One Year Later: Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts – New York

Above, an Audio Postcard about the starting conditions for the project. 

When I spoke last year with members of the Naturally Occurring Cultural District Working Group (NOCD-NY) they discussed a collective goal of demonstrating the tangible effects art has on communities throughout New York City, and they wanted to better understand and advocate for the needs of their diverse members, which include groups like the Fourth Avenue Arts Block, The Bronx Council on the Arts, Urban Bush Women and the Greenpoint Manufacturing District.

Over the past year they have grown their capacity to advocate for policy initiatives and increased their membership and visibility. They have turned the challenge of managing a diverse coalition into a strength and demonstrated that their membership can innovate differently and serve as support and advocates for each other.

The Innovation

As the role of arts and culture in “placemaking” gains traction NOCD-NY is building an alliance that recognizes and strengthens the communities in New York City where arts and cultural have an integral role in the fabric of the neighborhood.

Caron Atlas, the Co-Director of NOCD-NY explained, “Overall, the goal is to accomplish together what we can’t accomplish alone, whether that’s through peer support, developing methodologies to do the work, or bringing voices together to create a coherent narrative, which is then supported by our policy recommendations. Coming together we can have an amplified voice to shape the conversation.”

Progress to Date

Since receiving the Rockefeller NYC Cultural Innovation Fund, NOCD-NY has made large strides towards their goals:

  • Built and strengthened their alliance: They have developed criteria for membership, welcomed new members, and implemented monthly meetings, which are hosted at a different participating group’s site each time
  • Raised visibility of the alliance: They organized neighborhood tours of naturally occurring cultural districts, and organized a city council hearing for policy recommendation for which they helped to frame the hearing, provided materials for the background paper, invited people to testify and organized people to come, and shared questions for public officials and agency members with the chairs of the hearing.

Key Learning

Bringing together and sustaining a diverse coalition with many different member needs has been a true learning experience. NOCD-NY has refined their approach based on feedback from their members. Their major learning has centered on:

  • Coalition management: Members of the NOCD-NY coalition are very busy and NOCD-NY organizers needed to find a way to make participation rewarding for those involved and that group efforts benefit all members.  They replaced standing committees with loose working groups and regularized the meeting schedule and operating procedures to smooth coalition management.
  • Nimble response: NOCD-NY had to be prepared and nimble to take advantage of new opportunities. They learned to evaluate where they had control and where they needed to let go in order to build the trust between members that they relied on when they were given 10 days to prepare for a policy hearing with the City Council.

Biggest Challenge

The members of NOCD-NY face enormous pressures on their time. It is a coalition without any full time staff and that serves organizations with a large diversity of need and interest.  Co-director Tamara Greenfield also explained that because they coalition is coming together to proactively create something new and advocate for themselves as a sector instead of reacting to a crises, it can be difficult to sustain the involvement of their members.

However, challenges present an opportunity for the NOCD, as Greenfield explained, “Whenever we have a challenge we have to rally everybody and pull them together. It can be a lot of pressure, but it does contribute to a deeper relationship, respect and understanding of each other’s work.” By learning from their challenges and differing needs, the NOCD coalition has focused on the diversity of their membership as a strength.

Next Steps

The NOCD-NY coalition is beginning to see the impact of their work and influence on the larger conversation around the role of arts and culture in New York. The City Council is seriously discussing their policy recommendations, such as an inter-agency working groups. They are also becoming a visible advocate in the field. Greenfield explains, “We are becoming a voice that can add a dimension to the conversation around creative place making and help ground it in the practices that already occur in communities. Don’t forget that when you are making places there are places there already with layered of art and culture.”

The NOCD-NY coalition will continue their policy work, especially as the municipal election in 2013 approaches, and push law and policy makers to think more broadly about the role of arts and culture. They will also continue to learn and share what working with such as diverse coalition has taught them and Greenfield emphasized, “People innovate differently in different sectors and innovation looks different in different places.”

They are also planning a citywide forum focused on their vision for a city that values neighborhood-based culture and their hopes for the transitions coming up.  They hope that this conversation can connect with other transition conversations that have left arts and culture out to date.

Interview conducted by Karina Mangu-Ward.  Post written by Eleanor Whitney with Karina Mangu-Ward.

Eleanor Whitney is a writer, educator, arts administrator and musician raised in Maine and living in Brooklyn, New York. Currently, she is the Program Officer for External Affairs and Fiscal Sponsorship at the New York Foundation for the Arts. Karina Mangu-Ward is the Director of Innovation at EmcArts.