Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Art, City Planning, and Your Dreams

Your dreams are shaped by your environment.

I've always been well aware of the effect nature can have on a person. Not only have I seen a sense of calm and understanding in students who have had the opportunity to travel outside of the concrete heat, but I experienced the change in myself, firsthand, every summer when I spent my time staring at the stars and befriending trees in the middle of Nowhere, Michigan. Luckily, I also grew up in Chicago where past city landscape architect Jens Jensen ensured that the city would have a certain amount of greenspace. Chicago's past and present mayors have also had a good relationship with the arts (the city assumes a place for arts and education!), so free and public works of art were always part of my day as I traveled to school through the city. Yes, Mayor Daley did ban and whitewash (no pun intended) some of the coolest spray can murals that sprinkled my El travels with delight - I'm still not quite over that - but at least there were other kinds of art everywhere and plenty of art programs for kids like me (the link shows how the graffiti evolved from the early 80s to the present). Heck, I even got to paint with Keith Haring himself! I can say I collaborated with ol' boy on a big ass mural - yeah, dat's right.

This is why when Vincent and I had the opportunity to drive to Houston this July (the only "vacation" we could afford), our little four-day excursion turned out to be one of the most pleasant trips I've ever taken, despite hurricane-like winds and rain. As soon as we hit the city limits, I noticed that there was an abundance of little radio stations at the low end of FM. I ended up falling in love with KTRU. I heard hip hop, old 80s alternative, world music, new indie music I'll probably never hear again, an hour dedicated to music that little kids would like (!) - KTRU is awesome! I thought college stations had pretty much disappeared and this blessing made me realize that some of 'em still exist out there, but you will likely run into them only if you are in a major city. In fact, there is a college station in San Antonio that is my least I THOUGHT it was a San Antonio station. I recently found out that it is actually an Austin station that has a strong enough signal to reach San Antonio. All the other stations in San Antonio are very hard rock, squeaky clean country or Tejano. Not a lot of options, but I digress.

HOUSTON. There is art everywhere in Houston. We not only heard it in the music stations but we also tasted it in the food. We had Eggs Orleans, a cajun crabcake take on Eggs Benedict, at Cafe Artiste; we shared a fresh and innovative yet traditional Indian plate of seasoned meats at Indika on Westheimer; and watched folks dance and scream "Oopaah!" at a Mediterranean restaurant we just happened upon and I just know I'll never remember the name.

But that was just the fuel. Our legs were energized to check out a bunch of Houston art and boy was it freaky. The Rothko Chapel is well-suited for all sorts of Goth occasions. Be sure to bring your black lipstick and pessimism. I really liked it! The Byzantine Chapel, which was remade with pieces of the original, is a marriage of cool, modern frosted glass and old traditions from one of the cradles of civilization. What was really the joint was the Menil Museum, which houses B.C. stuff like old Alaskan prints, pillars from Egypt and gold jewelry from South and Central America. But it doesn't stop there. It takes you into modern times with collections from the impressionists, the surrealists (stuff they owned - like a weird iron maiden suit!), and pop artists. A lot of the stuff I saw at the Menil I had studied when I was in art school. It is amazing that they have all this art in one place. Makes you wonder how much cash funds it all, huh? That answer is easy: tons.

But before I move onto that point, I want you to know a couple of other things about the art in Houston. First of all, there's a bunch of public art out in the open, too. The Menil has a sculpture garden but you can find outdoor art all over the city. Hence, the opening photo of the essay. You see me leaning on a sculpture by Jean DuBuffet that sits in the center of downtown Houston (Chicago also has a DuBuffet). We were walking back to our hotel from the Mets-Astros game (the one that lasted 17 innings - and the Mets won!) and Vincent wanted to record the trippy art. You can see the new tattoo on my left arm, although not that well. We have a cheap camera. Anyway, walking around allows a person to interact with art in Houston. As it should be. The second important point is that there is much money in Houston for such endeavors. Our friend and colleague, Leslie, moved to Houston before we moved to San Anto because she was offered a residency at the Museum of Fine Art - Houston. The competitive market in New York, where we all met, didn't allow for the same opportunities that we've all had here in Texas. But, as you may have noticed by now, not all Texas cities or U.S. cities are planned in the same way.

