by Joseph O’Connell
In the late 1970s, Bedford, Indiana began investing in the construction of a nine-story-tall pyramid. Made from locally-quarried limestone, the pyramid was intended as the centerpiece and chief attraction of a heritage park interpreting the local architectural stone industry. As a symbol, it would invite the comparison between Bedford’s achievements and those of a great, ancient civilization. As a tourist destination, it would bolster the local economy at a time when the stone business itself was faltering. At least, that was the idea. After a series of setbacks and a lot of public scrutiny, the project was finally abandoned.
One might claim that the model of cultural tourism behind the Bedford pyramid is also nearly abandoned. Instead of staging places in grand, monumental gestures, tourism initiatives are now more likely to focus on offering immersive experiences of local life. Increasingly, a city’s appeal to visitors derives from its everyday culture and not from mass, one-size-fits-all attractions. Ironically, these changes have made the Bedford pyramid a kind of accidental success; as a quirky legend and difficult-to-find ruin, it attracts a new breed of in-the-know guerrilla tourists.
The importance of everyday life in contemporary tourism accords with recent theories of the “creative economy,” which identify culture and lifestyle as emerging drivers of economic growth. From the perspective of creative economy thinkers, a city with a trend-setting, alternative ethos (think Portland, Oregon) is better positioned as a destination than one that just has, for example, great public artworks and museums. Local culture, in its live, intangible form, is at a premium.
As cities everywhere search for their particular genius loci, they risk planning development that is place-themed but not place-rooted. In Indiana, the image and idea of limestone can imbue any activity, from visiting a microbrewery to attending a comedy festival, with a certain amount of local identity. However, branding experiences with the icons of locality does not always successfully distinguish them from those of other places. Falling into the mode that tourism scholars Greg Richards and Julie Wilson call “serial reproduction,” cities adopt the same creative economy approaches that succeeded in other places. This has the opposite of the desired effect, as formulaically revitalized places begin to blend together. Clearly, local names and references are not enough to represent local culture. To avoid serial reproduction, cities require a better understanding, at the community level, of the creativity that already exists within their limits.
Public folklorists are well positioned to bridge the gap between local culture and the development policy that seeks to engage it. In our discipline, any attempt to represent a place begins with fieldwork. Our methods focus on conducting outreach, building relationships, and documenting culture. By prioritizing fieldwork, we get to know the forms of creativity that hold local value. Importantly, we also get to know the people who put these forms into practice and the contexts in which they thrive. This is the kind of work required if we expect creative economy growth to emerge from a place itself.
Returning to Indiana limestone offers one example of a folkloristic approach to a project with economic development goals. In 2012, the folklife organization Traditional Arts Indiana partnered with convention and visitors bureaus in two counties to help program Limestone Month, a region-wide celebration of stone industry heritage. Drawing on fieldwork I conducted in the months prior to the event, we collaborated with stone workers to stage a series of interactive demonstrations and discussions. These programs appealed to visitors’ interest in the lived experience of Indiana limestone. (Some even tried their hand at cutting stone!) The programs also succeeded in connecting the stone work community to the mainstream public celebration, making new opportunities for these skilled craftspeople to promote their artwork, businesses, and the towns where they work.
Here in North Carolina, folklorists were doing place-rooted economic development work long before the idea of the creative economy became popular. Projects such as the Blue Ridge Music Trails are a model for how to promote places without trying to fundamentally change them, placing emphasis on their existing character and living communities. Continuing the legacy of this work could make a particularly significant impact in North Carolina’s struggling small towns and cities, which suffer from a trend of population loss.
Taking a place-rooted approach to developing the creative economy means broadly involving the people who live in a place. From a public folklore perspective, close collaboration between development planners and local communities serves overlapping pragmatic and ethical purposes. Without grassroots support and shared understandings of local culture, projects aimed at boosting a place’s creative economy are likely to stall, remaining impositions from outside. In contrast, emphasizing community-level involvement has the potential to bring places into focus and give cultural practitioners themselves ownership over the development process. Creative economy advocates are discovering what folklorists already know—that you can’t foster local culture without being responsive to the people who harbor it.
Thank you to Joy Salyers and Sally Peterson for conversations that informed this post. Thanks also to Josephine McRobbie for her editorial help and to Will Claytor for sharing his photography.
Richards, Greg, and Julie Wilson. “Developing Creativity in Tourist Experiences: A Solution to the Serial Reproduction of Culture?” Tourism Management 27, no. 6 (2006): 1209-1223.