DENVER — When Petula Clark’s “Downtown” played on the radio in 1964, downtown was a place you could go when you were lonely, and “forget all your cares.” Today, 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas and that number should grow to 68% by 2050. Cities will increasingly have to grapple with the effects of water scarcity and climate change, in addition to citizens’ goals for prosperity. Charles Montgomery argues in the book Happy City (2013) that civic and personal welfare are significantly linked. A city, he notes, “is more than a machine for delivering everyday needs.” It moderates relationships by connecting its inhabitants culturally, politically, and historically.
Testing that claim, Black Cube, (which calls itself a nomadic art museum) and the Downtown Denver Partnership commissioned five artists to install site-specific work for Between Us: The Downtown Denver Alleyways Project, along Denver’s 16th Street Mall, a pedestrian outdoor shopping space that spans a dozen city blocks.
Denver’s 16th Street Mall opened in 1982. The renowned architectural firm I.M. Pei & Partners (renamed Pei Cobb Freed & Partners in 1989) designed the original granite pavers, wide sidewalks, and light fixtures. A few years ago, a free shuttle was added, transporting 55,000 people a day along the route, accentuating the urban landscape as a space of activity. Cities are designed to negotiate where we live and how we move. Between Us amplifies how we move with small, but surprising interruptions to routines, such as artist Frankie Toan’s instillation “Public Body” (2018). Brightly colored fragments of a body, including pink eyes and blue hands, travel deep within the alley, drawing the viewer away from the commotion of the mall. Artist Kelly Monico’s “Alley Cats” (2018) positions a pathway of 300 kitten statues along ledges and street lights to guide the observer toward a large alley. The pedestrian’s gaze is encouraged upward, bypassing store fronts to observe the 1860 roof lines near which the kittens play.
In his essay Public Space in a Private Time, artist Vito Acconci notes that for public art to interrupt a city design “‘art’ has to be brought back to one of its root meanings: ‘cunning.’” Unlike plop art positioned on a corner of a plaza, the unexpected presentation of art can disrupt the cityscape, rather than echo it. Since the Creative Independent’s study on the financial state of artists, published this year, found commissions were a more impactful source of income than gallery sales, Between Us demonstrates that public art commissions by institutions do not need marquee real estate to make meaningful contributions to the community.
The neon text instillation “Y/OURS” (2018) by artist Joel Swanson hovers parallel to the ground between fire escapes in one Between Us alleyway. As the Y blinks on and off, shifting terms of ownership, it prompts the question, what makes a physical space a public space? The term public implies a location someone can point to, such as a city park or town square. Cities that limit access to public space or encourage citizens to isolate themselves in cars and homes are arguably the unhappiest: A 2011 study by Erika Sandow, professor of geography and economic history at Umeå University, showed people who live in car-dependent cities generally are less likely to join a social group or participate in politics, and more likely to divorce as commute times increase. It is not surprising that retreating from public life has a psychological effect on individuals, but most city inhabitants likely don’t evaluate their mobility and city plan as systemic of their happiness.
When I observed Stuart Semple’s enormous smiling face “I should be crying but I just can’t let it show” (2018) squeezed between alley walls, many people stopped at the alley’s opening, spoke with each other, smiled, and turned to talk with me. A Gallup World Poll found that life satisfaction improves at a greater factor, statistically, when people feel they have friends or family they can rely on or neighbors and government they trust, than when their income increases. Whether art is positioned in an alley, a window display or billboard series, it can wrestle away the power of routine to spotlight the social deficit or surplus created by urban planning.
Artist Carlos Frésquez suspended large sculptural pine tree car fresheners in “Alley Freshener,” (2018) humorously acknowledge why the garbage-filled alley is unoccupied, but that it doesn’t have to be. The obvious critique is that an alley is not a viable public space, but a few blocks north a large development called The Dairy Block strung some lights, brick-paved the alley and commissioned art, to encourage people to congregate, shop and dine in what was, until recently, a unactivated, garbage-filled space. The small changes in design and aesthetics altered behavior. It is not a groundbreaking revelation, but it is one we overlook everyday as we maneuver away from community members that shake hands in favor of digital thumbs up or desire our air-conditioned homes over the camaraderie of a summer evening on our front steps.
Between Us: The Downtown Denver Alleyways Project continues in Downtown Denver alleyways, near 16th Street Mall, through May 2019.