Thomas Frank: Why Does Everything Have to be Shiny and "Vibrant"?
Continued from previous page
Is Rockford, Illinois, vibrant? Oh my god yes: according to a local news outlet, the city’s “Mayor’s Arts Award nominees make Rockford vibrant.” The Quad Cities? Check: As their tourism website explains, the four hamlets are “a vibrant community of cities sharing the Mississippi River in both Iowa and Illinois.” Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania? Need you even ask? Pittsburgh is a sort of Athens of the vibrant; a city where dance parties and rock concerts enjoy the vigorous boosting of an outfit called “Vibrant Pittsburgh”; a place that draws young people from across the nation to frolic in its “numerous hip and vibrant neighborhoods,” according to a blog maintained by a consortium of Pittsburgh business organizations.
The vibrations are just as stimulating in the component parts of this exciting new civilization. The people of creative-land use vibrant apps to check their bank accounts, chew on vegetarian “vibrancy bars,” talk to one another on vibrant cellphones, and drive around in cars painted “vibrant white.”
Then there are the unfortunate places from which the big V is said to have receded, like the “once-vibrant” Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, where remediation efforts are thankfully under way. Detroit has for years provided the nation’s thoughtful class with sobering lessons on what happens when the vibrant evaporates, and the fear that such a fate might befall other scenes and other communities still occasionally makes headlines. A looming “shortage of vibrancy” reportedly gave the Connecticut business community quite a scare in 2007, while the city fathers of Cleveland took a peep at all that was vibrating in Seattle back in 2002 and suspected that they were losing the race: “Without that vibrancy, Cleveland may decline.”
The real Sahara of the vibrant, though, is that part of America where lonely Midwestern farmers live among “crumbling reminders of more vibrant days.” This is a land from which vibrancy has withdrawn its blessings; the disastrous depopulation that has followed is, if we follow the guideposts of vibrancy theory, the unavoidable consequence. In small towns, bored teenagers turn their eyes longingly to the exciting doings in the big cities, pining for urban amenities like hipster bars and farmers’ markets and indie-rock festivals. Like everyone else, they want the vibrant and they will not be denied.
But while everyone agrees that “vibrancy” is the ultimate desideratum of urban life, no one seems to be exactly sure what vibrancy is. In fact, the Municipal Art Society of New York recently held a panel discussion—excuse me, a “convening”—of foundation people to talk about “Measuring Vibrancy” (it seems “the impact of arts and cultural investments on neighborhoods . . . is hard to quantify”). In retrospect, it would have been far better to convene such a gathering before all those foundation people persuaded the cities of the nation to blow millions setting up gallery districts and street fairs.
Even ArtPlace, the big vibrancy project of the NEA, the banks, and the foundations, is not entirely sure that vibrancy can be observed or quantified. That’s why the group is developing what it calls “Vibrancy Indicators”: “While we are not able to measure vibrancy directly,” the group’s website admits, “we believe that the measures we are assembling, taken together, will provide useful insights into the nature and location of especially vibrant places within cities.”
What are those measures? Unfortunately, at press time, they had not yet been announced. But a presentation of preliminary work on the “Vibrancy Indicators” did include this helpful directive: “Inform leaders of the connection between vibrancy and prosperity.”
Got that? We aren’t sure what vibrancy is or whether or not it works, but part of the project is nevertheless “informing” people that it does. The meaninglessness of the phrase, like the absence of proof, does not deter the committed friend of the vibrant: if you know it’s the great good thing, you simply push ahead, moving all before you with your millions.