Belonging Is a Sticky Word: Roberto Bedoya in Conversation with Tom DeCaigny
“Place-making” is a term with origins in the discipline of landscape architecture but absorbed into urban planning, development, and community engagement. “Place-keeping” and “place-knowing” have emerged as compliments (and sometimes counterpoints) to place-making. Taken together, these overlapping concepts form a good critical lens for examining grassroots-level organizing — or city systems and institutions.
Roberto Bedoya and Tom DeCaigny have worked extensively in government and arts funding, helping to create opportunities for artists to shape their urban communities. I invited them to reflect on how local officials and arts and culture grant-makers can advance equity and decentralize whiteness in our institutions. I wanted to know what participatory urbanism — a term with many interpretations and meanings — means to each of them; and its relevance to them now, in this long moment of turmoil and change. For the third and last conversation in this issue, we gathered as people do these days, everyone at their computers in their own homes: a funny way, indeed, to contemplate what it means to be in community. –RAO
Robin Abad Ocubillo: Welcome Roberto and Tom! Thank you for coming together today to reflect on your work as public servants, arts and culture grant-makers, and most of all, urbanists. Roberto frequently refers to four important ideas: place-making, place-keeping, place-knowing, and place-belonging as a model to structure how we can approach our work.
Roberto Bedoya: I like that frame, but I never put place-belonging as part of the quadrant. I use belonging as the north star: Before you can have places of belonging you have to have a sense you belong to a place. The initial real estate dream around place-making was, “Well, we’ll make a downtown where you feel like you belong — via buildings.” I said, “You know, you forgot the most important part: feelings, human relations rooted in place.” I was talking to a developer once who said, “Oh yeah, I got a public art requirement for my private development — ” and he didn’t know what he wanted to do. In some ways, that’s part of a city policy — to try to create amenities, a sense of belonging. And I said, “It’s not like creating the gym on the third floor of your high-rise, it’s about fostering relationship among neighbors.” Most of my reflections are around place-making, place-knowing, and place-keeping. And place-knowing came to me from being with a bunch of Indigenous urban planners in the Southwest associated with Arizona State University and the University of New Mexico, and their idea that you have sacred sites, you have a cultural worldview; that knowing your place is crucial to how you live in the world, which they bring to their practice.
I went to see a site-specific piece last summer in South of Market about the development of the leather cultural district. We walked down Ringold Alley, which now has a high-rise on it, and some ceremonial plaques on the sidewalk. And I just said, “Wait a second, I knew what this alley was all about! It was the alley you walked down after the bar closed and you found somebody.” It was notorious. That’s place-knowing.
Tom DeCaigny: I know the alley. What are your thoughts about Eagle Plaza?
RB: I was on a deliberation panel where a concept for the plaza in front of the Eagle Bar in SoMa was being debated. The proposal described Eagle Plaza as an example of creative place-making. I chuckled to myself because it failed in my mind to acknowledge what you want to keep in a locale, and what has already been there. I just joked with them about it: “Where are the bushes? A plaza needs to be for cruising!” You know what I mean? Public design must acknowledge the sovereignty of context, in this case the context of SoMa’s cruising legacy.
TD: Let’s talk about how creative place-making came to be a thing, or became en vogue.
RB: It became a field of practice, dominated by urbanists and architects and planners, to figure out how to utilize the arts, to be blunt, to gentrify a neighborhood. To bring economic value to it. My definition of creative place-making has always been rooted in art-based civic engagement projects, projects with artists and neighborhoods that really speak to a developing social network, social bonds that create a sense of place. But I offered that critique, via my essay “Creative Placemaking and the Politics of Belonging and Dis-Belonging” over a decade ago, and in that critique I introduced the word place-keeping. I was so surprised how “place-keeping” became such a sticky word across the country. I was offering a strong artist’s point of view about place, one in which artists weren’t being instrumentalized by the architect, or even the city planner, who wants a vibrant cultural district so that they can have sales; generate tax dollars.
