Flint, MI—What’s Up Downtown Project one of the few placemaking entities in Flint that describes its work as “placemaking,” recently saw its figurehead, Kady Yellow, move on to a new role in Jacksonville, Fl.
When the Binghamton, N.Y. native came to Flint, she had already worked in placemaking for nearly a decade in New Orleans, Alaska, and Ireland, among other places. Yellow leaves having been the only person to hold the Director of Placemaking role at the What’s Up Downtown Project, also known as WUDT, since it was formed in 2020.
During her tenure, Yellow and WUDT helped showcase Flint artists, musicians, poets, and food vendors at events in downtown alleys; organize the city’s PorchFest series; and bring dozens of the country’s leading placemakers to Flint for National Placemaking Week 2021.
But Yellow also went both literally and figuratively beyond the bounds of WUDT’s mission—to “pair people with places and programs” in downtown Flint—by working with community leaders and nonprofits to bring placemaking programming across the entire city.
She also gave what a lot of people were already doing—hosting music festivals and pop-up markets, painting murals over abandoned buildings, organizing neighborhood cleanups—a name: placemaking.
“The people that are spearheading these placemaking movements in different cities, they’re simply creatives, they’re visionaries,” said Jerin Sage, Interim Director of Placemaking for WUDT.
Sage said he was confused the first time Yellow identified him, an event producer and business owner, as a “placemaker.” But after working with her over the last two years he realized that’s what he and so many other Flint residents really are.
“They are, most of the time, artists in some respect of their own, that have different experiences, whether that’s through traditional artists’ means or maybe art education or programming, administration, even down to like, neighborhood development,” he said.
Yellow’s former position at WUDT is funded until the end of 2022 by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Now, in her absence, WUDT’s guiding committee, the Greater Flint Arts Council under which it is housed, and the Flint community itself are considering what comes next for placemaking in the city.
WHAT IS PLACEMAKING?
In an interview ahead of Placemaking Week 2021, Yellow said, “My position is new, but the concept isn’t, Flint residents have always been placemaking.”
One such resident is Greg Fiedler, president and CEO of the Greater Flint Arts Council, What’s Up Downtown’s fiduciary.
“I developed my definition of placemaking from the Americans for the Arts,” said Fiedler. “As it relates to us, it’s the use of arts and culture by diverse partners to strategically shape the physical and social character of a place in order to spur economic development promoted during social change, and improve the physical environment.”
Or to simplify, “If someone has a positive experience in a certain location, then whenever they think of that location they’re going to recall that positive experience that they had there,” he said.
Fiedler views placemaking as a tool for community engagement as well as economic development. He said that positive experiences created or fostered through GFAC, WUDT, and their partners can translate to repeat visits and spending in downtown Flint.
“For instance, the Artwalk program is a quintessential placemaking activity,” Fiedler said. “Because not only did people learn to love the Artwalk, but they learned to love all the locations (associated with it). … And through that, it has developed their opinion of downtown.”
Before her departure, Yellow also pointed to some of Flint’s other long running placemaking projects as points of reference for how to explain her work.
She cited the continuing development of Chevy Commons as a great example of placemaking and talked about events produced by now-interim placemaking director Jerin Sage, founder of Flint Drop Fest.
“Creative placemaking is a ground up approach, where you’re really grassroots digging in to see what, as (Yellow) always said, defined the essence of the community,” said Sage. “And then to accelerate that through different services and through different resources and stuff that normally wouldn’t be available to your common, everyday artists.”
Sage has been interim director of placemaking for just a few weeks, and has yet to move into Yellow’s old office at the Ferris Wheel building. Instead, he discussed placemaking from an orange bean bag chair nearby her former door.
“And so, in Flint, the office of placemaking is simply that bridge. It’s that access to those resources to be able to maybe dive deeper than what you could on your own, to network, to meet other artists, to meet sponsors, to meet funders, to meet venue owners.”
In Sage’s eyes, Yellow formalized and centralized placemaking for the Flint community, though he agreed the activity itself had already been happening for years.
“We all know we’re creatives. We all know that we’re passionate. We know that there’s just things in this city that need to be done, that no one else is going to do, and no one’s going to pay you to do,” he said. “And so those people that do it—and have been doing it out there—finally being called out for it was absolutely amazing.”
PLACEMAKING IS COMPLICATED
As defined by the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit organization that has been doing placemaking work since 1975 and helped formalize the term in the ’90s, placemaking is “an overarching idea and a hands-on approach for improving a neighborhood, city, or region.”
For some Flint residents, however, the idea of improving an area can also mean disrespect for what’s already here.
“Placemaking is a code word for gentrification,” said Jo Ikigai, a Flint poet who provided their professional services for many WUDT projects last year.
“Anytime that you’re having people who are not from a community come into a community to make it a better place,” Ikigai said, lifting their fingers in air quotes around the word “better,” ”you’re inherently setting up this power dynamic. Like, we can save ourselves.”
Ikigai said that they had issues with Yellow for some time before her departure, alleging that the placemaking director had been late to pay them on multiple occasions and didn’t provide contracts to many of the artists she hired for WUDT activations.
