The Arts & Our Social Fabric by Lavon Pettis | USA

The Arts & Our Social Fabric


USA | Lavon Pettis


As an active member of my community, I consider myself to be an ethnographer. I like to observe and assess the world around me. My formal training is in Community Counseling Psychology. My research interest includes a wanderlust for the exploration of creativity and a commitment to strengthening resilience by developing social fabric in communities.

Three years ago, in the midst of pursuing a PhD in International Psychology with a concentration in Trauma studies, I relocated to a new neighborhood on the Southside of Chicago. The community I have selected was under redevelopment, with a major creative place-making initiative being led by a local artist. The neighborhood was once the upper echelon for industry and entertainment. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s the steel industry on the Southeast side of Chicago began to lay off workers. As the employment industry began a steady decline, drug warfare, blight, & homelessness increased in this region. Throughout the last fifty years this particular neighborhood was considered to be obsolete because it had been marginalized by a lack of economic empowerment. This area was plagued by gang activity and violence for quite some time! There was a lack of social fabric: community members were not engaging with each other, providing social support, creating the social safety nets that helps people through economic and emotional ups and downs.

When I moved to Dorchester Avenue during the winter of 2013 there was not a soul outside. A major renaissance was bubbling as a local artist deconstruct and reimagine abandoned and dilapidated buildings in Greater Grand Crossing, Chicago, USA. The buildings, once eye sores, were being transformed into cultural hubs, repositories of information, and spaces that draw visitors from around the globe. By Spring the community was beginning to warm up to these changes. In the block where the first building was renovated I could see grammar school children playing, teenagers pretending to be cool, elders gathering together to comment on the public and private events held for the place-making project. People came from near and far to see it for themselves and participate in residencies for this project.

There was a constant discussion taking place in institutions of higher education in Chicago and beyond about community driven artistic initiatives to engage families and reach across demographics. Meanwhile on Dorchester Ave, the neighbors were encouraged to participate in activities such as gardening, a family centered music series, workshops, film screening, and social gathering. The community drew international artists, stakeholders, economists, philanthropists, locals, celebrities, and philosophers to commune with one another. Some of the neighbors were in awe of the organization and others were apprehensive of the tremendous amount of change taking place in this predominantly impoverished community.

The neighborhood has become a hotspot for interest, investment, and development. The initial activities created a burst of external fanfare and internal engagement. Unfortunately, the emphasis on internal engagement has faded relative to the efforts towards international architecture and fine arts. The beauty of the “place” is important but it is insufficient if it is underutilized by the neighborhood. “If you build it, they will come” is not sustainable. Surely people will come to have a look. However, without an authentic and an active outreach the local community does not engage and benefit. Overall, the arts organization is unable to address all the social, geopolitical, and economic issues that impact the neighborhood. Nor should it! If an organization wants to work in a community and change the community for better, it has the responsibility to build capacity and strengthen community social networks.

There are social issues such as affordable housing and other issues such as the lack of adequate mental health services for people on the Southside. There are economic issues such as high unemployment rates. There are geopolitical issues surrounding the neighborhood being affected by the geography of the University of Chicago and its influence on the well-being of the community. In addition, there is a lack of violence intervention and prevention in Chicago. As the neighborhood is redefined by the arts a critical examination needs to be done to investigate how establishing social fabric can contribute to creative place-making and vice versa.

The development of social fabric is a building block to enhancing the quality of life for underserved communities.  Since creative place making is a springboard being utilized to redevelop neighborhoods across the U.S. we need to implement strategies to empower, revitalize, and support the participation of the community. As neighborhoods in Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Watts, Overtown are reimagined and rebuilt we need to remain concerned about the importance of social fabric in creative place making in our neighborhoods. A lack of social fabric has been labeled by social scientists as the collapse of communities. People in the aforementioned communities have not been thriving because there is a lack of security in their communities, there is no economic wellbeing, public policies both federal and state have not improved living standards.  How can creative place making initiatives incorporate social fabric, strengthen resilience, and address the needs of the communities?

Chicago building site shovels

Why is it important for there to be a conversation about the importance of social fabric in creative place-making projects? Social fabric gives us authentic experiences, it builds rapport, it gives us a platform to address some of the complex social ills of society. As creative place-making initiatives continue to be funded in the arts and architecture we have to develop strategies to address social issues that directly impact the well-being of the neighborhood. Community members in addition to stakeholders need to be apart the programming and development policy but that is taking place.   How can the use of social fabric provide access to equity?  We need to further the body of knowledge in this area by assessing how to include community members in the economic growth that is occurring in creative place-making initiatives. What type of training, skill set enhancement, and economic empowerment can community members receive when these projects arrive? Are there programs assisting people in home ownership, business development, and apprenticeships? It is imperative for us to properly assess this situation to determine if the arts strengthen social fabric and resilience in communities!

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