I find Houston and Chicago to be very similar. They have large African American, Asian and Latino populations. These cities are cosmopolitan. Both of the cities have a lot of money, too. With money comes a certain amount of philanthropy and culture. There are plenty of wealthy people who think it is important to have a variety of artistic choices in the city, in addition to green space and good places to eat. Unlike fast-paced New York, however, Houston and Chicago are much more family-oriented, in the traditional sense. The point I am trying to carve and shape here is that Houston and Chicago are really awesome cities in that they have a variety of music, food, art and people, and there are well-funded programs that support creative thinking. This isn't something that just happened. It was planned.

How to plan a city takes a lot of thought, naturally, and in this article (paragraph 11) it is argued that Houston and Chicago have "similar patterns of land use" but Chicago's zoning laws have created slums and higher housing costs. This site gives a list of "famous" urban planners and Chicago figures prominently in the history of the profession. This library's archives have a document that explains Chicago's "world-wide influence" on city planning. It is my hypothesis that there might have been someone or some organization that planned parts of both Chicago and Houston because the two cities are so similar in appearance and vibe. I haven't found the connection yet, but I think it exists.

This type of thinking inevitably led to the thought: Who planned San Antonio? Or, actually: Who is currently planning San Antonio? Emil Moncivais is the current planner, according to the city website, and I really feel for this guy. San Antonio has grown so much in the past few years, I'm sure it is a tough job to organize the new construction around what already exists. It is clear that the city has a mission to protect its classic architecture and to ensure that residential areas are green and peaceful. However, how are other things planned? Art, food and music, for instance? I already mentioned the lack of diversity on San Antonio's airwaves; why is that? There are countless amazing artists in San Antonio; where are the funds to support them? When a controversial play was recently put on, community members saw fit to wonder whether the arts should be funded at all (on the WOAI website - that's NBC, folks). According to this info., San Antonio plans itself differently than most major cities. It actually does not allow outside regions (suburbs) to create independent municipalities; in other words, it ensures that it can acquire all surrounding land and zone it the way the city is zoned. Therefore, not a lot of independent changes can occur within or outside of the city limits.

Okay, that may explain why San Antonio doesn't have a lot of outside influence, but why are Chicago and Houston so alike? According to a couple of articles in the Houston Chronicle, there is Marquette Companies, a Chicago-based firm, that has building projects in Houston. So it may be as simple as big builders leaving their mark on many major cities. But why do Chicago and Houston have such a cosmopolitan outlook when it comes to the arts, food and entertainment? Why is San Antonio more traditional when it comes to these things? I don't think either choice is wrong - both options are way cool - but what influences a city to make such decisions? The fact that Houston and Chicago are next to waterways might have an influence.... Hmm. And what is the result of such planning?

Well, I can tell you that if I hadn't grown up in Chicago, I may never have become an artist. Theater, fine art, dance, music and public support and space for these things were an integral part of my childhood. Houston really reminded me of this. If I had grown up in San Antonio, things may have been different. There are awesome traditions here; kids learn to dance, sing and play Mariachi music and dances in a religious way, and painting techniques - as seen in San Antonio's many murals - are studied with great care by young and old alike. What is the value of promoting the arts in these different ways?

First of all, you get impeccable art in San Antonio. The precision and care that is taken is breathtaking. However, there is just not a lot of financial support - although I must say that actors here actually expect to be paid and that is not the norm in places like New York where you're just happy to have gotten a role.

There isn't a lot of public support for the arts, either. This summer Vincent created a program at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center that brought teens from New York and San Antonio together to create film, visual art, theater and poetry together. It was awesome! (Slide show link) The Teen Arts Puentes Program (S.A.) and the ACTION Project (da Bronx) had an incredible closing show that brought laughter and tears of joy. The theater was packed! And it got press! However, there are several people in the community that dismiss such a program as "communist" (I am not joking), "a waste of time," and not something that will get their child into college or lead towards a career. In fact, many folks think that these endeavors are a waste of time for adults, too, because they do not generate revenue. Vincent and I were wondering why people might have this opinion. In New York, Chicago and Houston, most patrons of the arts understand that the arts are supported by grants and other kinds of donations and that generating revenue is not the point. They understand that museums and other similar institutions lose money all the time on acquisitions, etc., but that if you look for it, there is always money to support creative projects. The big cities understand that art, in all its forms, creates minds and souls that are prepared for a variety of tasks. Art generates creative thinking. Period. So why not use that in all cities?

