Opinion

How NYC’s New Cultural Plan and the “People’s Plan” Can Work in Tandem

These two plans should not be read as antagonistic. Considering both as parallel proposals is the best way to fight for the citizens of our city and turn aspirations into realities.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announces CreateNYC at Materials for the Arts, Long Island City on Wednesday, July 19, 2017. (image courtesy Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

After a one-and-a-half-year process, the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) has released its “cultural plan” for New York City. CreateNYC is a sprawling, 175-page document that is simultaneously thorough and vague, though committed to the frame of culture. Fittingly, a coalition of community organizations, artists, activists, and labor groups has responded with its own version of a cultural plan — the People’s Cultural Plan — a concise, 17-page document that is relentless in its specificity and commitment to the frame of community, particularly the communities of color that have and continue to be underfunded and dispossessed in our city, often in the guise of culture.

For the past one-and-a-half-years I have had two conflicting positions. I am a member of the Citizens’ Advisory Committee for CreateNYC, after being appointed by Council member Jimmy Van Bramer, who represents the district of Queens I have lived in for 11 years and is one of the authors of the legislation. But I am also an artist in the activist community of New York City with many colleagues involved in the People’s Cultural Plan.

I am writing from these two vantage points to suggest that the documents should not be read as antagonistic. Each contains something the other lacks to be effective: authenticity and resources; the People’s Cultural Plan is authentic in its demands and process, while the city’s cultural plan has the capacity for affecting budgets and legislation. Their deepest agonism is that they see the intersection of culture and community differently — they do not share a politics. CreateNYC is squarely positioned in the logic of incrementalism and negotiation, believing in the power of the legislative process to uphold culture and that culture is an effective way to serve communities. The People’s Cultural Plan is firmly positioned in the logic of radical equity and organizing, believing the city’s cultural plan is a threat to communities and that culture is a distant second to the needs of community members, artists, and beyond. While the two plans’ oppositional positions should be acknowledged, considering both as parallel proposals is the best way to fight for the citizens of our city and turn aspirations into realities.

To be clear, I have no shortage of criticisms of CreateNYC. Below are some of the more extreme shortfalls of the recently released “cultural plan”:

  1. This plan lacks genuine context. Nothing in this plan acknowledges the simple fact that city policies and officials are responsible for the extraction and displacement of local communities through decades of redlining, blockbusting, underfunding, over policing, speculating, and rezoning.
  2. This plan does little to repair the distrust in communities produced through decades of the systems described above.
  3. This distrust was reinforced when the Department of Cultural Affairs granted the development contract of the cultural plan to Hester Street Collaborative, which worked with real estate partners James Lima Planning + Development and BJH Advisors LLC to craft its recommendations.  
  4. This plan does nothing to address the financial collusion between city government and real estate developers that has plagued this city for decades, leading to the current affordability/dispossession crisis where a glut of private luxury development shortchanges the public.
  5. This plan does nothing to address the fact much of the cycle referenced above uses culture as a vehicle for soft entry and speculation.
  6. This plan does little to support and incorporate the community organizations that have known these realities for decades and have worked without, and often against, the city to provide what the city would not.
Infographic in the CreateNYC Cultural Plan (image courtesy the Department of Cultural Affairs)

This is difficult to say, but these are points we must partially let go of. Not because they aren’t true but because CreateNYC is ultimately in the voice of the City Council and the Mayor. Structures of extraction and dominance will not change overnight or in one document, no matter their intentions. The radicality that this moment demands, a true equity that ends dispossession, cannot be expressed in their voice. To expect otherwise sets us up with unrealistic expectations and does not allow us to work with what this document does well or organize to hold it accountable.

I will discuss what CreateNYC does well further in this letter. For now, let’s consider the People’s Cultural Plan, a document that is deep and ambitious in its analysis of dispossession and is a true example of authentic engagement with the activists and communities of color that have dealt firsthand with these realities for decades, allowing them to lead the way on what should be in a cultural plan. This plan is not only concerned with cultural equity but with justice and sustainability in New York City. To be clear, I have no shortage of praise for the People’s Cultural Plan. Ultimately, however, it exists in the language of public policy, and doing so attaches its ambitions to the complexities of the legislative process. Its demands include:

  • The repeal of the 421-a tax exemption, a benefit that has given the city its luxury development boom that has heightened the displacement and affordability crisis.
  • Immediate city-wide rent freezes and reversal of the 1971 Urstadt Law, which gives Albany control of New York City rent regulations.
  • Increase general operating support for all recipients of DCLA grants and specifically increase funds dispersed to smaller, local organizations. (Of the nearly 1,000 organizations the DCLA supports, 33 “CIG” (Cultural Institutions Group) organizations receive 77% of DCLA funding dollars.)
  • Implementing community review committees for development approval of public land.
  • Legislation restricting free labor and underpaid labor in the cultural sphere.
  • Passing the Housing Not Warehousing Act, which would limit and utilize vacant properties in the city.
  • Permanent affordable housing for the homeless and endorsing the plans of partner activist groups ‘Picture The Homeless’ and ‘Decolonize This Place.’
  • Expand Community Land Trusts (CLTs), which can grant permanent affordable housing and community control of development with government support.
  • Tax increase on the wealthiest residents of New York to end the competition model of DCLA grants and truly return to the city what has been funneled to private hands: immense financial and cultural wealth.
(image courtesy the People’s Cultural Plan)

The People’s Cultural Plan, a list of bold and specific demands, exists in three planks: Equitable Housing, Land & Development Policies; Labor Equity; and Public Funding Equity. These demands get to the heart of the relationship between policy and dispossession in a way that a city agency simply can’t. The reality is that the process of passing legislation is long and incremental and the Department of Cultural Affairs is not a legislative body. Most of the demands of the People’s Cultural Plan do not land at the desk of the department, though it does have the resources to reach the powers that be. In that regard, achieving the goals of the People’s Cultural Plan requires both community leverage and the resources of CreateNYC. To put it clearly, the demands of the People’s Cultural Plan must work with the resources of CreateNYC.

