ABOVE: Protesters barricade East Market Street on July 24, 2020. Photo courtesy of Jon Cherry

Occupy NuLu As Creative Placemaking

Thoughts On
Allie Fireel

On Friday, July 24th, the Louisville Metro Police showed up in riot gear to shut down what could be seen as a well-designed festival on the 700 block of East Market Street. That block is the center of NuLu, which according to the district’s business association website is “best known for its art galleries, specialty stores, antique shops and a growing number of local, upscale restaurants.” LMPD arrested 76 people, though this event was not unlike the numerous other parties and festivals that have been thrown on the same block over the last decade and a half. There was a DJ, a trampoline, a piano, public art, and a long community table at which everyone was welcome.

There were of course some important differences: this wasn’t a block party, it was a protest, and one of its main complaints is that NuLu has a disproportionate amount of white business owners, white workers, and white artists. Occupy NuLu didn't use polite a-frame parade barricades to shut down the street; they used guerilla protest tactics, rolling out large 55 gallon barrels filled with water. When LMPD rolled up with their familiar “non-lethal” deadly weapons, they robbed Louisville of the chance to grapple with the issues Occupy NuLu was presenting, and became de facto thieves.

In the online aftermath there are plenty of pointing fingers and recriminations about the protest, but I want to step back, take a more distanced look, and examine what the headlines are missing: art.

The protest’s planners were clearly aware that NuLu officially touts itself as being known for its galleries. Even the district's name hints at art gallery coolness; styled after New York City’s “SoHo,” which went from derelict buildings to a thriving arts scene in the 80s, to a present-day tourist spot with boutique shops and upscale restaurants. The fact that NuLu paints itself as an art and culture center was not lost on the organizers of Occupy NuLu. It clearly informed the decision to create an event that was richly aesthetic. As such, it is valuable to understand Occupy NuLu itself as art––specifically, as what we call creative placemaking.

In the 60s, in response to the sense of placelessness that the boom of suburbs, stripmalls,  and other nigh-unwalkable features of the social and literal landscape, the Placemaking movement emerged. Led by thinkers including  Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte, the movement aimed to use imagination and human-centered design principles to create better towns and cities. If there is a single structural tenet, it is that communities need to become thriving ecosystems, and to do that they must be designed for people.

Placemaking is inherently creative, utilizing urban planners, architects, community organizers, and many other place-focused creatives. But somewhere in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s the phrase “creative placemaking” began to pop up with greater frequency in the art world, becoming its own medium and commanding millions of dollars in funding from a myriad of foundations and nonprofits. Louisville has seen its own share of creative placemaking dollars, hundreds of thousands in fact, much—if not most—of which came one of the nation’s leaders in the creative placemaking movement: ArtPlace America. The foundation was formed in 2011, with a plan to spend 104 million dollars over the course of 10 years. On their website, ArtPlace offers excellent definitions of creative placemaking:

“Creative Placemaking is the intentional integration of arts, culture, and community-engaged design strategies into the process of equitable community planning and development. It’s about artists, culture-bearers, and designers acting as allies to creatively address challenges and opportunities. It’s about these artists and all of their allies together contributing to community-defined social, physical, and economic outcomes and honoring a sense of place.”

Normally, creative placemaking is designed to be long term, so while I am using the language and practise of creative placemaking to discuss Occupy NuLu, functionally it could be more accurately described as tactical urbanism. The latter practice uses the same tools and ideas as placemaking, but generally involves a pop-up project meant to test ideas out for the long term possibilities in a location.  

NuLu’s layout actually borrows heavily from placemaking’s took kit, without creative placemaking’s focus on diversity, equity and inclusion in its design and execution. The inequality in NuLu starts with the foundational conception of it as a place. In order for this place to exist, it tore down the Clarksdale Housing Project and displaced many homeless people by spurring the relocation of Wayside Christian Mission.

Describing and discussing Occupy NuLu is difficult. You can’t go see it, and despite a wealth of amatuer social media images, news coverage, and artistically inclined photographers, there was no focus placed on archival documentation. Nonetheless, I want to highlight three visual elements: the paintings that sat next to the list of demands; a brightly painted upright piano, and a community table perhaps thirty feet long which was the epicenter of the protest.

The actual paintings included in Occupy NuLu were placed next to a list of demands. Those demands addressed the surface level of systemic racism at work in NuLu, i.e. the effects of the predominant whiteness of the community, and the way it keeps the Black community out. NuLu is a commercial enterprise, so the movement’s literal demands aren’t focused on equality of opportunities to create, they are focused on the racial inequity found in the commodification of art. The demands set the context for Occupy NuLu. As art, it creates symbolic critiques of the racist commodification of art, and then pairs that critique with symbols, ideas, and themes that lift up Black art and the Black community.  But the paintings speak to the underlying issues and truths that move beyond actionable demands.

The figure is a Black woman, gently holding her child. The meaning is clear, though it would take another thousand words to define the layers of emotion and meaning wrapped up in that single image. The image is also a reminder that Louisville’s protests are led by Black women.

The symbolism of the brightly colored geometric shapes requires a little deeper mining.  Similar designs—and other likewise easily colored or painted shapes—have been used in other pieces of public art in Louisville. An artist creates the design and invites community members, often children, to participate in the art’s creation. That mode of community-involved creation is a strong and frequent element of creative placemaking. It’s also something that happens with some frequency during NuLu’s various block parties, gallery hops, and other big shopping days.

