A Placemaking Journal

In Defense of ‘Vibrancy’ (And beer)

So I’m watching Asheville, the closest city to my rural community in western North Carolina, celebrate the announcement that Colorado-based New Belgium Brewing Company will be opening a brewery in the city’s redeveloping River Arts District. And based partly on extensive research with PlaceMakers partner Scott Doyon in the Atlanta Metro’s beer mecca of Decatur, GA – I’m thinking it’s time to address the concept of beer as economic development.

Scott talked about the “pub-shed” concept here. And PlaceMakers partner Howard Blackson in San Diego rooted the neighborhood tavern in community planning tradition here. But I began to think of taking beer production and consumption to the next level, as an indicator, a quantifiable marker of the “creative class” economy Richard Florida talks about.

Then I had a snark attack, a reoccurrence of an affliction developed over 20 years as a newspaper reporter. It presents this way: You come upon an idea pushed with maybe a little too much idealistic enthusiasm, especially by folks who are easy to make fun of. And the impulse to ridicule is just too overwhelming to resist.

My snark receptors were activated by a planner friend who was telling me he felt he had to move out of Asheville for fear of being “insufficiently hip.” The designer drinks, the $8 draft beer, the non-stop festivals celebrating organic everything, the twice-a-week art gallery openings, the freakin’ drum circles. So self-consciously cool. So Portlandia.

But just as I was beginning to give in to the impulses towards derision, I was inoculated, injected with components of the disease that stimulated resistant antibodies. I was out-snarked. (Thank you, John Massengale for the interdiction via listserv, unintentional though it was).

In a 4,000-word diatribe in The Baffler, a journal out of MIT Press, Thomas Frank nuked everything remotely connected with “vibrancy” as a goal for urban planning – or for community life, for that matter. It’s all so phony, writes Frank: All those farmers markets. All those art festivals and art and artists hired to amuse corporations and the “master class.” All those too-cool-for-school bars and restaurants – and surely, by implication, those craft beer breweries.

Frank indicts Kansas City, Akron, Detroit, Boise, Cincinnati, Rockford and Cairo (IL), Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Seattle, Tacoma, Montreal, Chicago and St. Louis. All succumbing to the temptation to misdirect planning policy towards “vibrancy”:

Your hometown is probably vibrant, too. Every city is either vibrant these days or is working on a plan to attain vibrancy soon. The reason is simple: a city isn’t successful— isn’t even a city, really—unless it can lay claim to being “vibrant.” Vibrancy is so universally desirable, so totemic in its powers, that even though we aren’t sure what the word means, we know the quality it designates must be cultivated. The vibrant, we believe, is what makes certain cities flourish. The absence of vibrancy, by contrast, is what allows the diseases of depopulation and blight to set in.

Somewhere in there is a serviceable theme. It’s basically this: We have a tendency to mistake the sizzle for the steak. If it has meaning at all, “vibrancy,” taken together with a bunch of other indicators, implies community health, just as it might imply an individual’s health. But it’s more of an indicator than a driver. More effect, than cause. So imagining that a few street festivals and an art show will work magic in the absence of harder, more complicated work is naïve – and near criminal if chasing vibrancy diverted millions of dollars in cities from more productive, community-enhancing projects. But it doesn’t.

There’s a lot of “fake it till you make it” in the vibrancy talk from arts councils and foundations, but not a bunch of money. Just getting basic infrastructure in place consumes most budgets. And economic developers are, for the most part, still graded upon how well they attract major employers, not art culture consumers.

The places out front in the vibrancy sweepstakes tend to be those that discovered a healthy cultural vitality working on smaller scales, figured out links between that vitality and the quality-of-life components that citizens and companies value, then funneled a few extra bucks in that direction. Which gets me back to Asheville and beer.

Asheville didn’t get its hipster cred by imposing it via vibrancy committees. It earned it over time, partly through a resident population of artists and musicians that preceded and propelled the city’s rebirth and partly through a downtown frozen in the greatest period of American architecture before the Great Depression. For half a century it made do with latent vibrancy that was eventually leveraged by a few key leaders.

It turned out – in direct contradiction to Frank’s premise – that the inherent cultural vitality had a powerful economic development effect. Not only that, it reproduced itself in astounding ways. Attracted by the vibe, more artists, musicians, entrepreneurs and investors (including craft beer brewers) came. Which attracted even more consumers of art, music and beer. And on and on, to the point that my planner friend and I are worried that we’re no longer cool enough to hang out there.

But, to be fair, not every place has the advantages of place-based vitality to build on. So instead of chasing vibrancy, what does Frank suggest for planners’ priorities?

A while ago I was talking about rural depopulation with an officer of a Kansas farmers’ organization; as it happened, he had thought about the problem a great deal. Using arts festivals to make small towns appear “vibrant” was not one of his suggestions, however. Instead, he proposed universal health coverage, since independent farmers find it difficult to get insurance nowadays  and are often driven to seek corporate employment by this brute fact of rural life.

Other solutions to the problem of rural depopulation are just as easy to come up with. Outlaw corporate agriculture, which would encourage not only small farms but food diversity as well. Use zoning rules to restrict big-box stores, thereby saving small town merchants. Make college excellent and affordable, so that graduates aren’t forced by the weight of student debt to seek corporate employment. Rewrite NAFTA and take other steps to stop the decline of manufacturing.

Well, let’s see: Institute universal health care, eliminate corporate ag, zone out big boxes, improve educational access for everyone, protect American industry and workers from competition. A dandy to-do list of liberal responses to a political and economic system gone haywire. The only thing in the way is democracy — you know, the part about getting a lot of people to vote for people who vote for programs to do that stuff and to pay for what it costs.

You know what’s ironic? The people who tend to vote against those kinds of rational remedies are the very people most likely to be helped by them. Back in 2004, a best-seller brilliantly addressed that irony, though with more than a little snarkiness towards folks determined to vote against their own interest.

The book was What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. The author: Thomas Frank.

–Ben Brown

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