Streets and Stages: Urban Renewal and the Arts after World War II

By Foulkes, Julia L. | Journal of Social History, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Streets and Stages: Urban Renewal and the Arts after World War II


Foulkes, Julia L., Journal of Social History


In 1970, just a year after the completion of the final building, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in Manhattan began offering programs in the plaza that sat between the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Stare Theater, and Philharmonic Hall (later known as Avery Fisher Hall). The first productions featured theater companies from Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn and one from East Harlem; the second, in 1971, included community theater groups from New York City, Washington, D.C., and the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Building on these events, Leonard de Paur, an African American hired to enhance Lincoln Center's community relations, organized the annual Our of Doors Festival, as it came to be known in 1974, which featured performances of Latin American music, street dance, Chinese theater-all set in the vacuum-like hole of the plaza. It began by targeting children and featuring lesser-known New York artists and has expanded to become a long-standing summer tradition with arts groups from around the world.

Place transfigures the perception and structure of the arts. A plaza provides a context of informality while a theater one of grandeur. That certain performances were conducted just outside the newly completed theaters of the largest performing arts complex in the world suggests the framing power of place in experiencing the arts, adding meaning to artworks by where they appear. Marcel Duchamp's signed urinal famously pointed out the social forces embedded in producing and understanding the arts, a conviction that has been pulled, teased, and strung out across the twentieth century. Scholars have followed artists in unraveling and exposing social and political dynamics of the arts; art historians, such as Rosalyn Deutsche and Joshua Shannon, have mapped the intersection between expression and place in specific artworks; and social scientists, such as Sharon Zukin and Janet Abu Lughod, have analyzed both gentrification and the overall economic benefit of the "culture industry," the perspective that now dominates most current defenses of the arts. Looking anew at place - at the institutions, neighborhoods, exhibitions, plazas, and streets upon which the arts occur - offers ways to chart less faxed, more difficult to assess, changing social meanings and import derived from where the arts reside. In between an artwork and an industry lays a place, a moment in time and space that offers a rich and varied experiential view of the arts and their impact. (1)

The development of Lincoln Outer and the revitalization of the Brooklyn Academy of Music reveal the complex and uneven effects of post-war urbanization on the arts. As part of the largest urban renewal project in the country, Lincoln Center implanted a large performing arts institution in the middle of the dense island of Manhattan during a rime of enormous demographic shifts; the Brooklyn Academy of Music, on the other hand, was a crumbling anachronistic institution lying fallow as the streets and neighborhoods around it began to teem with a new immigrant population primarily from the Caribbean. These institutions created a pull toward these neighborhoods at a time when people began fleeing cities. Although this essay primarily illuminates the situation of New York City, Manhattan and Brooklyn present quite different city landscapes in terms of national and international visibility, demographic make-up and change, the formation of each respective institution, and the larger societal role of the arts in the post-war world. Bringing streets and stages into the same gaze exposes how these institutions affect their neighborhoods, how their city districts influence them, and with what consequences for the arts, the neighbors, and the cities. It is a commonplace assumption that the arts and cities go together, but it is a twinning that needs not only more historical specificity but also greater consideration of how and in what ways the vitality of the arts and cities depend on one another. …

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