That juxtaposition speaks to the complex and sometimes conflicting nature of the arts community’s relationship with social justice. The same methodologies used to create community-centered public art funded by the city and various arts institutions are also used and commodified to encourage a sense of place in an arts district that is at its base a commercial endeavor. Those shapes embrace love for public art, and deliver a sharp critique for public art. This is a perfect example of the thematic complexity and unity of form and function that was Occupy NuLu. Every element worked on multiple layers, and frequently had an additional real world use that helped form the block party: these paintings helped block the street, the table  provided a place to put food, and the piano provided music.

The second object d’arte of the protest was a gloriously multi-colored upright piano. The symbolism here is both specific to Louisville protests and universal. In the universal sense, movements aimed at justice and equity for Black people are often  intertwined with music created by the Black community. Like much of the rest of the protest, the statement made by the piano has two sides: the love of community and a condemnation of capitalism’s systemic racism, because the piano also points to the way that Black music is appropriated by white artists. The money made in the ensuing commodification generally does not make its way back to the Black community.

Making that piano and its music part of the protest is an act of reclamation and uplifting of community. And it is once again a perfect example of how creative placemaking seeks to link art to community values and invite the community to create. I’m pretty sure Occupy NuLu could have allowed an awesome musician to monopolize the piano, but instead anyone who wanted to could step up to the instrument to play or sing.

The specific symbolism of the piano comes from the fact that the instrument itself has frequently occupied “Injustice Square” for the protests, including the day after the pre-dawn raid on June 28th when LMPD swept through and destroyed the entire “Injustice Square” camp that sprang up across the street from Louisville’s Metro Hall in the first three weeks of protests. I don’t know if the piano was there during the raid, but it was a presence before and after the destruction of the camp. The piano is now in and of itself a symbol of the protests’ resilience. Its message is clear: you can destroy our belongings, or assault us, or break into our homes and kill us, but you can’t silence our music or our voices.

Community tables are the center of some notable creative placemaking projects, such as the long running Weekly Community Dinner offered in Oakland, California by the People’s Kitchen Collection; and Seitu Ken Jones’ ongoing, multi-award winning The Community Meal, which has been recreated at multiple sites. And then there is the 500 Plates tool kit, a downloadable community table how-to found at Creative Exchange. These tables are used to create a sense of community and sustain dialogue where there is none, frequently between new and old residents of a neighborhood.

The table at Occupy Nulu can be symbolically read in a few different ways. Eating together to form and celebrate community is baked into the essence of a plethora of holidays and religious celebrations. Occupy NuLu was not just a protest, it was an invitation. Come and sit and talk. The table also has historical precedent as a way for enemies to come together to barter or celebrate a peace treaty, hence the phrase “come to the table” or “bring to the table.” Occupy NuLu combined both and said, “Be a part of our community and let us stop being enemies.” They came to the table, and brought the table. LMPD dismantled the table.

Black communities are the frequent sites of creative placemaking projects funded by predominantly white institutions. Some institutions have even made strides in bringing Black voices to their staff and their board of directors. Here, Black artists and organizers entered a space controlled by predominantly white business owners, where they conceived and realized an incredible piece of creative placemaking. Yet, we aren’t discussing Occupy NuLu as a piece of art. We aren’t asking if it was “successful” art, or if it has value as a piece of successful placemaking. We aren’t asking what “successful” means when Black people are still being routinely killed and assaulted by police.

Why not?

Perhaps because at the end of the day, it is a white hierarchy with white gatekeepers who decide what is and isn’t fit for funding, thereby controlling the conversation on what is and isn’t art. That hierarchy is far more comfortable with protests and Black artists in retrospective.

Occupy NuLu was art. Occupy NuLu was successful art, and its success can be measured with a mix of well known, emerging, and ever evolving tools.

It succeeded by some well-known standards; it layered urgent themes and ideas with a unity of form and function. Its structure unified complex themes critiquing the systematic racism of capitalism with raising up the Black community using deeply layered symbols; its form and function were similarly unified by taking the form of NuLu’s many sanctioned events. It succeeded by the less-well-known tenets of creative placemaking, which was arguably Occupy NuLu’s medium. It was a walkable, community-oriented event that gave everyone an opportunity to interact with art, and attempted to foster a community-wide conversation about how we create meaning and a sense of place.

But in order to measure the success of the art as protest, we have to get creative. I submit the following criteria: the art’s ability to force uncomfortable conversations that the powerful would rather ignore; the clarity of explicit and implicit critiques in that conversation; the actionability of its implicit and explicit demands. Occupy NuLu was as layered and cogent as work being featured in Louisville’s museums, and it was far more connected to the issues facing our city and our country. It was brave. And in Louisville, no one has created anything like it.

It should be noted that my evaluation of Occupy NuLu is of course another layer of the same racist hierarchy. I’m white. My editor is white. The foundation that predominantly funds Ruckus was started by white people. But I believe it is the responsibility of white writers to do their best to offer Black artists and Black art the attention and examination often denied by the systemic racism in the arts.

What happens next will depend first on whether or not fixtures in Louisville’s art scene, big and small, choose to recognize the importance of Black led placemaking and to metaphorically fix the table that was destroyed at Occupy NuLu. Then, it will depend on Black leadership's willingness to come back to that table, even though last time they were there, riot police arrested them.


Allie Fireel
Contributor to Ruckus

The Occupy NuLu demonstration and a line of LMPD officers on East Market Street. Photo courtesy of @ky_drone_guy.

The Occupy NuLu demonstration on East Market Street. Photo courtesy of @ky_drone_guy.

A list of demands distributed to NuLu businesses on July 24, 2020.
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