Some Thoughts on a Cultural Policy for Trenton

Helen M. Shannon

We’ve heard the reasons why Trenton should become an even better place to live, work, and play. The city is the iconic site of the battle that turned around the American Revolution; its position as an industrial powerhouse is celebrated in its well-known slogan. The city’s attractive location as a hub between the business and leisure destinations of New York and Philadelphia is touted as well as its central location in the great metropolis of the Eastern Seaboard. Trenton still maintains an admirable stock of domestic and industrial architecture, much still in good condition; a variety of arts venues, both large and small, visual and performing are active here.  Trenton is both the state capital and the county seat.

Yet an increase in its stature as an arts, heritage, and tourism destination seems to elude the city. There are more than a few reasons why this might be so, but one that stands out is the lack of cultural policies on the city, county, and state levels that would guide cultural and economic development for Trenton and its surrounding region.

What is cultural policy?  This is a term given to focused, directed public initiatives typically led by a governmental or quasi-governmental entity to guide the nurturance and growth of a combination of traditional arts, history, science, cultural, tourism, and leisure institutions, both not-for-profit and for-profit, as well as newer knowledge-based industries such as design, advertising, traditional and new media. Cultural policies are led by governmental entities because an orchestrated economic development plan necessarily involves such issues as land-use regulations, zoning and building codes, restaurant codes, tax incentives, educational curricula, and other executive and legislative decisions. They cover such areas as the stabilization of older arts organizations, as well as the incubation of new ones; the cultivation of individual artists; and the marketing of arts programming.  Such policies incentivize tourism, encourage historic preservation, nurture business and philanthropic endeavors.  The ultimate goal of cultural policy is to present culture as a public good available and attainable for everyone.

Cultural planning is linked to regional economic development with the understanding that growth can be sustained through an improved quality of life through participation in all forms of culture. Terms used to describe this phenomenon are the “creative economy” and “creative cities.” Two cities that are renowned for their growth through culture are Providence, Rhode Island and Austin, Texas, both capitals of their states.  Each has a cultural policy posted on the Web—Providence at 42 pages; Austin at 82 pages. Both are detailed plans developed over a period of time involving arts and community stakeholders as well as consultants.

Within New Jersey, one of the best-known cities whose growth has been induced through cultural planning is Millville in Cumberland County.  The County has produced a cultural plan that is a model example.  Read these three plans and it is clear that a cultural plan differs from an arts plan in that it is focused not just on developing and retaining artists and arts organizations, but in finding ways of blending downtown and neighborhood arts; supporting local participation as well as tourism; ensuring workforce development; and stabilizing communities, among other goals.

That Trenton has no official cultural policy is not unique; most cites do not. In some ways there has not been an incentive coming from higher governmental entities to prepare one.  The United States is one of the few major industrialized countries that does not have a national cultural policy and given our current political climate, it is doubtful that one could be implemented.  The State of New Jersey has ArtsPlan NJ, developed by the New Jersey Council for the Arts.  While its first goal is “Economic and Community Development,” ArtsPlan NJ is a set of guidelines issued by only one government agency. Solutions to the woeful financial and economic situation of the state, county, and city have been focused on measures to fill budget deficits.  And yet, it may be the lack of a cultural policy that may exacerbate the lag in economic development in the region.

The Existing Situation

Why does Trenton lack such a cultural plan? And, to ask the question from another direction, why has culture not developed on its own through existing social, political and economic forces?  One reason may the lack of institutions capable of creating such a policy.  For some time, Trenton has left unfilled the position of Director of Culture within the Department of Recreation, Natural Resources & Culture; its Fine Arts Commission, a citizens’ advisory group, has also been inactive for many years.  Various civic organizations have attempted to jumpstart cultural activities—Trenton Arts Connection in the past, the Trenton Downtown Association and the Arts and Business Council of Greater Trenton of the Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce now, but none have been able to leverage the expansive and intensive possibilities of a governmental agency.