TD: I got to know you about a decade ago, I think, when I came into my role as the director of cultural affairs in San Francisco. It was right around the time that creative place-making was having its moment. I remember when you talked about creative place-keeping, it stuck with me because of this shift in definitions of value. The value proposition comes to this core idea of what participatory urbanism is, what are we looking to get out of it? You mention the financial value that maybe a developer is looking for. But in terms of your thinking, what are the various values you’re seeing now as the cultural affairs manager in Oakland? What are the different community values that aren’t just economic, that become a part of belonging or become a part of a cultural strategy?
RB: Always in the foreground of my thinking are social networks. They bring the conditions for economic growth, but also knowing your neighbor: community is so essential to living in cities or in a neighborhood, and knowing your neighborhood is so important to civic life. In this moment of COVID-19 and these really trying political times, our humanity’s being tested along the lines of who are you as a human? You are not just a consumer. The rush to get us all back out to the market and buy things, as if our identity is what we buy. Which is this rugged sort of individualism that kind of dominates the American mindset.
I just finished a partnership with the East Bay Community Foundation and the Akonadi Foundation, which is a social justice foundation here in Oakland, called Belonging In Oakland: A Just City Cultural Fund. This partnership grew out of Oakland’s cultural plan, which I shepherded and has been well received. The hard part of the plan is the call to operationalize belonging. Now, belonging is a sticky word that people love, but it’s a north star, it’s metaphorical — when I talk about belonging, I’m really thinking about the sociologies of belonging and not the psychology. By that I mean I want to be mindful in my work of how structural racism and social biases create “dis-belonging” and what systemic change has to happen to those sociologies that can affect an individual’s life, their psychology.
TD: You mentioned the current COVID-19 pandemic and obviously there are many pandemics we could discuss, whether it’s climate change or racial inequity and the reckoning of many movements to advance racial equity in the United States. I’ve been fascinated: because of the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly things that seemed so entrenched in terms of permitting or use of public space, have radically changed, whether we’re talking about allowing restaurants to open up new parklets and create outdoor dining spaces, or the protest movement reclaiming public spaces (like the Robert E. Lee monument in Virginia); the public realm has been completely transformed. I’ve never seen, even given all the challenges, so much opportunity in this country for change in terms of this idea of participatory urbanism.
RB: In Oakland, for example, it’s performing arts groups trying to figure out how to perform outdoors. They are working on how to figure out the ways you make connections in a time of social distancing. For me, it is sometimes the work of government to get out of the way — less permits or fees. [Laughter] Tom, you so successfully led a movement to decommission the monument that disrespected the Native American community near San Francisco City Hall. This moment now, monuments are being reflected upon and the historical notion of a statue being permanent and perfect and speaking to an everlasting civic narrative — people are walking away from that.
TD: If I’d just waited another four months and I had stayed in office, we wouldn’t have needed a whole year of public hearings to take down that monument. We could just have done it overnight. [Laughter] It’s a whole new day. The removal of the Early Days statue in San Francisco — you know, it was decades of activism from the Indigenous community. The community who fought for its removal, they’ve been at that work for centuries; place-knowing is all a matter of perspective. If you hadn’t paid attention to that monument until you read about its removal in the San Francisco Chronicle, it would seem like a new topic for discussion. But if you walk by that every day and experience the trauma of seeing your people misrepresented entirely — Early Days did not represent the Ohlone people who actually lived in the Bay Area — it’s clearly historical racism. Since I left the Arts Commission, there have been several monuments removed or toppled, I think at least four, across the city. Christopher Columbus, Junipero Serra in Golden Gate Park, etc. — it’s interesting to see how quickly the mainstream public’s idea of representation in public space has changed over the past ten months. In the case of Christopher Columbus, the City used emergency authorities to remove him before a protest was scheduled to tear him down and in the case of the other Golden Gate Park statues police did not stop their unauthorized removal by protesters. That’s the real power of participatory urbanism. It’s an exciting time in that sense. There’s a world of opportunity when we put our minds and hearts to it.
RB: Spend some time thinking about monuments in relationship to place-knowing. The artists/activists community does not want to be complicit in that false civic narrative. So we’re also engaged, I think, as planners, as artists, as cultural workers, cultural activists, in thinking about what civic narrative is. So you know, going back to my shop, or Oakland cultural affairs, because it’s not my shop…
TD: It’s the people’s shop.
