owned in what was at the time an undesirable neighborhood and many had initially been built as social halls and theaters for immigrant communities, including German music societies, Italian theaters, Yiddish publishers, Union organizing (ILGWU was founded at 64 East 4th Street), film and television sound stages, Puerto Rican and Ukrainian social clubs, and drag clubs.

In the 1950s, Robert Moses proposed an urban renewal plan for the area that would have torn down most of the buildings, many of which were being used for light manufacturing and low rent housing. Cooper Square Committee formed to fight this plan, which they ultimately defeated, and replaced it with a new plan for low-income housing, which did not include the buildings that had previously housed cultural and manufacturing activities. That’s how the buildings came into city ownership — through eminent domain — but they sat unused until La MaMa and Millennium Film Workshop secured temporary, month-to-month leases from the City. Gradually other small groups moved in, and the Off-Off-Broadway and experimental arts movement took off.

This arrangement continued more or less fluidly for the next 30 years, until the artists and arts groups on East 4th Street became concerned about their future tenancy during the Giuliani administration. Cooper Square Committee and 11 arts groups started meeting in 1999 and founded Fourth Arts Block in 2001 to develop a unified plan for the publicly owned buildings. Due to their advocacy and the support of local residents and elected officials, in 2005 the City sold eight properties to the arts groups for $8, all of which are protected for nonprofit use in perpetuity.

East 4th Street

East 4th Street

Currently, we are Manhattan’s only “official” cultural district and, along with the BAM Cultural District, one of only two designated in the city. What does this mean? Not much yet. One participant in our roundtable suggested that this was a mechanism for the City to transfer ownership of public property. Otherwise, there is no official policy or set of benefits (or restrictions) for cultural districts. FAB uses the designation to help us navigate across sectors and access resources that otherwise might not be available – street closings, streetscape improvements, funding and investment. FAB also utilizes the cultural district designation for marketing and organizing, to draw attention to smaller cultural groups who disappear in a City this size.

We hope that the work that we are doing on 4th Street will have applications to other neighborhoods that want to support networks of independent artists and small cultural groups. We know there are dozens of actual cultural districts in New York even if they have not been made “official” yet.

Lets talk about the role of placemaking in the context of the NOCD conversation. Can you tell me a little bit about the Fourth Arts Block masterplanning and streetscape improvement project? I’ve read that the goal was to make East 4th Street “even more of itself.” What aspects of the block’s unique ecology would you like to see enhanced? In other words, to what extent do you want the block’s “district-ness” to be legible?

Tamara Greenfield: FAB and Cooper Square Committee led a community design process to engage the primary stakeholders in developing a master streetscape plan for East 4th Street. We did separate focus groups with merchants, residents, and arts groups to identify specific issues or needs before bringing everyone together to develop a unified vision. Since most agreed that they loved the eclectic nature of the block, we identified some modest, incremental interventions that could increase visibility and access, as well as improve overall appearance and flow through the District. Improvements included the removal of large scale planters that blocked the sidewalks, more trees, restoration of artist-designed tree guards, public art installations, more welcoming entrances and signage at the theaters, more attractive lampposts that improve lighting on the block, district signage, kiosks and a visitors center, and changes to the street geometry to create better entrances to the street and accommodate audience overflow mid-block. We would like to help people to see and support the neighborhood’s arts and artisans by using specific placemaking tools that draw attention to what’s in front of them.

Pedestrian activity diagrams. Prepared by Starr Whitehouse as part of the Revisioning East Fourth Masterplan. Click to enlarge. 

Pedestrian activity diagrams. Prepared by Starr Whitehouse as part of the Revisioning East Fourth Masterplan. Click to enlarge.

The emerging literature on Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts uses words like “cultivate” and “nurture” as the bywords for philanthropic and public policy strategies to benefit these clusters. Is policy planning for something “natural” a contradiction in terms? Why not?

