Jam sessions and the creative city
Why cities that enable artists also drive innovative economies
1st Avenue North, Nashville, Tennessee was developed on the building increment of a creative city.
Richard Florida might be the first to tell you that the general interpretation of his Creative Class is too often over simplified. When this happens, artists, skinny jeaners, first adopters, hipsters, super-hipsters, techies, and the like are held up unfairly as an exclusive emergent demographic. But this mischaracterization discredits the majority of people who work at a desk, in the home, on the shop floor, or in the lab rather than the gallery or in the studio. It pits the ordinary worker against an assumed avant-garde elitism in a battle for our urban environments. Rather than being divisive, what Florida describes isn't a class at all but a characteristic; a common innate drive to invent and create that we all share. It is the essential trait of our economies, civilization, and our happiness.
What about our cities enables and sustains this creativity that drives our common livelihood? When we look at it, we find not a world where there is an artist colony and a separate place that everyone else occupies but a common set of town-building parameters that we all need in order to exercise the inherited or acquired creativity we have to offer. The same set of physical characteristics and relationships that allow a city to harbor world-class music, for example, are equally necessary to develop the newest technologies or innovative economies we thrive on. This is what allows a place like Seattle to give the world Nirvana and Pearl Jam as well as Microsoft and Amazon.com or places like Detroit that once give us both Henry Ford and then Motown. The latter example provides important lessons for when you disrupt the evolution of creative cities and the carefully evolved processes within them.
Recently I have been working in Nashville, Tennessee, meeting with, among many others, representatives from the visual arts, music, and business communities to discuss ways that new downtown development can reinforce Nashville's legacy as one of the most creative cities in North America. The central question of this exploration is what about this city allows Nashvillians to use it to develop explosive musical talent generation after generation while developing brains at an equally impressive rate?
The answer is two fold. First is in figuring out how Nashvillians use the city and the second is the way the city itself is (or traditionally has been) organized to support this use.
In many ways, people who live or visit Nashville are a lot like everywhere else in the United States. But one habit that isn't as developed in all cities as it is in Nashville is the Jam Session. Jam sessions bring together musicians in a variety of venues to experiment, test, and create music in ways that are as high in energy as they are unscripted. Artists meet in places that are either impromptu or established to form the creative foundation for the entire industry. These sessions quickly allow musicians and audiences to tinker with what works and what doesn't to efficiently remove those ideas that are not working and propel those that do. This trial and error engine generates enormous numbers of styles, ideas, and artists who then either stay in Nashville to grow or move on to other corners of the world. It could be considered one of the city's chief exports.
It is in this same spirit that the Nashville Entrepreneur Center was formed to cultivate the economic development equivalent to Jam Sessions. Just as her musicians come together to innovate, collaborate, tinker, and test, Nashville entrepreneurs are coming together both organically and through venues such as the Entrepreneur Center to develop new partnerships and ideas. This spirit not only spawns new enterprises but creates an atmosphere that welcomes relocated companies and the growth of old ones. It breeds a culture that thrives on change over stasis which positions Nashville well to shift gears quickly in the wake of unforeseen events such as a national economic collapse or calamities such as a major flood in 2010.
Elements of a Creative City
If not for key physical attributes, Nashvillians could not have used their city in the highly adaptive and productive manner described above. Even with the historical inertia of the Grand Ole Opry, the music and accompanying entrepreneurial scene could not have taken root. Use patterns such as jam sessions could not have evolved as the innovation engine that it is today. These attributes are:
1. Hierarchy of venues/spaces
As musicians develop, they carefully move up the musical venue food chain. Jam sessions start in garages and basements but as different combinations of musicians gain foothold, slowly move up into any number of the small coffee shops, bars, or other hole-in-the-wall scenes. Nashville, and cities like her (Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, and Austin, for example), have hundreds of these small places. Moving up, these revolving combinations of musicians, now formed into bands, get sets at clubs and other stages where they can attract a larger following. Parks, public squares, festivals, arenas and stadiums provide the later rungs from there. Each step of the way musicians and their producers are carefully matching investments in marketing and venues to the scale of the operation and success of the idea ensuring that the size of the venue never exceeds the act’s ability to pack it.
2. Affordable, hyper-adaptive buildings that age well
Nashville has a diverse stock of buildings that were practically constructed and whose simplicity has allowed them to adapt to changing market needs through time. Although, like most other cities, newer buildings largely fail to abide by this pattern, they have pulled uses out of the aging stock to allow creative reuse at price points that allow musicians and startups to access and afford them. Nashville's "District" where most of the downtown nightlife is housed is a notable example of this phenomena as is Music Row that house a number of producers and record labels in buildings adapted from other uses. This flexibility in use affords great resilience to economic changes and positions the city well to take take advantage of unforeseen opportunities.