RB: It’s the people’s shop! Thank you, my friend. But the fact that you have a cultural plan called “Belonging in Oakland,” and the fact that I have other colleagues and some elected officials who talk about belonging now, that’s significant. I was really focused on trying to create a community of implementors — knowing the limits of my bandwidth, the limits of the cultural affairs division, how much money do we have or don’t have, etc.
TD: We talked earlier about how there’s this sense of value. For some it’s a financial value, for the developer who wants to increase the value of a condominium development because they’ve improved safety and because artists have “activated space.” I’m curious what your thoughts are about the idea of ownership of space. In Oakland and San Francisco, we’ve both had the fortune to work with the Community Arts Stabilization Trust, or CAST, which is dedicated to acquiring and preserving permanently deed-restricted space for arts and cultural use. I’m really fascinated about these pathways to ownership, because for Black, Indigenous, and people of color in particular, there haven’t been the historical resources and intergenerational wealth to acquire and actually own land. In fact, there’s been centuries of that land being taken, if you look at the history of colonialism and the genocide of Indigenous peoples. As we have this potential decrease in financial value because of a pandemic, I wonder if there’s an opportunity to acquire more permanent space and to return the land into the hands of artists and communities of color.
RB: I admire CAST a lot. Cultural activists here in Oakland, especially in African American communites, are saying, “We need to own.” So the idea of land trusts has some currency. There was a queer BIPOC organization, Peacock Revolution, here in Oakland, that bought their building through a land trust. I like this kind of thinking, though I don’t see enough of this action, and I personally haven’t really focused on it, because I’m an old man and I’m a renter. I think about creative place-making: how do you make a space for renters? In some ways, we’re also talking about affordable rent or rent control. There are a lot of working artists who never had the capital to buy something. Are we protecting their rights as renters? COVID started in March — but it seems like more than a year already. I hear less and less about gentrification and more about pain, panic, anxiety coming from our community around livelihood issues. And it’s not just the small and mid-sized arts and cultural organizations. The big music presenter, the big houses are hurting as well: how do they keep their staff on? Everything is upended. So there’s a different kind of pressure right now.
Back in the day, I would get invited to conferences to talk about creative place-making. And often I would be asked, as a person of color, why BIPOC people aren’t engaged in the discourse. I think that one of the faultlines at the very beginning of creative place-making, as a feel-good practice and as a discourse, it failed to distinguish whether it was a property rights movement or a human rights movement. And in the US, people of color are still seen as property that people want to control. So in some ways, POCs were smelling that developer. “Oh, I’m just a piece of property for him, he wants me out of here.” We didn’t know how to move out of that civic trauma. We started saying, “No, no, no, give me a cut of the pie.” We had to organize ourselves to be our own developer — step into self-determination when it came to property. But I think it’s still part of the American ideology, this white racial frame that we’re seen as property, which speaks to the possessive nature of whiteness. And it’s not just brown people or Black people, or yellow people. It’s that world of otherness, queer artists, everything that is outside the mainstream economies.
A final thing about economy. I was reading something the other day that I wrote a long time ago. I made this distinction around value, about understanding the goods versus the good. That often in creative place-making it’s been about making money off this development, i.e. the goods. And not about the good of having strong social networks in a neighborhood.
TD: CAST was successful in San Francisco with their negotiation of a community benefit from the 5M development project in South of Market, where ArtPlace had actually funded Intersection for the Arts to work with the developer, do arts activation, and build a partnership. But it wasn’t without critique, because it was with a private developer. It was a big developer, though, who had invested in arts and culture across the country in various projects. CAST stepped in and had had success attracting the resources from private developers. But there’s also a part of it that’s an extraction, right? Because no developer is giving up resources without something in return. And I think CAST has done a good job at keeping this balance of saying, “We’re going to work with you. But we’re actually working on behalf of the community. We are a true community benefit.” I do see a lot of developers whose community benefit agreements are literally buying off non-profits: what’s the price tag for us to be here? But when those resources go to ownership of land and buildings and space, I think about it differently. For example, CAST has made a commitment to the Filipino community that historically has been in South of Market. It’s not a perfect deal, but it’s the largest community benefit agreement for arts and culture in San Francisco history; over $13 million for arts and culture. It includes an artist anti-displacement fund, and the retention of the old historic Dempster Building on Minna for cultural use. I’m curious what your thoughts are about these conversations with developers. It’s where significant money lives in capitalism, and we’re living in late stage capitalism; maybe there will be some shift in federal policy with a new administration, but it’s hard to imagine a true redistribution of wealth outside of private markets. What are your thoughts on community benefit agreements in the cultural sector and for non-profits in general, where nonprofit leaders are encouraged to negotiate with developers? There are some people who have the philosophy “don’t engage at all.” Tell us the story about the fist in the air, and then the arm wrestle and the handshake, because I think it’s a good metaphor for negotiating these sorts of agreements.