Tamara Greenfield: In terms of foundation funding, traditional arts funding models tend to focus on discipline or outcome (often “high art” presented in large institutions) rather than process or relationships. In my experience, community development funding tends to be more open to funding process than product, understanding that investment in neighborhood networks could leverage long term social capital and empowerment. I would like to see more cross-sector and refined funding strategies that encourage long term community collaboration and leadership.

Caron Atlas: And in terms of public policy, some of our conversations have raised concerns from people in the arts who see policy as something imposed from the top that you have little voice in, and something rigid that will not allow for the flexibility and organic nature of the districts. But I think there are other approaches to public policy that can provide the conditions for NOCDs to flourish without boxing them in or dictating what they need to be. This is policy that is built from community-based input and is created in ways that are responsive and accountable to communities. Cultural policy is both a product and a process based on social relationships and values. Too often it becomes a de facto policy that excludes much of this work because it doesn’t fit into conventional definitions of the arts or community development. We need to be clear about what we want, and what we need to change.

Tamara Greenfield: Right. And we certainly understand the fear of overbearing public policy solutions. I do think, however, that there are tools already in existence in other sectors that could better support NOCDs. NYC Small Business Services (SBS) offers funding to support BID development, with the understanding that it can take many years and a support system to organize an inclusive coalition that represents multiple interest in an area. SBS also supports placemaking strategies for festivals, publications, signage and other activities that could support NOCDs. The NYC Parks Department has the Partnerships for Parks program, which was established to support organizing and involvement by local stakeholders in their public spaces and helps them navigate the Parks Department’s bureaucracy. Industrial Development Areas often have organizations that offer support and advocacy for networks of small manufacturing firms.

What other precedents from other sectors could benefit the NOCD conversation?

Caron Atlas: This is an area we still need to go further into. We’re interested in learning more about naturally occurring retirement districts, historic districts and there is some interesting work about the public health benefits of clusters and community efficacy. There’s also a lot we can learn from other countries that better integrate culture into other policies.

Is it possible that a better understanding of Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts can help distinguish between what is valuable and what is not in the literature about the cultural economies of cities?

Tamara Greenfield: We certainly hope so! Usually when the arts are discussed now as part of the economy of cities, they are framed either as a Cultural Attraction (large museum, aquarium, performing arts complex) or Cultural Production (high value art, high volume traditional handicrafts, music, film). There is little understanding of the value of diverse levels of creation and cultural activity to the cohesion and economy of a specific neighborhood, rather than to a larger creative ecology or regional economy. FAB’s members range in size from volunteer-run art collectives to nationally renowned theaters, and have long histories of community outreach, racial and ethnic diversity, low cost programs, and training for emerging artists and youth. Each year, FAB’s member arts groups serve more than 1,250 artists and attract an audience of more than 250,000 to our neighborhood. Some artists and productions are developed here and move into a more commercial realm; other dance and theater is experienced exclusively by neighborhood residents or drawn from a focused, regional network (Spanish-language theater, Gay & Lesbian performance art) that serves an important (though less visibly commercial) purpose to those communities.

Caron Atlas: I would say that NOCDs can be useful in helping to reframe the discussion of the creative economy in a manner that factors in equity and considers how creativity is defined and validated and how economic benefits are shared throughout communities. I think NOCDs are a great way to think about culture and creativity as part of grassroots resilience and sustainable development – rather than top down, and often unsustainable, development strategies.

East 4th Street today.

Caron Atlas is a Brooklyn-based consultant and cultural organizer working to support and stimulate arts and culture as an integral part of social change. She is the project director of Place + Displaced, Fractured Atlas’s NYC community mapping project, and also of the Arts & Community Change Initiative and the Arts & Democracy Project. Additionally she is a faculty member in New York University’s Art and Public Policy program. Caron worked many years at Appalshop, the Appalachian media center; was the founding director of the American Festival Project, a national coalition of activist artists; is a consultant to foundations, including Ford and Nathan Cummings; and also worked with, amongst others, National Voice, Animating Democracy, and the Cultural Blueprint for New York City.

