On Urban Sign Systems and Promotional Public ArtPosted: April 4, 2014
A recent article in the New York Times reported Cleveland’s apparently successful efforts of to revitalize its downtown real estate market. The theater district, Playhouse Square, is at the center of the narrative that both the Times and the local press seem to be telling about the city’s emerging renaissance. It has taken nearly 30 years and over 55 million dollars to produce the new economic and aesthetic landscape downtown. This May, the district plans to unveil the final touches on its lengthy redesign process. Among them will be the largest, permanent outdoor chandelier in the known world.* According to Cleveland.com, “This 20-foot-tall, awe-inspiring work will be adorned with 4,200 crystals in the style of the grand chandeliers in the theater lobbies. It will hang over the intersection of East 14th Street and Euclid Avenue.”
Whatever your position on the development models Cleveland has used to help recreate its urban center, it certainly was something the city required. Empty skyscrapers and deserted downtown streets do not bode well for anyone in the city. And, as exemplified by the struggles of Detroit, it could have been, well, scary.
What I wonder, though, is what sort of story the revamped Playhouse Square itself tells the broader population of Cleveland, and indeed, the world with its peculiar aesthetic. The chandelier is perhaps the most garish of its urban signs. As the language used by Cleveland.com suggests, the project gestures toward the imagined good old days of the industrial revolution. Big money was spent on art and culture in Cleveland and its surrounding cities in what was then known as the Steel belt. Clevelanders are still fond of referring to the long stretch of road through the cultural gardens as “Rockefeller’s driveway.” Because, it was. Millionaire’s Row was home to wealthy denizens of the industrial age and they helped found, fund and develop some of Cleveland’s most well-regarded cultural institutions. But Rockefeller left the city in a fly-by-night escape from taxation. And the stretch of Euclid all those millionaires once occupied has certainly changed its shape in the years since they (and many others) fled to Cleveland Heights and other suburbs.
The development corporations are, perhaps, not the best folks to offer public art that might more dynamically engage Cleveland and its history. But I do wonder why a city which was so devastated by the collapse of the industrial economy would be so excited about a public display glorifying exactly that long-gone source of wealth.
With an estimated 34.2% of the city’s residents living below the poverty line,** Cleveland’s enormous chandelier might also be read as a mask for its ongoing failure to address the needs of its working-class and working-poor citizens. It connotes a kind of luxury the vast majority of Clevelanders have no chance of attaining, and the rejuvenated downtown real estate market means, too, that such people will not be enjoying the view from city-center apartments.
I’m not saying I don’t like chandeliers, or theater, or all the perks of neighborhood redesign and gentrification.*** I am, however, suggesting that a serious critique of public art is necessary because such promotional constructions do cultural work. They function in the urban sign system to make meanings that are sold and consumed by locals and outsiders alike. Highlighting ironies, arguing for and against installations, marking the ways urban stories are told to begin with: this too can do cultural work. And perhaps it won’t do much for the real estate market, but imagine what it could do for the future of urban planning and, thus, for the future of your city, our city; the future of the city.
* I am so not kidding.
**This percentage, estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau, is for Cleveland proper. It does not include the technically separate municipality of East Cleveland where the poverty rate is estimated at nearly 40%.
***Full disclosure: I happen to have a chandelier hanging in my mudroom. It’s true. It’s also true that it’s made of plastic. I live in a gentrified neighborhood in Cleveland and I love it. I also go to Playhouse Square, a lot, to see plays and eat at the new restaurants and wander the streets. These facts do not, I think, diminish my capacity to think about the greater consequences of the sources of some of my quotidian pleasures.