Oakland Cultural Affairs Manager sheds light on creative placemaking, placekeeping

February 10, 2017

Roberto Bedoya joined students at a reception hosted by RAP (Photo courtesy of Annette Kim)

By Matthew Kredell

Roberto Bedoya, the first cultural affairs manager for the City of Oakland, spoke at the USC Price School of Public Policy on Jan. 30 on the topic of “Creative Placemaking, Creative Placekeeping and the Poetic Will of the City.” The event was part of the USC Price Department of Urban Planning and Spatial Analysis seminar series and co-sponsored with RAP, a university-wide faculty collaborative around the topic of Race, Arts, and Placemaking, funded by the USC Provost Collaboration Fund.

Creative placemaking is the idea that fostering a thriving arts community is what creates a vibrant city. But there’s a fine line between its use to leverage the arts, or to support the politics of dis-belonging through acts of gentrification in the name of neighborhood revitalization.

That is where creative placekeeping comes in, to preserve the cultural history of a community and advance social justice. Bedoya argues for the aesthetic of belonging as central to creative placekeeping.

“The belonging strategy for most cities can easily be reduced to common areas — it’s your library, your parks and your cultural affairs,” Bedoya said. “They are all part of a municipal belonging strategy. The problem is can you get the mayor to talk in metaphor? Can you get the head of the planning department to understand metaphor and implement metaphor? That’s not how they’re trained.”

Personal narrative

Bedoya spoke of his first experience with placekeeping as a teenager growing up in the working-class barrio of Decoto on San Francisco’s East Bay. In the mid-1960s, the state wanted to build a freeway through what it considered blight, and began condemning small houses in his neighborhood, failing to recognize that each house was unique and full of character. The community organized itself to defend the neighborhood, and through public hearings and petitions, stopped the freeway.

“When I think back on that time, it’s clear to me that what I was confronting is what scholar George Lipsitz called the ‘white spatial imaginary,’ this antiseptic ethos that effectively deemed being poor and of color as civic imperfections to be eliminated,” Bedoya said. “A spatial imaginary that is historically rooted in the development of public policies that created restrictive covenants excluding Jews, African-Americans and other communities of color.”

Bedoya admitted that he created creative placekeeping as a counter-narrative to creative placemaking discourse, but he realizes that both are needed.

“[Gentrification] is not always evil,” Bedoya said. “I think where I’m leery is that some developers and some development scenarios are soulless. So this is where you insert the value of a local, and that is the placekeeping strategy. That is the poetry of your hood. You need to know what it looks like, what it smells like, and you need to tell that story.”

Future direction

Urban planners are placemakers, and as such Bedoya said the students in the room will play an important part in pushing society through these tumultuous times.

“You, as placemakers in this era of Trump, what are we doing?” Bedoya said. “Much of the conversations about cities in the last three to four years were about the notion of resilience. For me, part of that resilience is knowing how to resist. So I think that is the call of the day — to resist this kind of lack of empathy, the politics of dis-belonging and this troubling hate that is circulating as presidential speech.”

“This was a really good space to view the city as an act of poetic will, as Roberto says very well,” said Matthew Miller, a Ph.D. student in urban planning and development at USC Price and RAP program manager. “It was a nice commiseration between people in the arts, policy and planning communities all trying to grapple with what it means to have revitalization without displacement, and to do that with a cultural sensitivity that is authentic and really reflects on what humanity means in the city.”