Tamara Greenfield has been the executive director of Fourth Arts Block since 2006, the organization’s first paid staff person. She has 18 years of arts administration, program planning and production experience, ranging from overseeing Partnerships for Parks’ Catalyst for Neighborhood Parks Program to developing performances, exhibits and lectures at the Interfaith Center of New York. Previously, she directed the ZviDance company and school and co-founded the grassroots DanceNOW[NYC] festival, curating and producing the work of 40-75 choreographers annually in multiple sites, ranging from theaters and cabarets, to galleries, gyms, parks, a firehouse and boxing ring.




4 Responses to “Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts”

  1. Sadia Shepard says:

    I enjoyed this piece and learning more about NOCD’s. As an East Village resident who lives adjacent to FAB, I do think more could be done to make visitors aware of what the block has to offer and incentivize more frequent visits to its cultural venues.

    Restaurants can play a vital role in arts districts–both by increasing foot traffic and by tying a community together. If FAB was to partner with restaurants and bars on the block to offer discount tickets that include a drink or meal before or after shows this would strengthen the FAB identity and increase ticket sales.

    If I could buy discount tickets to, say, New York Theater Workshop or La Mama which also included a drink at KGB or a pre-theater prix fixe dinner at Belcourt or Cucina de Pesce I would be more likely to support these organizations on a regular basis and would be more aware of FAB as an NOCD.

  2. Claire Weisz says:

    I can’t help reading and re-reading this article and thinking how important it is to the discourse on “green cities”. This study of FAB as a critical piece of New York’s cultural history and how tied in this initiative was to fighting off to larger political forces is a reminder of how “natural” both fighting for and fighting against something are. The discussion between the authors makes one think again about the role public and private planning initiatives actually play in the life and death of neighborhoods. Equally Sadia Shepard’s comment above is a good reminder about how the arts economy is part of the larger small business economy. Public support or disinterest in creating and supporting districts plays into how vibrant arts districts and their related micro economic synergies emerge together.

    This idea of a naturally occurring cultural district is a broad cultural issue (vs an issue about the arts alone). Perhaps one of the most pressing questions for New York City’s future is the issue of Naturally Occurring Districts – period. What has been an at least a century of cyclical vitality grounded by emergent and reemergent districts like the Flower District, The Garment District, The Jewelry District, The Fish Market, The Meat Market, Little Italy, Chinatown and I could go on – seems embattled to say the least. Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts and Naturally Occurring Manufacturing Districts share much of the same raw material and are equally under pressure for homogenization. This is where the idea of a sustainable urbanism vs landscape urbanism might actually situate itself. Its fantastic to see Caron Atlas and Tamara Greenfield doing this kind of in depth work that clearly has deep roots and hopefully resonates into discussion of new kinds of planning, policy and ultimately urban design initiatives.

  3. Thank you both for these thoughtful comments. I couldn’t agree more with Sadia about the lack of visibility for the East 4th Street Cultural District. I’m always sad to hear from local residents that they didn’t know about us. About your restaurant idea, FAB started a partnership last year called East Village Eats, to better connect diners and theater-goers. We organized a tasting tour in October and have matched specific shows to local restaurants for strategic cross promotions. We plan on doing much more of this in the upcoming year.

    I completely agree with Clare that we should be doing more to support Naturally Occurring Districts (not just cultural). FAB is working with other community and manufacturing groups to develop an inclusive definition of cultural districts that supports both creative industries and community based cultural experiences. I would love to see more public and private support for these exciting artisinal clusters, which I think includes fashion, flowers, and food, as well as dance, theater, and art.

  4. NOCD’s unlike the formulaic prescriptions of charlatans who try to add tinctures of culture to underperforming neighborhoods and districts are the healthiest ways to cultivate authenticity and resiliency. Kudos to Atlas and Greenfield for their clear-eyed discussion, and thanks to UO for once again fueling intelligent discussions about the best possibilities for our cities.

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