Yellow did not talk to Flint Beat for this story, but she did send a text message saying the allegations around her not paying artists on time were false.
“It’s just politics, you know?” said Eartha Logan, a member of Flint Residents Organized for Good, about the city’s mixed response to Yellow and her work. Logan said she came to view Yellow as an adopted daughter while collaborating with her on a PorchFest event in Flint’s second ward.
“I told her I was going to do her like my children,” Logan said. “If I saw something that I didn’t think was going good I would tell her—because I would tell my children the same thing. So we developed a really good relationship with each other.”
Logan went on to say that Yellow’s departure did not signal the end of the placemaking work she started, it just meant it was time for others to pick it up.
“My mother told me when we were growing up: ‘Never think you’re the only one that can do something,'” Logan said. “‘Teach other people what you know, bring in their talents along with your own, and continue on whatever effort you started with that person or without that person.'”
But that’s what Ikigai argued was lacking in Yellow’s approach: teaching people necessary skills, like grant writing, to do placemaking work on their own.
“I learned from her,” Ikigai said. “Even if it wasn’t the way she probably thought she wanted to be a teacher. I learned because I want to do the work she thought she was doing. I want to actually teach these classes and empower other people to be good enough writers to secure funding for themselves.”
Ikigai said that, moving forward, they want to see the Flint community brought into the city’s placemaking process instead of having others dictate it to them.
“I want (Yellow) to learn a lesson that a lot of people, specifically white people, need to know as they engage in these spaces,” Ikigai said. “It’s not the funding that’s the problem. It’s how do you fund? How do you engage? How do you empower? Empowerment isn’t waiting until you run out of money, and then telling us “You guys need to learn how to grant write,'” they said. “Why weren’t we doing any of that all summer?”
THE FUTURE OF PLACEMAKING IN FLINT
Other Flint residents who worked with Yellow and WUDT said they did feel empowered by their placemaking experiences over the last two years.
“Kady was just one of those individuals that I think that the city needed at that time,” said Jamelle Glover, founder of In The Beginning: First Ward Project, a nonprofit community outreach and neighborhood resource group.
Glover said he already felt confident in his grant writing skills thanks to his nonprofit, but he added that Yellow injected the city with “new life” and helped him and others with their vision.
Yellow helped “in terms of green space availability, occupying things that we all looked at as blighted, and things that we just overlooked,” Glover said.
Glover teamed up with Yellow on multiple projects, including one of the 2021 PorchFest events in Flint’s first ward.
He said that regardless of who or what entity is in charge of placemaking moving forward, he hopes they will consider looking further than just the city’s downtown.
“I’m not so much focused downtown,” Glover said. “I would like for the downtown area to penetrate more of these inner pocket communities.”
Like Fiedler of GFAC, Glover recognizes placemaking is a tool for economic development, wherever it happens.
He offered an example of how Gus Macker, a basketball competition that returned to Flint in 2021 and was hosted on the downtown flat lot, could have looked had “pocket communities” been involved.
“We could have utilized our leaders and said, ‘Hey, listen, we’re going to have the 12 and under girls division at Potter School, okay? We’re going to have the 10 and under boys division, that’ll be a Clara Hilborn Park,’” Glover said.
“That would’ve brought residents out to those pocket areas … and then those local vendors from those actual pocket areas could have been there.”
While Glover envisions placemaking beyond downtown, the head of What’s Up Downtown’s guiding committee, Dr. Bobby Mukkamala, said he doesn’t see such work aligning with WUDT’s goal, even if it was part of its inception.
“The core mission of downtown placemaking is obviously to bring people into downtown as opposed to doing things in neighborhoods outside of downtown,” Mukkamala said. “Not that that doesn’t have merit, but it’s not really the focus of our work.”
Mukkamala said he believed that Yellow got involved with projects outside of Flint’s downtown because “she was good at what she did, and she had a lot of energy and people saw that she could add value to their projects also.”
He said that such work made sense during the height of COVID, when bringing hundreds of people to a space was a major heath risk or illegal.
But, as Mukkamala and other stakeholders consider the future of placemaking in Yellow’s stead, he said, the “downtown” part of downtown placemaking has to be of greater priority.
“I wouldn’t say that that’s the purpose of this downtown placemaking work, to do work in neighborhoods,” he said. “It’s more to figure out what those people in the neighborhoods want to do and see when they come downtown and make sure we have it.”
Mukkamala said WUDT’s guiding committee is going through a strategic planning process over the next few weeks to identify what qualities they are looking for in their next director.
“I would say that they need to have an understanding or develop an understanding for the history of downtown,” he said. “What’s currently available downtown, what the void is that we’re trying to fill—and then also be connected to this sort of work outside of Flint, because this exists already in many cities.”
Though no final hiring timeline was offered, Greg Fiedler, CEO of the Greater Flint Arts Council, said that he expected a strategy session between WUDT and GFAC would be happening later this month, “before we move ahead with plans to fill that position permanently.”
A previous version of this article stated that Jerin Sage helped put on First Fridays: Sound and Vision events in downtown’s Brush Alley. He was not part of that event series.