Many of the past subjects of academic studies on culture and economic development have been focused on large metropolitan areas such as New York.  However, there is a growing recognition and literature that “small cities” function differently from larger ones when attempting to create a cultural plan and perhaps that is where Trenton should look for a template.  While Trenton is part of a multi-state urban and suburban area, its population of approximately 85,000 is only one 1% of the state’s population.  Its location, surprisingly circumscribed for a state capital, also gives it a sense of a small city. Trenton is small enough to follow new ideas that attempt to combine culture “downtown” with that in neighborhoods.

Geography

There are geographical issues unique to Trenton that make it difficult to grow the infrastructure for culture. While being a capital city brings prominence, Trenton is in an anomalous situation compared to other state capitals.  When most capital cities were laid out, they were placed in the geographical center to allow easy access from all directions. Trenton is one of the few state capitals that is located on the border of another state. On its northern flank, Trenton’s neighbors are focused more on the media market of New York.  On its southern flank, a large section of the state is essentially a suburb of Philadelphia.  From a marketing perspective, Trenton is in the center of a whirl of cultural attractions that can draw attention way from the city rather than towards it.

The size of the state is a significant factor also. New Jersey is so small that its legislators, public officials, and state employees can come to Trenton for a meeting or work and then leave to return to their homes in the same day.  Commuting is second nature even for the governor. New Jersey may be the only state where the official governor’s mansion is not in the capital city and where several governors have continued to live in their hometowns without moving into the governor’s mansion.  The result is that Trenton does not benefit from the buzz of a culture of official business, receptions, parties, and special events conducted in such settings as art galleries, museums, theaters, music spaces, and restaurants, an essential part of the cultural scene in other capital cities.

While Trenton is within commuting distance to Philadelphia, it is not close enough to benefit from the largesse of major foundations like Pew and William Penn that fund that city’s metropolitan area.  Neither does it have a major New Jersey foundation dedicated to its well-being such as the Victoria Foundation in Newark or the Dodge Foundation in Morris County.  Foundations are typically viewed for their ability to wield significant sums of money to promote causes they support.  Much less discussed is their ability to reward institutional behavior and sound management by the way their guidelines are written.  If the guidelines request that to receive funding, you must follow certain rules, you are certain to do so.

On the other hand, given the current financial situation, public funding for non-City arts and cultural organizations has been minimal.  The City of Trenton offers no grants for cultural organizations.  Mercer County has a Cultural and Heritage Commission that serves to re-grant funds received from the New Jersey Council on the Arts, but unlike some cities and counties around the country, neither raises its own money for grants either through such mechanisms as use taxes and tourism taxes or through its own fund-raising from private sources.

Gentrification

Some of the newest directions in the thinking on creative cities look not at major metropolises, but at smaller cities and neighborhoods.  They confront one of the major fears of urban revitalization, the displacement of current residents by new arts-oriented communities. Yet in the public mind, several stages of gentrification are frequently collapsed into one. While artists may be a first wave of gentrification, they typically move not into residential areas, but into former or current commercial and industrial areas or buildings where few people live. Sculptors, musicians, painters, craftspeople, dancers, and designers are drawn by the open flexible spaces, solid building structures, sound-proofing, and extensive light of these types of buildings that can be transformed into live/work spaces, both legally and illegally.  Over a period of time, sometimes measured in decades, they attract retail and other amenities that often benefit adjacent residential areas that did not have these services before.  In high-density areas such as Manhattan’s SoHo or Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, there may be a second wave of the middle and upper classes who want to live in these newly chic neighborhoods.

In Trenton it is difficult to see how residents would be displaced with the development of a policy to encourage artists, arts organizations, and tourism.  All such development so far has been in previously commercial spaces: the Trenton Makes Building on South Broad Street, the Trenton Downtown Association’s Hanover Street Building, the Broad Street Bank.  Even the Palmer Administration’s plan to bring middle-class housing to Trenton is based on abandoned sites or State parking lots where there are no residents to be displaced.  Fears of future gentrification can be dismissed if the City takes steps using zoning or tax incentives to prevent the effects seen in other cities.

The community arts economic development model endorsed by such organizations as the Social Impact on the Arts Project at the University of Pennsylvania looks instead to maintain existing neighborhoods by supporting community artists and arts organizations as well as larger institutions.  Immigrant cultural groups should also be a part of economic development plans.  The community arts model also points out that cultural organizations require many other occupations in order to flourish ranging from blue-collar to white and that these jobs also support the local economy.

