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Culture of economic development

Empirical formulations only tell part of the story of how the economy works — and what can bring about an economic revival.

In his travels and research, Frederick Wherry has delved into the relationship among culture, people, community and the spending patterns that shape and define an economy. His analysis of the role of identity in marketplaces presented in several acclaimed books offers a synthetic construction of the cultural-economic field, demonstrating in lucid detail the connection between markets and culture.

Wherry, an economic sociologist at the University of Michigan, offers compelling illustrations drawn from empirical research that demonstrate the vital link between the arts and economic development. His findings of how the arts served as a catalyst to revive a long-suffering Philadelphia neighborhood — infamously known as “The Badlands” — has been published in “The Philadelphia Barrio: The Arts, Branding and Neighborhood Transformation” (University of Chicago Press, July 2011).

In 1995, a poor, high-crime, economically downtrodden section of Philadelphia was an emblem of social decay, and the subject of an ABC News “Nightline” report, “The Badlands: Death of an American Neighborhood.” By 2003, however, the neighborhood earned national distinction for producing arts and attracting artists, visitors and businesses to the area. “I went to Philadelphia to find out what were the reasons for the transformation,” said Wherry. “Arts movements sometimes tamp down the notion of a disorderly, chaotic place.

“You can’t pretend you don’t have troubles,” he said. “You need to acknowledge problems of crime or whatever and get people to think about transformation in the presence of those troubles.”

Because the heart of the arts is about fostering connections between artist and viewer, there is a natural link between promoting an arts district and attracting people to a neighborhood, said Wherry, who noted the infusion of artists and galleries in the Philadelphia barrio led to a local economic development organization pooling money to renovate sidewalks and the infrastructure.

“When artists show up, they bring their expanded networks with them,” he said. “The arts work well (as a force for economic development) in tandem with local business owners.”

The research, said Wherry, provides a natural pathway for thinking about the role of the arts in economic development, and how property values and the perceived worth of a place are evaluated.

For more information on Frederick Wherry, please visit his website

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