San Antonio is a military city. As I mentioned before, the music heard here is traditional. Hard rock, country (without a lot of politics) and Tejano. The art is traditional. Therefore, the thinking is traditional. Or is it? Is it really tradition? Or is it just limited? There is tons of support for the Spurs here, and as it should be for they are a winning team. I remember the waves of support for my own Bulls. However, the Bulls money led to new parks and public art in the heart of downtown Chicago. Spurs money...I'm not sure where it's going. It certainly isn't going towards art. But does that mean that Houston is a better city than San Antonio? 100% NO!

What I've come to realize is that Chicago and Houston have all this variety because those cities have a lot of money. San Antonio is not a rich city. That's why it's so cheap to live here. I probably couldn't afford to live in Houston. So the pattern I'm seeing here is that the wealthier cities give their residents an abundant variety of music, art, food, culture, etc., but cities that don't have the same resources just don't get that stuff. It's the classic reason why small town folks move to the big city (although, San Antonio isn't exactly a small town). What the folks of San Antonio do get is a bunch of military choices. Since they haven't had a lot of choice to begin with, the lack of career choices may not seem that bad. I think there is something wrong with this.

The kids in the TAPP program were starved for what we were bringing to them. And actually, the kids in the Bronx were pretty excited about all the artistic possibilities that were presented to them, too. When they saw that there was an arts complex (where Vinny and I live), they wanted something like that in the Bronx. You should note here that Hip Hop and breakdancing and graffiti art were created in the Bronx despite the fact that New York art big shots have notoriously avoided the Bronx. San Antonio is similar, in a way. There are so many great artists and writers here (it's Sandra Cisneros' home, yo!) despite the insistence that Austin and Houston are the real art centers of Texas.

All this ends up making kids think that they can't be on the football team AND in theater classes. You'll find kids in both San Antonio and the Bronx that think theater is "gay." You can probably fake people out on the field in a more convincing way if you take an acting class, dude. It also makes adults think that there is no monetary value on artistic pursuits. All the richest people in the U.S. have promoted the arts and the wealthiest cities clearly have an intertwined relationship with the arts. Seems to me city planners, and whomever is influencing them, are deliberately trying to keep the arts away from cities that are on the poorer side. That is, the working class don't need art. They need sports and the military. That's really interesting because all of the best artists I've ever met came from working class backgrounds. We all know that military recruiting centers are located in poorer areas, ie., the Bronx and San Antonio.

My dreams came true because I grew up in a city with art. Would I have even known what my dreams were if I had grown up in a different place? Would I have developed different dreams? Would those dreams have really been my own? It is scary to think that city planners, people who I never met, influenced my life to such an extent.
Oh, and I won't even go into the architects that design both prisons and public schools. Ha!


Toro said...

Okay, I don't know where to begin or end or even write in the middle, but you are absolutely on point! What you say is important and profound and true. I am going to tell everyone to read this article. Amazing!

But it is most important to note that those who promote the idea that art has no purpose and is a waste of time are the very same people who spend lots of money to make sure that THEIR children have art in their home and lives as well as a good arts education, they just don't want it for SOMEONE ELSES kids.

Grisel said...

Wow, that was quick, Toro. I just put this mess up.

Josie Mixon said...

Last summer my friend Pam and I decided to take a road trip. We traveled from El Paso to Albuquerque, New Mexico and Santa Fe. From there we drove to Flagstaff, Arizona then to Sedona coming back through Phoenix then Tuscon then back to El Paso. The entire trip we both said, "why don't we see this kind of stuff in San Antonio"? The art work was amazing! While we waited at the traffic lights we were amazed at the art work on the columns that held up the freeway. There were metal sculptures between the highways and off of the exit ramps. It was incredible. Everything was a canvas and color was not scarce. I totally agree with you. Even little country roads has surprises including benches made of boulders with flowers around them. Just a hint of art is all it took. Some of the art work was made of salvaged goods which made it all the more creative. Yes, we need to have this here. I personally would like to see poets get together one afternoon out of the month in a park for a poets picnic. (bring your own food) There are endless possibilities when creative minds come together. This is wonderful Grisel.