Hyper-adaptive building types in downtown Nashville
3. Compression, Connectivity, and Inter-Mixing
Practical, well-constructed buildings are not enough. Cities such as Nashville thrive on compression and interconnectivity between buildings, places, and users. This allows strangers and acquaintances to come together comfortably and organically to perform and exchange ideas. This is the birthplace of technology (in the classic sense of the word) and the hotbed of innovation where new ideas are constantly emerging from old ones. Nashville's recent love affair (like most of the western world) with suburbs or their downtown equivalent, the skyscraper, strain what used to be a tightly woven fabric of urban chemistry. Those areas that are spared from this approach have shown to be the most favorable in allowing this tradition of constant innovation to persist.
4. Found Spaces
All creative cities have a magic to them, a spirit of the unexpected that gives them their unique identity. Central to this sense of surprise and serendipity is a public realm that provides a canvas for "public space entrepreneurs" to set roots as vendors, performers, tourists, recreators, or simply someone wishing to read a good book or think. These places come in many forms but, in the United States at least, usually stem from a street-based system of open space. We know them as storefronts, courtyards, alleys/lanes, under bridges, or other small, urban rooms. It is the great meeting room where industries and personalities collide and output new relationships, friendships, and markets.
5. Cross-supportive industries
Adding up characteristics one through four yields the fifth element and the true power of the creative city. When people are provided a hierarchy of venues in hyper adaptive building types that are compressed along or around found spaces, the opportunity for industries to spring other new industries (and exports as Jane Jacobs points out) drives local economies and innovations. This is true economic growth. This is what allowed Nashville's railroad industry that was connected to the region and nation to attract National Life and Accident Insurance Company to set up its broadcast center in Nashville. This broadcast center gave the platform for what became the Grand Ole Opry to entertain a country by attracting the best musicians to what later became The Music City to perform. From music sprang a record label industry which allowed the city to spawn an entertainment industry giving print shops (such as Hatch Show Print) and publishers an environment to flourish. Over time, the long-time presence of competing insurance companies attracted and retained healthcare provider innovations and entrepreneurship. Technical innovations that shared their roots in Vanderbilt (brought by the railroad wealth) and healthcare later inspired manufactures such as Dell and Nissan to locate major presences there. A robust and interdependent economic web thus formed.
When people are provided a hierarchy of venues in hyper adaptive building types that are compressed along or around found spaces, the opportunity for industries to spring other new industries drives local economies and innovations.
Nashville's Ryman Auditorium (rear) and Broadway are examples of the creative urban fabric
Building the creative city
The music industry is brutal. One day you are a chart topper and the next you're a has-been. There are no musicians that are too big to fail, no bail out packages, and little industry protectionism of even the biggest stars (aside from maybe getting a better second record deal). The artists with the most staying power continuously invent and reinvent, write and rewrite, and evolve with the times even as they keep the core values and strengths of their persona as an individual or a band. Great cities act like the music industry in investing in those things (communication, recording, promoting, talent searching) that continuously make it stronger with time.
But not all cities are like the music industry. Many are like corporations. They tend to tense up as they grow and age. This generally tilts policy and behavior toward protecting largeness at the expense of the more resilient scale of the tinkerers, innovators, and startups. The effects of doing so can be seen in our urban landscapes where fine grain transportation networks slowly devolve into large monocultural arterial and collector systems; when many small parcels and buildings get assembled into creating super-blocks and mega structures; and where large public projects (usually to attract state and federal transfer payments) supplant former investments in city-scaled, value-creating civic infrastructure such as water, waste, communications, and transportation and social infrastructure such as schools, parks, libraries, and public safety.
As we re-inhabit our old towns and neighborhoods, we have much to learn from the creative cities we inherit if we are to build resilient, adaptable, and sustainable places that will have economies that will endure. We must avoid falling to the temptation of shortchanging this natural economic process as that surely will leave the places we cherish fragile and susceptible to perturbations in markets, climates, demographics, and other factors that we cannot forecast. We must act practically and at a scale that promotes our everyday jam sessions.
Joe Nickol is an urban design and real estate development advisor with Urban Design Associates in Pittsburgh, PA, focused on the regeneration of urban centers and neighborhoods in North America and abroad. He is also the cofounder of www.Street-Sense.org, where this blog previously appeared.
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