2014

Creative Interventions Tour

Artist Hunter Franks sets out to change the conversation in four American cities

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The Challenge

How do you break down social barriers and build community in a world that seems to becoming increasingly fragmented and contentious? If you’re San Francisco-based artist Hunter Franks, you start with some postcards, tape and chalk, and add people. 

Franks is the mastermind behind the Creative Interventions Tour, a yearlong project designed to spark connections among people from diverse social and economic backgrounds in four American cities. The tour, which was supported by a $59,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, included three-week stops in Macon, Georgia; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Akron, Ohio; and Detroit, Michigan.

In each city Franks visited, he worked with local organizations to craft engaging, often playful activities designed to address the specific needs of each community. The overall objective, however, remained the same: to build stronger communities by fostering connections among people who ordinarily might have little contact with each other.

“People really do want to connect, but sometimes they just don’t know how,” Franks explained. “So I help them by inserting the opportunity for fun and spontaneous connection into the urban landscape.”

“I get it,” the 28-year-old artist added. “We all need our personal space. But, when we don’t talk to each other, we are left to rely on how people look and what we’ve heard about them to form our opinion of them. Stereotypes arise and lead to fear of other people. We need to stop this cycle. We need to talk to each other, to hear each other’s stories.”

That view was echoed by Carol Coletta, vice president of community and national initiatives for Knight Foundation, who worked with Franks in organizing the Creative Interventions Tour. “People increasingly find themselves isolated, having contact only with people who share their political views, their economic status and their intense interests,” Coletta said. “This limits the potential for all of us to learn from each other and create communities that embrace progress together.” 

What Coletta and Knight Foundation found particularly appealing about Franks’ proposal was its potential to leverage small-scale, temporary activities to create wide-scale and — hopefully — lasting impacts. “This project is a fast, fun way to start building community without waiting for longer-term initiatives to take shape,” she remarked.

The Approach

Franks concocted a crazy quilt of imaginative activities designed to draw people out of their natural social habitats and induce them to interact with strangers. The Neighborhood Postcard Project, for example, invites residents of underrepresented neighborhoods to write a brief personal positive story about their community on postcards, which are then mailed to random residents in other parts of their city. “It is a way to change people’s perceptions in the form of a surprise piece of mail with a positive personal story about a neighborhood people may have only seen or heard one side of,” Franks explained.

Another popular activity on the Tour, called First Love, invited people to write a story about their first love and post it on a public wall for passersby to read. The project aims to show people that regardless of where we come from or what we look like, we all share the story of a first love. Other activities were as simple as spray-painting hearts on vacant buildings or duct taping a “dance zone” on a public sidewalk.

In addition to inspiring civic engagement, the Tour also sought to reclaim underused spaces and activate them as shared community spaces. In Macon, for example, Franks and his collaborators activated the vacant historic Capricorn Studio — where Southern Rock music legends like the Allman Brothers Band and the Charlie Daniels Band had once recorded — to post “Love Notes to Macon” and host a community potluck.

In an effort to keep the positive energy flowing after he left town, Franks established a chapter of the League of Creative Interventionists in each of the four cities he visited. The League was founded by Franks in early 2014 to expand his vision of building community through creativity on a global scale. League chapters meet once a month and carry out a creative intervention in public space to get strangers interacting.

Macon, GA

The first stop on the Creative Interventions Tour was Macon, an old textiles and mill city with a rich cultural legacy facing challenges of blight and disinvestment. Franks carried out multiple activities (viewable on the map to the right) and collaborated with numerous local organizations to break down social barriers and engage locals. For one project, he partnered with the Macon Roving Listeners, a group led by Stacey Harwell out of the Centenary Church, to visit residents of the historic Beall’s Hill neighborhood and collect their favorite family recipes — some passed down through generations — that were later published in a Macon Community Cookbook. Among the toothsome recipes appearing in the book were Brenda’s Double-Chocolate Cherry Biscotti and Pam’s Killer Brownies. “Food is important. People take a lot of pride in their family recipes,” Franks noted. The cookbook, he added, gave them an opportunity to tell their stories through the universal language of food.

Everyone who submitted a recipe to the cookbook was invited to bring a dish to a community potluck at the end of the month. Both the participants and the random recipients of postcards from the Neighborhood Postcard Project were invited to the potluck. Over 50 people showed up at the vacant Historic Capricorn Recording Studio for an evening of music, food, and games. In addition, all of the postcards that had been collected were temporarily displayed on the side of the building, adding some love to a building that had not seen any love in a while.