Adon said...

Grisel, great question, why don't we have more arts here in good ol S.A.?? This is what I have been asking and telling all of my friends that San Antonio is BORING!!! Living in Houston for many years and then coming back to SA has taken must readjusting for me. There was always something exciting and different going on in Houston, but here, if it isn't TRADITIONAL, e.g. Tejano, Country, or Tejano, forget it!!! I have noticed a small rise for Salsa/Merengue, but not many locals like that kind of music. So, if anyone wants a great jazz station, etc., it hasn't really hit here. Hopefully, with the 5 larger corporations moving into this area, they will bring in a more diverse group that will help enforce some changes. Arts brings in creativity, and it appears that the elite group that has been running S.A., doesn't want anyone thinking "outside the box"!!!! lol Of course not, then they are afraid they will lose control and they do not like change. It's time for San Antonio to cater to other groups. Maybe that's why you were led here, to start making the change. We are starving for a good, delicious "artsie" dish!!! Infinite Blessings - Adon

Anonymous said...

you DO raise relevant questions; i
really don't know how planning, funding, etc. works. Centro Cultural Atzlan has also been conducting workshops for teens this summer. Luis and John Philip
Santos and others were involved. I know that the director has to go through a 'process' to receive funding,etc., but i know nothing about it.

frankly, i thought that funding for the arts was slashed nationwide a while back, but i
guess that cities who, as you duly noted, include arts as fundamental
to their planning, are a diff. story. Yes, Houston's art district is amazing. It seems that it's all kind of spread out in San Antonio as is everything here.

Radio Stations: I listen to the ONLY alternative station here:90.1. San Antonio has money, but it is old, old money and only in the hands of a few. Theater: no equity for actors. The music scene for the younger crowd and for the not-so-young seems to exist, but not like Austin...Austin's growth was based on university, state capitol and in later years, for its cultural "mecca-ness" of music, in particular.

If I were you, I would go to city council meetings (or do you do this already? if you have the time). The director of Atzlan does that so she can keep on top of what is happening with funding,etc. You know, there are many art-minded people here in S.A., but if there is not an interest in the general population (which is what the
money-givers and makers see-very short-sighted), then it won't happen, but then you have a chicken and egg. Maybe there is no interest because people aren't exposed to it.

There are some high school magnet programs_NESA, for example. I think that if you met (and maybe you already have) art directors,etc.,this might help. Overall, I think the visual arts in
S.A. (static arts) is represented more than theater, poetry,etc. First Friday, as we know, though, is pretty much a "get-drunk'and-party" scene unless you go
to certain openings early. I am go, girl...shake this place up!!!!

- Devon Valderas

Grisel said...

Wow - this has sparked some really important words. I want to make sure that anyone who reads this understand that I am in no way criticizing San Antonio's art scene, even though I am thinking about how it has been shaped.

The main thing I'm thinking about is how city planning - and whether art is included in it - can shape how we see ourselves and can shape how we see our possible future.

The truth is, the more I think abou it, the more I have to come to grips with the fact that someone else (who I probably do not know) has shaped how I see the world and what I think is possible. Even growing up in Chicago, where I was offered a lot of "choices", was growing up in a controlled environment. I was steered towards certain kinds of activities, as an arty person. If I had grown up in my mother's native Cuba or my father's native Colombia, my artistic tendencies would have been shaped in a wholly different way. And this would not necessarily have been my own legitimate choice. My personality would have been different based on the people who planned my environment.

It seems that there are very few people who actually have control of such things in current times. I mean, I'm just not equipt to be an artist in the middle of the unmapped Amazon and make my own world, you know? But I do wonder where my imagination could go if I hadn't lived with the influence of structured museums, commercial theater, and pop music. What crazy stuff would my imagination do without the highly regulated influences that were pumped through my city?