RB: In the East Bay, CAST has an initiative here called Keeping Space: it’s basically trying to figure out how to aid our non-profits, mainly through lease negotiations. They don’t own anything here. But what I’ve discovered is this whole, uncharted area called community benefit agreements. [A Community Benefits Agreement is a contract typically signed by community groups, city government, and a real estate developer that requires the developer to provide amenities that contribute to the local community or neighborhood.] And the developer knows that’s part of what they have to do to get their permits. The cultural affairs department of Oakland is being asked to provide technical assistance on how to negotiate community benefit agreements. I learned while doing the cultural plan, that the beauty of Oakland is its radical history. This is a town of the clenched fist, and of Black Panthers and their fierce advocacy. And then there’s the less glamorous part: the cultural affairs department arm wrestles with the developers who have no sense of local and localism, they just want to make their money. After the argument is over, you’re supposed to do the handshake. I told that story to the mayor of Oakland and she said, “Roberto, yes, the clenched fist, to the arm wrestle, to the handshake. But you forgot something: The sucker punch!” [Laughter] Elected officials know all about the sucker punch.
TD: There is the surprise element once government and the community have arm wrestled with a developer and everyone thinks they have the deal, and you’re almost over the finish line — I’ve watched this with a lot of community benefit agreements — there’s the sucker punch! At the last minute, some stakeholder, either a politician or a community group, pulls the rug out from under these developers who are global, oftentimes multi-national corporations, and the extraction moment happens. It’s something I think arts and culture could learn to do better. A lot of our social service organizations know this negotiation well, and affordable housing developers are really good at this in Oakland and San Francisco, like EBALDC (East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation). They’re really good at moving the needle and saying, “Hey look, you keep wanting more height, or you want more density. Well, we want more too. We want more for our community and we want that ownership, and we want the security that we’re not just going to own, but we’re going to be able to care for this land and care for this property. So how do you resource our maintenance endowment, etc.?”
RB: I always get a laugh when I talk to people about that one. It’s fun. But back to the topic of participatory urbanism. Community benefit agreements are all about participatory practices. Now, we can go deep into political theory, on deliberative democracy and how to do participatory planning. Everybody talks about how much police and fire take out of a city’s budget; this has been a big argument within the defund police movement. Where’s participatory budgeting going to land us, if it were to be embraced? We’re at this moment right now where there’s a lot of collapse in government, in our democracy, in the non-profit arts sector. But out of all that collapse, something new has to come. I think of all of Oakland’s teaching artists. All of a sudden they lost all of their gigs, and they’re probably not going back to work. How do we respond to that collapse of one segment of our artist workforce — a crucial one?
TD: Well, it’s hard to participate in urbanism if you don’t have health care and you can’t eat. Many of our cultural institutions laid off significant parts of their workforce. And you can certainly, rightfully argue that that was an underpaid workforce and an under-secure workforce to begin with. However, many of these institutions are on a precipice financially all the time, and you’re a grant-maker, you know this, it’s paycheck to paycheck for the artists, but it’s also literally month-to-month for most non-profit arts organizations. And for those larger institutions that can call on their donors, there still are limits. I do believe the public sector has a critical role in funding artists and arts institutions. You recently got some CARES Act funding through the federal government — kudos to you, that’s not what a lot of cities have been able to win, and it’s a win for Oakland.
I am curious what your thoughts are about the federal response. Because participatory urbanism is not going to be relevant if we don’t have people in our cities — and the artists that we care deeply about don’t have housing and they don’t have health care and they don’t have food. We’re not going to be able to have incredible urban environments unless we have those resources for folks.
