Place Gets Personal: The Conversations of Planners and Artists on the Power of Place

This is a new type of entry, which we call Conversations. Each month, we will choose an article from another source, send it out to a group of people, and post the conversation that results. If you are interested in participating in our Conversations, please contact us at This Conversation will discuss Michael Kimmelman’s article When Art and Energy Were SoHo Neighbors  from the New York Times.

Several weeks ago, I was captivated by a Michael Kimmelman piece on art and place in 1970s SoHo (NYC) and contemporary Berlin. As a planner, I interpreted it as a rumination on the relevance of place, and what kinds of places, create possibility and opportunity – in this case in the form of artistic creation and expression. Kimmelman argues that ’70s Soho was not just a neighborhood where artists gathered, but a “source of inspiration and a permanent home.” Very specific buildings, streets, people, and found objects were intimately tied to artists’ processes and artistic output. In Kimmelman’s opinion, Berlin may be the current home to many young artists today, but it’s the cheap rents and fellow creators that draw them, not the inspiration of or relationship to Berlin’s built environment and its sense of place. Does this distinction matter?

Certainly sources of inspiration are numerous and constantly change. And a bad economy and deflated prices can lower barriers for many kinds of entrepreneurial endeavors. But (and this is without having been to Berlin) I can’t help but be drawn to those moments when artists (and everyday folks) are tied deeply to the materiality and meaning of the places they inhabit and are intentionally being shaped by and shaping them. I wonder if these are the roots and the leverage of transformative possibility. I wonder what planners/designers can do – or avoid doing – to facilitate or preserve these opportunities.  And I suspect that this kind of relationship might be more prevalent and present in places across this country than we know and recognize.

Below, a conversation is captured on Kimmelman’s piece and much more..

John: Thanks for passing on this article. It was an interesting read and struck some personal chords.

Living in Berlin is an interesting experience, challenge, and experiment in urbanism in its own right. As an urban planner and cultural producer myself, my impression of Berlin largely stems from my life in Kreuzberg (a former West Berlin neighborhood commonly referred to as a place that reminds people of what “New York’s East Village used to be like in the 1970s”). No kidding.

Internally, Berliners sometimes refer to their city — and the things that occur in it — as a “performance.” It’s constantly acclaimed for certain things (affordability, arts and cultural amenities), but it’s also criticized for many (poor leadership, bad economy — even before the international crisis). It’s always performing and “in the spotlight,” but it has a hard time pleasing everyone.

While I understand the author’s point, I feel I have a very different experience and take on contemporary Berlin. It’s certainly an exciting city (some — myself included — would even go as far as saying it’s Europe’s most exciting city). But for me, and many of the young people who move here, Berlin is exciting because the city has YET to find itself. Instead, the city struggles to reinvent itself (to be more than just an unofficial capital of street art and unabashed nightlife). It’s almost as if Berlin HASN’T decided what it wants to be when it grows up. This gives Berlin a relevance outside of traditional political or economic constructs.

Zackq: In 2001, I too packed up and moved to Berlin. Looking back, those two years of my life were more responsible for me being who I am today then any other period in my life. My love of all things urban wasn’t born in East Berlin, but it was certainly nurtured there.

I’m frankly not totally sure how I feel about the article. For one thing, I think it was way to New York centric. I don’t think Kruezburg today is like New York in the 70s… at least not any more so than New York in the 70s was like Kruezburg in the 60s. Not to insult your neighborhood John (well maybe a little… eastside 4ever, sucka), but to my feeling the pinnacle of Kruezburg being Kruezburg was in the late 50s and early 60s (with a resurgence during the punk culture of the late 70s and early 80s) when it became the European capital of the squatter and anti-war movement.  I think a better comparison than NY would be the Haight in San Francisco… an early counter-cultural site that’s been strangely stuck in time in terms of culture and identity ever since.

Each of these neighborhoods had very specific STRUCTURAL reasons why they became what they became that were largely outside the control of the cultural producers in them. SoHo did what it did because manufacturing left NYC. Kruezburg did what it did because it lost all real-estate value when it was surrounded on three sides by an unfriendly foreign border and further bolstered when West Germany declared that young people living in Berlin were exempt from military service. The artists did not set these things in motion because of their love of place or community. Community developed out of these political and policy decisions.

Madeline: I find myself really enjoying this Michael Kimmelman article. Thanks for looping me in! I try not to write on weekends (stop my brain from being eternally on purge mode), but here goes…

As an entertainment journalist (and not at all an urban planner) I cannot critique Kimmelman for his views on the city’s growth. I’m also not sure he is attempting to start a discussion about that—but it’s interesting to hear Zakcq and John’s viewpoints.

In the article, Kimmelman ruminates on the meaning of “place” for an artist. In this case, the place is dirty, poor, artist-filled 1970s SoHo, which Kimmelman points out—and, I’ve been told by a few sexagenarian artists—felt like the “end of days for New York City.” The article becomes especially poignant when it uses the memory of ’70s SoHo to pose an important question: When great art arises out of one time and place, how important is that place?

I understand the nostalgic urge to pose this question of time, place and the arts. I recently wrote an article looking back at my early days working in the arts. It was a time when the city’s art scene moved from the River North to the West Loop neighborhood. Because we inhabited a new, untouched neighborhood, everything seemed—excuse the art pun—like a blank canvas. I found those days—in their poverty, youth and energy—an incredibly creative time, a time today’s young Chicago artists bring up as “a better time.”

John: I think it would be interesting to have lived in/seen Berlin in the 1990s. While there is still some gold left to Berlin’s contemporary age, the rawness of a city with abandoned space, property for anyone who was willing to recuperate it, and the potential to do anything in order to recreate itself and literally lift itself from the ashes sounds amazing. Berlin in the 1990s may very well have more similarities with contemporary Detroit than 1970s New York City. This calls to mind one of my favorite recent Patti Smith quotes/responses to young artists thinking about moving to New York: “Don’t.” “New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling. But there are other cities. Detroit. Poughkeepsie. New York City has been taken away from you. So my advice is: Find a new city,” said Smith.

Zakcq: Article aside, I can’t help but hope that Berlin doesn’t “recover” too much. The successes of New York’s “luxury city” (for some people) has lead to a pretty crappy quality of life for many. Berlin’s week economy seems to have fostered an incredible quality of life that, even on the east side, I never heard too many complaints about. Hopefully this new era of fiscal austerity hasn’t destroyed that.

Madeline: It’s all too easy to conceive of a past that seems better than today. We create a strong cultural memory of a place—a myth, really. Say “SoHo,” and most Americans’ knee-jerk thoughts are of airy lofts and large paintings.

Ultimately, the question of a historical place might be more about the present than we could ever consciously realize. The art-making of ’70s SoHo is “vibrant and special”—perhaps that’s because it’s the perfect antidote to today’s bloated art market and two million dollar one-roomed studios.