Franks used love to bring Maconites together throughout his three weeks there. He created a community chalkboard asking locals to share why they love Macon, collected positive neighborhoods stories for the Neighborhood Postcard Project, asked residents to share the story of their first love for a public display, and painted hearts on abandoned houses. Many people focus on the challenges that Macon faces and these projects gave residents an outlet to share some of the great things about their community. “Macon faces many challenges,” said Franks, “but there are plenty of passionate citizens with a strong desire to change the conversation about the place they call home.”

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  • I Love Macon Wall32.836299-83.628286http://2014tour.creativeinterventionists.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/citour7-300x225.jpg

    Residents of Macon are rarely asked what they love about their city. The I Love Macon chalkboard wall invited passerby to publicly add what they love about their city to this temporary installation.

  • First Love Project32.835650-83.627417http://2014tour.creativeinterventionists.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/citour9-300x225.jpg

    Stories of people's first love along with a portrait of them were collected and displayed in public.

  • Neighborhood Postcard Project32.844752-83.653957http://2014tour.creativeinterventionists.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/page3_pp-300x225.jpg

    Franks collected positive stories of underrepresented Macon neighborhoods from various locations, including Campus Clubs, a community development center. These postcards were mailed to random people in other Macon neighborhoods to break down social barriers and build connections .

  • Community Potluck32.832975-83.627195http://2014tour.creativeinterventionists.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/citour8-300x225.jpg

    The community was invited to come together for a potluck activating the vacant Capricorn Recording Studio for one evening, with music, games, and food.

  • Macon Community Cookbook32.831206-83.646193http://2014tour.creativeinterventionists.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/page3_cookbook-300x225.jpg

    Franks partnered with the Macon Roving Listeners to collect people's favorite homemade recipes. They went around to different Macon neighborhoods, hearing diverse stories and collecting unique recipes which were put together into a cookbook that was distributed around Macon.

  • Neighborhood Postcard Project Party32.832796-83.646715http://2014tour.creativeinterventionists.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/page3_PostcardParty-300x225.jpg

    Franks partnered with local organization Groundsource to allow Maconites to submit what they loved about their neighborhood via text message, email, or phone. A party was held to transform these messages of neighborhood love into postcards which were then mailed out to people in different neighborhoods.

  • Heartbombing32.845747-83.639239http://2014tour.creativeinterventionists.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/page3_heartbombing-300x225.jpg

    Franks painted hearts on abandoned houses in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood, creating a visual reminder that these houses are loved and still filled with potential. Some of these hearts were even turned into larger messages by local artist Rudy Mendes that read “I [heart] Pleasant Hill.”

  • League Chapter Launch32.836169-83.631129http://2014tour.creativeinterventionists.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/citour6-300x225.jpg

    Over 50 people turned out for the launch of the Macon League chapter, as Franks led participants in a brainstorm of creative ideas to Macon more playful.

League continues work

To sustain this energy he found, Franks established a local Macon chapter of his League of Creative Interventionists. A few weeks after Franks left Macon, the local chapter took up the banner, setting up a series of lemonade stands around town. While the lemonade was tasty, the real purpose of the stands was to engage residents and invite them to share positive stories about their neighborhood. “They might have seemed like simple lemonade stands, but they were really something more,” said Mark Vanderhoek, leader of the local chapter. “They were places for people to think about, and embrace, what is good about where they live and look to a brighter future.”

The stands were a big hit with residents, who were more than happy to share their stories over a refreshing glass of lemonade. “We heard from hundreds of people who had something good to say about their neighborhoods,” said Vanderhoek. “We found the love in this city, love for neighbors, and love for our neighborhoods.”

One feel-good story came from Pleasant Hill, once the thriving heart of the black community in Macon, which has been wracked by declining population and increasing crime in recent years. What the lemonade socials made clear was that many residents still cared deeply about their neighborhood and were working to make it better. “Parents still look out for their children. Its blighted properties have given way to a community garden. Children make friends, fall in love, and grow up,” Vanderhoek observed. “It is these stories that we can hold onto and build on as we look to a future of prosperity in our city.”

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The next stop on the Tour was Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, where Franks worked on several projects in the Belmont section of West Philadelphia, a historically black neighborhood riven by crime and blight. Franks stayed in Belmont during his time there, giving him a unique view into the beauty of the people that live there. He noted that neighbors say hello to each other and spend time out on their porches, giving the neighborhood a tight-knit feeling that can be hard to find in large cities. “Everyone in Philadelphia knows that Belmont faces challenges of blight and poverty but that is only part of the picture,” said Franks. “The social ties that exist between neighbors there is extraordinary.”