RB: The fact that we don’t have CARES Act 2.0 because the Senate refuses to entertain that is a disgrace. I was talking to a fellow whose company produces music shows at the Fox, a commercial music venue. They’re hurting. Bill Graham Presents is hurting. The Concord Pavilion, they’re hurting. The stress and the shrinkage that we’re going into, is impacting the non-profit cultural and commercial entertainment sectors. The CARES money that Oakland Cultural Affairs received was for artists and non-profit arts organizations. I worked with the Center for Cultural Innovation as my intermediary, they administered the grant awards, and we worked with Youth Speaks, YR Media, and Zoo Labs on a technical assistance program. As I was trying to figure out how to proceed with distributing these CARES funds, I became very, very mindful of a tension that’s out there. Right now, it’s BIPOC versus white and you know, big versus small organizations. People bark really loud against the major institutions, and the white institution or the white avant-garde artists… which prompted me to think we can acknowledge white supremacy, but what are we doing to decenter whiteness in our lives, in our social systems? Calling it out is one thing, but decentering it? And then once you decenter it, what else are you going to make? What’s going to go there? For me, with my kind of romance and activism, I believe in deliberative democracy. I believe in a chain of equivalences that means today you and I are in agreement on this and tomorrow, you and I may be in disagreement on something else. But that somehow, through our dialogue and deliberations, we can move forward — which is not the norm for how governance currently works.
TD: I totally agree that government will forever be a work in progress, as will every institution. We will always have room for improvement, and we will repeatedly need to find a new way forward. So people reading can better understand this idea — the idea of decentering whiteness is the actionable effort of deconstructing white supremacy, so that whiteness isn’t the dominant frame or dominant canon. These are muscles that need to be exercised and grow. I think about Race Forward’s important work, and the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, as we have a lot of organizations “waking up” to some reality of their whiteness, or their participation in white supremacy. I’m no longer a grant maker per se, but I believe funders should hold institutions and people accountable for decentering whiteness in an actionable way. And there should be ramifications, such as removal of public funding from an institution if they don’t improve over time. In your role as a grant-maker, thinking about participatory urbanism and participatory democracy — what can people do better to decenter whiteness in institutions, big and small?
RB: Just calling something “white supremacy” is not good enough. The work of creating equitable relationships is different — that means I just need to listen an awful lot and look and learn. I’m in love with the African American feminist community in Oakland, for example; they are so fierce and they have decentralized whiteness, especially white feminism, in many ways through their storytelling, through their actions. There’s a Black cultural zone that a woman named Carol Johnson, C.J., runs in East Oakland at the old Eastmont Mall lot, and it’s just fabulous. They’ve made a farmer’s market, an artisan market, in an old dirt lot that used to be a police station. It’s on a corner and it’s big. And you see all these small African American businesses. That’s decentering whiteness in a way.
I think of my job as being a stage manager, and I think about the dramaturgy of public policy: What is the stage? Who are the policy actors? What is the script? How do you improvise it? What are the cues? There’s a part of me that’s always mindful of the theatrics of government. One last thing — when I was talking about getting government out of the way, it’s also in conversations to foreground governance. Governance and government aren’t the same thing. The governance, how a neighborhood organizes itself, is really important. Probably more important than a government. We want an organized neighborhood, you know what I mean? Creative place-making is really not so much about the built environment, it is also about the governance associated with place-making. How do you talk to the developer and the artist and the senior and the elected official and the small business in creating some synergies around a locale?
TD: I do think about government funding and the influence it has on communities. I mean, on one hand government needs to get out of the way. But equally, there’s a public accountability function the government has that private funders do not. I saw that power through the Cultural Equity Endowment in San Francisco — the power to really reach communities, arts organizations, and individual artists who weren’t being served through other private philanthropic efforts. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about the opportunities and challenges — as well as the politics — associated with government grantmaking in the cultural sector.