Colleges and universities

One of the hallmarks of a successful cultural plan is the presence of a residential college or university in the city. In this, Trenton as a capital city is another anomaly since Rutgers’ main campus is in New Brunswick.  Think of Providence with Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design and Austin with the University of Texas.  Neither of Trenton’s two colleges, Mercer County Community College and Thomas Edison State College, is residential.  Typically, both college students and faculty provide audiences for arts and related venues—galleries, clubs, movie theaters, concerts, performing arts venues, cafés, and restaurants; the faculty are often engaged in research on the cultural and economic life of the city.

Yet, Trenton is surrounded by large colleges—The College of New Jersey, Rider University, Princeton University as well as by students and faculty who commute to schools within the region, some as far away as Philadelphia.  These are potential audiences that could help a cultural scene to thrive.

Ideas for a Cultural Plan for Trenton

So what might be the keys for cultural planning here?  While the points given above may seem like insurmountable deficiencies, understanding them will allow the residents and supporters of the city to find creative ways to compensate for them.  Cultural policies do not develop naturally; they use deliberative process that require the focus of many stakeholders.

This election season is a time to think about how culture in its broadest sense can be used to boost Trenton.  Some ideas are:

  1. Set a goal to develop a Cultural Policy for Trenton using a consultant versed in such planning efforts as well as city residents and other Trenton supporters.
  2. Fill positions in city government dedicated to culture.
  3. Bring back the city’s arts commission so that private individuals have input into arts, culture, and economic planning.
  4. Recognize that Trenton is small enough to do cultural planning that strengthens both downtown and neighborhood assets.
  5. Promote cultural and tourism planning with city/state, county-wide and regional planning agencies.
  6. Use colleges and university resources.
  7. Recognize that an essential part of the plan to attract new middle-class housing must be cultural attractions that they can patronize throughout the city.
  8. Work to increase cultural participation by Trentonians as well as visitors and tourists.
  9. Plan for workforce development through heritage tourism.
  10. Plan now to avoid possible residential displacement in the future.
  11. Recognize that economic growth through culture happens regionally,  not just in cities themselves.

Helen M. Shannon is Associate Professor, Museum Studies Department, University of the Arts, Philadelphia, PA; formerly Executive Director, New Jersey State Museum; Leadership Trenton Fellow 2004 and Leadership New Jersey Fellow, 2005.

References

Bradford, Gigi, Michael Gary, and Glenn Wallach, eds. The Politics of Culture: Policy Perspectives for Individuals, Institutions, and Communities. New York: New York Press, 2000.

Cultural Arts Division, Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office, City of Austin, Texas. Create Austin: Cultural Master Plan. < http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/culturalplan/downloads/createaustin_cultural_master_plan.pdf; accessed 20 February 2010.>

Florida, Richard.  The Rise of the Creative Class, And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure Community and Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

Garrett-Petts, W.F. and Lon Dubinsky. “Working Well, Together”: An Introduction to the Cultural Future of Small Cities” in Garrett-Petts, W.F. (ed.) The Small Cities Book: On the Cultural Future of Small Cities. Vancouver: New Star Books, ca. 2006. <http://www.tru.ca/smallcities/newsevents/smallcitiesbook/curaintro.pdf; accessed 20 February 2010.>

Moses, Nancy. Cumberland County, New Jersey Cultural Plan. <http://www.ccculturalheritage.org/cc-plan-05.pdf; accessed 20 February 2010.>

New Jersey Council on the Arts. Arts PlanNJ. <http://artsplannj.com/; acccessed 20 February 2010.>

Providence, Rhode Island.  Creative Providence: A Cultural Plan for the Creative Sector. <http://www.creativeprovidence.org/; accessed 20 February 2010.>

Stern, Mark J. and Susan C Seibert. “From Creative Economy to Creative Society.” Philadelphia: Social Impact of the Arts Project, University of Pennsylvania, 2008. <http://www.trfund.com/resource/downloads/creativity/Economy.pdf; accessed 20 February 2010.>

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