BRATTLEBORO UNDER GLASS
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- That creative economy symposium a few weeks ago opened up a floodgate of discussion about the future of our area, and I've been proud to contribute a few columns of ideas - although I must say, given some of those phone calls and letters, you people might want to retire that "Hate has no home here" bumper sticker.
A great many people here are punch-drunk on the power of Richard Florida's book, "The Rise of the Creative Class." As Florida says, "My core message is that human creativity is the ultimate source of economic growth. Every single person is creative in some way. And to fully tap and harness that creativity we must be tolerant, diverse, inclusive." How can you argue with that?
But life is more complicated. So I'd like to sum up my own thoughts before I retire the Afghanistan Principle and return to bashing the Bush administration. (For those of you who are not of the journalistic persuasion, the Afghanistan Principle is the rule that the further away - geographically - the subject, the safer the columnist. No one here will be personally offended by my opinion about Afghanistan, for example, but let me write about Brattleboro, and duck!) First, creativity in the form of innovation has always been the key to economic success. Just ask Henry Ford. But this is something else. This is an attempt to brand Brattleboro as an "art town" for economic purposes.
What is an "art town" anyway? Arcosanti out in the Arizona desert and a few earthworks art projects come to mind. But in reality, while an area may be home to artists, it also needs to be a home to tractor-drivers and house painters. The beauty of Windham County lies in its gritty mix - artists, yes, but also farmers, retailers, real estate owners, political activists, contractors, retired folks, educators, road crews and the wonderful cooks of the Dummerston Grange.
If a town focuses only on the arts, it is inevitable that it will quickly attract people who want to capitalize on the arts. The question is, as always, who benefits. The people who win most are the arts administrators, the developers and real estate speculators, and the upscale retailers. Among the losers, oddly enough, are often the artists. When a place becomes chic or "hip," the middle class and the poor become endangered. Provincetown is having a hell of a time holding onto its wild and woolly character, while in the Northampton area, the price of real estate has reached astronomical levels.
Brattleboro is not so much an "art town" as it has been, historically, a thriving market town. It's economic underpinnings were the many warehouses and factories that have now closed down. While there has been an admirable - and creative - attempt to turn the town's many empty warehouses and factories into duty-free zones or new-business incubators, the fruits of these endeavors, to mix a metaphor, are a long way down the pike.
Politically, the town of Brattleboro isn't "creative" but conservative. From what I gather, the arts community had a seat at the table when it came to designing the new parking garage. In the end, their suggestions were ignored in favor of an eyesore we love to hate. When young people started congregating in the Harmony Lot, did the town congratulate them on establishing a unique community? No. It proposed installing surveillance cameras - the very antithesis of a creative response. Not to mention the machismo-drenched circling-of-the-wagons done by the Brattleboro old guard after Robert Woodward was shot by the police in church in 2001.
If the "creative economy" means that theaters, artists and galleries, festivals and the like are driving the economy, then the inmates, if you'll pardon the expression, are suddenly running the asylum. Thomas M. Keane Jr., writing a few weeks ago in The Boston Globe Magazine, described an analysis of 240 American cities done last year by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, who concluded that the number of artistic people in an area has no correlation to economic success. "Support for the arts doesn't produce economic growth," Keane said. "Rather, strong economic growth creates enough wealth so that the arts can flourish." He also pointed out that art isn't "supposed to be good for a balance sheet; it should be good for the soul."
The current Brattleboro 05301 festival has pulled together an impressive amount of creative activity, and the Strolling of the Heifers put Brattleboro on the national map. But festivals like these are designed to attract tourists. Many people fear a "Brattleboro under glass", or even worse, a "Vermont under glass."
If Vermont becomes a theme park, then the jobs available will be turning down bed linens and putting chocolates on the pillows of our guests. And if the price of gas climbs much higher, what will we do when the tourists stop coming?
Florida might be right about one thing: entepreneurship could be the state's saving grace. To encourage it, the state must do creative economic development. Working for state-wide high-speed Internet and cell phone access, more seed money for innovative businesses, an affordable health care system and much more is not as sexy as creating "art towns." What we need most is a creative governor, something we do not currently have. That might be a good place to start.
So I hope everyone enjoys the Brattleboro 05301 festival and has a great time at Gallery Walk on Friday night. And if you see me on the street and want to throw rocks, I'm partial to emeralds and aquamarines from Renaissance Fine Jewelry. And how about that President George W. Bush?
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.