RB: When I did the cultural plan, I started to talk to national funders to see if they wanted to invest in the plan. The Surdna Foundation had just launched a new initiative called Radical Imagination for Racial Justice. And so they came to the table and said, “Yes.” We ended up forming a partnership with the East Bay Community Foundation (EBCF) and the Akonadi Foundation. It was difficult for me to receive their money, because their money was sourced for people of color, and California state law Proposition 209 prohibits the City from granting preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, and public contracting. Hence, the Surdna investment into Oakland was placed at EBCF.
It’s been a really interesting learning experience, to have a private foundation, a community foundation, and a public funder working together so closely. We all have real different cultures. This is a three-year initiative, and there’s at least $300,000 going out each year to Oakland artists of color. Talk about trying to do some systems change. In terms of accountability, I’m a public agent, I’m a public servant, and my job is to listen to the public’s concerns. There’s that way in which private foundations aren’t as accountable. But I’m pretty financially anemic as a local arts agency. Looking at my ecosystem, Oakland’s always been a relatively poor city. It’s never had a hell of a lot of money in the cultural sector, and we don’t have a whole lot of large institutions. We have small and mid-sized organizations and we have lots of artists. I’ve joked with you before, asking: “Can Oakland be a cultural district of SF?!”, given San Francisco’s financial investments in Cultural Districts, because Oakland is where all the artists live.
TD: Cultural district funding would certainly make an impact in Oakland. This goes to the topic of regional planning and regional coordination; I think of BART as an example of just how challenging it is in the Bay Area to look at regional planning. We’re super interconnected culturally and economically and yet we can’t figure out how to build a second Transbay tube. When I was at the Arts Commission, you and I were in regular weekly conversation about all this intersectionality, from how much of our cultural workforce in San Francisco lives in Oakland, to how the artists of Oakland are finding opportunities in San Francisco. There are unique challenges to coordinating at a regional level in the Greater Bay Area.
RB: I wish there was more intentionality within ABAG [the Association of Bay Area Governments] to look at the cultural infrastructure of the region. They’re mainly looking at transportation, housing, and other sort of issues.
TD: I actually think a second Transbay tube could be one of the best things for arts and culture in the Bay Area, because nightlife and the service industries, that back and forth across the Bay, I think, is a real part of the future we need to be envisioning.
RB: I’ve been on the bridge going, “Oh, the show starts in fifteen minutes. I’m going to be late!” Boom, I’m stuck on Treasure Island. [Laughter] Traffic jam, oh my God!
TD: Twenty-four-hour BART service is a huge part of our cultural and economic future. This is where I wish we were better as a cultural sector in terms of participatory urbanism, thinking about the role of the arts in this bigger picture. I think part of the solution is encouraging leadership — especially from our major institutions, who are relatively more adaptable, given their financial security or endowments, to think about what’s their role in that conversation. I’m sensing a lot of people desiring greater regional participatory urbanism from arts leaders who tend to focus on national and international relationships. That said, it’s hard for a lot of artists and cultural workers to access government. And frankly, when I came into government, it was hard for me. There are a million acronyms. Anyone who’s ever applied to a government grant will completely chew your ear off about how burdensome they are for the dollar amounts they yield. Now that I’m back in fundraising at the California Alliance for Arts Education, I totally agree. But I’m wondering, what ways can we help open up opportunity for participation?
RB: That’s a good question. I’m not sure. Maybe that is role for our commission bodies to provide guidance as to how to make a good policy argument to elected officials? Or to create the handbook on how to access government? Maybe these advisory committees could step more into the role as intermediaries on behalf of community and government resources and authority.
TD: I’m looking forward to the next exhibition I go to where artists are interpreting planning code!
RB: We had a call for a “strategists in government” program, which is a little different than artists in government programs. I had seven artists in various departments of city government who weren’t supposed to do beautification type projects. It was really, to be a thought partner and to figure out how these institutions can enhance their work. All of them have what I would consider pretty weak civic engagement strategies. What happens if you had the artists come in there and figure out, what’s your engagement work going to look like? The artist as cultural strategist. We’re seeing more and more artists define themselves not so much as a cultural worker, but they’re making policy arguments. They’re going to tell the department of transportation, “OK, here’s what I think you need to do around movement. And sidewalks are your domain. Here’s what I think you should do around sidewalks.” It’s wonderful to have artists in that frame, to allow those imaginations to take off.