NOCD-NY: Advancing New York City’s Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts

Partners: Arts & Democracy Project; Bronx Council on the Arts; Fourth Arts Block; Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center (GMDC), NY Chinatown History Project; El Museo del Barrio; the Point CDC; El Puente; Queens Museum of Art, and Staten Island Arts Council. We are currently in the process of adding members from Fort Greene, Brooklyn; and Long Island City, Queens.

A unique consortium of artists, activists, industrial developers, and policymakers has come together from across NYC to draw on our creativity to revitalize our city from the neighborhood up. Our strategy is coalescing and advancing Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts (NOCDs). Having generated interest in and momentum around these districts, we are building an alliance that will enhance practice, amplify voice and shape public policy.

Some cultural districts are planned and developed as part of initiatives from institutions; NOCDs spring up more organically in the context of their neighborhoods, tapping into and strengthening local clusters of creative assets. These districts are geographically and structurally diverse, self-organized through community-generated action, and cultivated by a diverse range of participants over time. NOCDs stimulate a combination of social, civic, and economic benefits within communities and across them. As anchors for neighborhood-based economies, they support community self-determination, equity and local livelihoods. Some also leverage arts and culture within the regional economy.

Having generated innovative ideas, new opportunities and a strong group of stakeholders through two years of roundtables, we created a Working Group to move into action. Members range from a non-profit industrial developer to a cultural district made up of small arts organizations and businesses, from a community human rights institution to an arts museum. Their communities and constituencies  – Greenpoint and south Williamsburg, Brooklyn; east Village, el Barrio and Chinatown, Manhattan; Corona, Queens; and the Bronx – reflect the diversity of NYC and are often underserved by the conventional arts infrastructure.

We developed the Working Group’s shared goals and agenda by learning about each other’s communities, organizations, values, and aspirations, and by answering the question: what can we do better together than alone? Our agenda is both responsive and proactive – capitalizing on opportunities growing out of the roundtables and imagining a City that values and supports cultural and economic diversity and community creative assets as integral to healthy and sustainable communities.

A cross sector group of allies extends the impact of our work including: PolicyLink, Design Trust for Public Space, Leveraging Investments in Creativity, Asian/Pacific/American Institute, Social Impact of the Arts Project, Fractured Atlas, and NYC Council Members Diana Reyna, Jimmy Van Bramer, and Brad Lander.

Our five inter-related strategies are:

Strengthen practice: We have started mapping the needs and resources of existing and emerging NOCD hubs and coalitions and will match them through peer mentoring and capacity building opportunities (ranging from information sharing to 1:1 meetings and workshops). From preliminary investigation we have identified needs including: accessing affordable real estate, understanding policymaking, building cross sector partnerships, engaging social media, increasing diversity across race and class, organizational development and sustainable funding. Working Group member resources include deep knowledge of the complexities of communities, extensive databases and networks, civic engagement and community organizing methodologies and culturally based pedagogies. Skills include coalition building, youth development, low cost financing, real estate development/management, community design, placemaking, plaza development, community-based research and mapping.

Raise visibility and articulate value: Our multi-layered communications strategy will raise the profile of NOCDs and frame a message that illustrates their value to NYC neighborhoods and the city as a whole. Case studies, roundtables, presentations, media, events, tours and a website will reflect our diverse cultures.

Increase impact: Our research agenda deepens our work and demonstrates its impact. We will: 1) Coordinate, share and add value to the research that members are already doing (including door-to-door asset mapping, neighborhood economic impact, land use and historic ownership patterns). 2) Facilitate access to and analysis of neighborhood level data/demographics. 3) Work with the Social Impact of the Arts Project (which participated in the roundtables) as an advisor to connect our work with a NOCD analytic framework. 4) Support specific projects that respond to shared needs (e.g. an overview of socio/economic impact for policymakers). When possible research will be integrated with that of national allies.

Build an alliance: We intend to grow our alliance organically, building on extended networks to identify neighborhood-based advice and leadership. Possible neighborhoods include Jackson Heights, Jamaica, Washington Heights, Midtown Garment District, Red Hook, Sunset Park, Coney Island. Our alliance will extend beyond NOCDs to include roundtable participants and others, such as OpenHouse, NY.

Shape policy: The roundtables produced significant opportunities to shape policy. NYC Council Arts Committee chair Jimmy Van Bramer and Small Business Committee chair Diana Reyna are working with us to organize hearings and an interagency roundtable. We will build on this momentum, meeting with public and private partners to identify appropriate policy, funding, and financing opportunities and processes (e.g. land use, tax incentives, risk capital, breaking down agency silos, multi stakeholder community planning). We are developing short and long term recommendations that address barriers, reshape existing policies and create new policies. We will also model our recommendations (e.g. as we recommend that Council Members have cultural liaisons, we will model it.)

In sum, our vision is to nurture NYC’s diverse ecology of NOCDs to grow in ways that transform our city, strengthening local economies; building sustainable, equitable, and engaged communities; and enriching the quality and meaning of our lives.

NOCD-NY is supported by the Rockefeller Foundation’s Cultural Innovation Fund and the New York Community Trust. Arts & Democracy Director Caron Atlas is co-director of NOCD-NY.