This bring us back to the question: What are the resources of CreateNYC? To understand this, we have to break down its structure and its origin story.

  • In 2015, the City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio passed legislation requiring the department to draft a cultural plan. You can read the legislation here.
  • This mandate instructs the department to develop, implement, and oversee recommendations to the City Council. The key word is recommendations.
  • The plan is not a single document. It is a multi-year process requiring biannual updates to clarify progress and the specifics each recommendation will take.  
  • The law stipulates the creation of a Citizens’ Advisory Committee that will report to the department semi-annually to provide feedback, suggestions, and oversight.

Again, it is important to remember that this is not a budgetary document or a legislative document. It is an aspirational one. The DCLA does not have the power to draft budgets or legislation directly. So the form these recommendations will take ultimately depends on the City Council, the budget, and the participation of other city agencies. With that in mind, let us now look at the document itself.

  • CreateNYC is broken down into 94 recommendations across eight categories: Equity and Inclusion; Social and Economic Impact; Affordability; Neighborhood Character; Arts, Culture and Science Education; Arts and Culture In Public Space; Citywide Coordination; and the Health of the Cultural Sector.
  • These recommendations have been developed through a public outreach process to gather information on cultural life in the city, its successes and failures.
  • Within each section outlined above is a set of recommendations. Each is rated in two ways: by action priority/capacity (Implement, Promote, Explore) and by timeframe (Immediate, Short, Medium, Long).
  • Each recommendation lists the partner agencies that would have to be included in order to achieve a recommendation. The department has coordinated with 17 city agencies in its network of partnerships for the plan.

This lists what the plan does. Now let’s consider what it does well. CreateNYC treads lightly in its details, aware that it needs buy-in from vested interests and that a push too far will instigate reprisal from players they have little control over: goliath institutions and their boards, state government, developers, real estate lobbyists, and so forth. If any of these groups withhold their support, it could make it that much more difficult for the DCLA to collaborate with partner departments and the City Council. This is ultimately a political document, balancing the considerations that control budgets and how inter-agency collaboration works. It is intelligent in this way, though activists will read this as slippery and a way to avoid accountability. That said, its successes include:

  • A deep partnership with the disability community in its understandings of inclusion, equity, and access.
  • An acknowledgement of the imbalance in cultural institution funding, with a core objective of increasing support for communities outside of Manhattan.  
  • A commitment to making audiences, artists, cultural workers, opportunities, and institutions more diverse.
  • Leverage for increased resources from the city to accomplish the recommendations it has set.
  • A roadmap for understanding the cross-agency collaborations — including partnerships with the NYC Housing Authority, Department of Education, New York Police Department, and many others — that can be made to achieve goals around housing, affordability, access, inclusion, funding, and resource expansion.
  • Data, published in the cultural plan, that can be used by citizens and groups to confirm cultural barriers and underserved communities. This data is an asset in framing demands to the city government, and defending local community funding, resources, and organizations.

Most of these assets are relatively vague and will depend on interpretation and political will. Further, the shape these commitments and recommendations will take is still unknown. For example, one broad recommendation — to “[b]egin new efforts to support the professional development and career advancement of cultural workers from underrepresented groups” — does not explain “how” these new efforts will reach the community. This is true of CreateNYC at large.

(image courtesy the People’s Cultural Plan)

This is where the People’s Cultural Plan comes in. The authenticity of its demands gives the community something to organize around that CreateNYC does not — not only a belief in radical change but what that change should look like. The department has already given the People’s Cultural Plan a huge boost (intentionally or not) in announcing it will now require diversity reports and equity plans from all of its grant recipients — something previously kept off the table and a core demand of the People’s Cultural Plan. From my position, we must take these signals and run with them, using CreateNYC as a tool to accomplish the ambitions of the People’s Cultural Plan. And let us not forget, this is an election year. The time to mobilize and pressure officials is now.

The danger in this process is that if our aim is to argue one document as right and one as wrong, one genuine and one insincere — if we stay in the conversation of what should be done versus what can be done — we will never move the moral position of “should” to the structural position of “can.” We do actually want things to happen and reading these documents as parallel positions, each creating leverage in different spheres, will present the best strategy.

This is not an argument to overlook the history of policy in this city and its current effects on our communities. This is not an argument to dilute the call for radical equity from communities of color, the indigenous, the elderly, and the dispossessed. That call should be central and heard at every turn. This is an argument to use the assets of both plans to move beyond the aspirational to the effective. CreateNYC gives us a five-year window and the People’s Cultural Plan gives us the demands to work towards.

You can read the CreateNYC plan here and the People’s Cultural Plan here. A Solidarity Mixer for Equity in NYC’s Cultural Plan is being held at the CUE Art Foundation (137 W 25th St, Chelsea, Manhattan) on Wednesday, July 26, 6:30–8:30pm. 

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