Exchange District branding marginalizes artists, says professor

Urban branding research provides insight into neighbourhood dynamics

Critics charge “urban branding” emphasize the most consumable aspects of a neighbourhood while marginalizing the people who were instrumental in creating a neighbourhood’s unique cultural identity. Brit McLeod

For two years, University of Manitoba sociology professor Sonia Bookman has interviewed countless residents in Winnipeg’s historic Exchange District, slowly uncovering how a multi-year process of branding the area has changed, for better or worse, the neighbourhood’s unique creative spirit.

“They are emphasizing certain aspects of culture and creativity whilst trying to control and tame others,” said Bookman of the work done by the Exchange District Business Improvement Zone (BIZ), the City of Winnipeg and others to brand the Exchange District as a historic and cosmopolitan economic hub.

According to Bookman, who has been researching the area since 2009, the Exchange District BIZ and the city have used commercial branding for businesses as a model to inform how they plan and manage the neighbourhood’s unique urban environment.

It is very strange and artificial to take this imaginary reality and just dump it on a city that already has an extraordinarily vital life force.

Milena Placentile, co-owner, the Atomic Centre

This approach is called “urban branding” and is facilitated by BIZ programs for graffiti removal, designated poster boards that restrict where posters can spring up, further management of Old Market Square park and the presence of BIZ foot patrols.

These programs, according to Bookman, help emphasize the most consumable aspects of culture, like niche retail and restaurants, while marginalizing many of the spontaneous street artists and performers who were instrumental in creating the neighbourhood’s unique cultural identity to begin with.

“They are capitalizing on what has evolved through the artistic community ... but in a very selective manner, taking parts of it while neglecting others. For me that leads to a paradox, because you can’t possibly control what is generally an ungovernable creative element,” she said, describing how the branding process has led to resistance from artists and area residents.

Among the resisters is Milena Placentile, a local artist and co-owner of the Atomic Centre at 167 Logan Ave., a place for artists and socially conscious business owners to hold events as well as access studio space and equipment.

“It is very strange and artificial to take this imaginary reality and just dump it on a city that already has an extraordinarily vital life force. (Urban branding) is an unfortunate approach and it’s all predicated on a very unsustainable idea of economic growth through consumerism,” she said.

Placentile, who has worked at various galleries in the Exchange District throughout her career as an artist and curator, added she is not opposed to business improvement zones in general, simply the current approach of the Exchange District BIZ.

“As long as the people involved are not so explicitly capitalist, and are interested in working with community members in all regards to find ways of balancing different types of ... experiences that are not exclusively commercial, it can really work.”

Brian Timmerman, executive director of the Exchange District BIZ, maintains the organization has fostered real relationships with the community of artists and others that function as the neighbourhood’s foundation.

There has been no conscious attempt to brand the neighbourhood, he says, only to make improvements and to foster a sense of community.

“We are ultimately a great example of how economic development can work really closely with community development,” he said, describing the role of new lighting in Old Market Square, recently constructed park benches and foot patrols in making the neighbourhood safer and more hospitable.

“Not only do we look at businesses themselves, but we are very involved in the public realm.”

Published in Volume 66, Number 8 of The Uniter (October 19, 2011)

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