To help change the negative perception of Belmont, Franks partnered with the Philadelphia Mural Arts
Program to organize a crowd-sourced mural-painting project at a local charter school. Franks outlined the words of the inspirational phrase “Reach High and You Will Go Far” and invited residents from nearby neighborhoods to spend some time in Belmont and help fill in the mural. He printed up 50 postcards describing the project, attached a paintbrush and a tube of paint to each one, and randomly dropped them in the mailboxes of residents of neighborhoods near the University of Pennsylvania. The mural filled in over the next week as neighbors came by to add their paint, creating a positive, shared space.

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  • Neighborhood Postcard Project39.960253-75.199848http://2014tour.creativeinterventionists.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/page5_PostcardProject-300x225.jpg

    Franks partnered with People's Emergency Center in West Philadelphia to collect positive stories of the underrepresented West Philly neighborhoods. Postcards were then sent to neighborhoods all over Philadelphia.

  • Social Mural39.966743-75.204892http://2014tour.creativeinterventionists.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/citour10-300x225.jpg

    The mural created a shared space for residents from Belmont and the nearby West Powelton neighborhood to come together. Franks created the outline for the mural and then sent out postcards complete with paint in a tube and brush to random residents in West Powelton inviting them to come and add their paint to the wall.

  • Museum of You39.955175-75.181079http://2014tour.creativeinterventionists.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/page5_museumofyou-300x225.jpg

    The Museum of You was a temporary installation at Philadelphia's renowned public space, the Porch. The museum celebrated the diverse yet shared experiences of things we value. Passersby become visitors to the museum by writing a story about an object they value or cherish and hanging it up to share with others.

  • First Love Project39.958308-75.160086http://2014tour.creativeinterventionists.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/page5_firstlove-300x225.jpg

    Franks partnered with Asian Arts Initiative to activate a nearby alley with the stories of people's first love.

  • League Chapter Launch39.957288-75.158713http://2014tour.creativeinterventionists.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/page5_Leaguelaunch-300x225.jpg

    The Philly League chapter launch included the creation of a Slow Lane on a downtown sidewalk using duct tape. The Slow Lane encouraged passersby to take stop and take some time at the dance station, photo station, or hopscotch.

Museum of You

In another Philadelphia project, called “The Museum of You,” Franks created an installation outside “the Porch,” a bustling public space adjacent to 30th Street Train Station in West Philadelphia and invited people to share a story of an object they cared about. Participants wrote their object and story on a piece of fabric and then hung that fabric on a line of string that connected several of the patio umbrellas over the seating at the Porch.

Fifty people participated over three days, and wrote about everything from watches to keys, of which person wrote “my keys are important to me because they get me home to him after a bad day at work, and drive me to the places I can escape to.” Another participant wrote that her most important object was her sketchbook because “it allows me to express myself and observe the world around me. Without my sketchbook I wouldn’t have my voice.” The idea, Franks said, was “to hear people’s stories, to hear what’s important to them” while at the same time encouraging them to “think about common objects in a new light and to imagine their public space a little differently.”

Akron, Ohio

The next stop on the Tour was Akron, Ohio, nicknamed “The Rubber City” because it was once a hub for the rubber industry and other manufacturers. When those industries began to decline in the mid-20th century, Akron fell into a prolonged economic slump from which it has never fully recovered. “To understand Akron you have to understand its past,” Franks observed. “Some people still remember when the city was a vibrant place, but that was 40 or 60 years ago. There isn’t a lot of civic pride anymore. We needed to change the conversation.”

In an effort to inject vibrancy into the city core, Franks cooked up a mashup of creative interventions, including several duct tape fence installations that read “I Love Akron Too,” a persuasive message to exhibit collective civic pride.

Franks also carried out his largest Neighborhood Postcard Project to date, partnering with the Akron Mayor’s Office to collect over 600 stories from 17 different neighborhood sites during the annual Night Out Against Crime. Postcards were also collected from the Akron Public Library, and these postcards were collected and displayed at the Akron Art Museum, whose represent many socioeconomic groups. Museum patrons were then invited to sign up to receive a random postcard in the mail.

“Hunter’s projects are still talked about and have made a significant impact in the minds of many Akronites,” said David Swirsky, who heads up the Akron League chapter.

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  • Neighborhood Postcard Project41.077992-81.521307http://2014tour.creativeinterventionists.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/page7_PostcardProject1-300x225.jpg

    Franks partnered with the Mayor's Office and the Akron Peacemakers to collect over 600 postcards at 17 different sites throughout Akron during the Night Out Against Crime.

  • I Love Akron Too41.085600-81.519001http://2014tour.creativeinterventionists.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/page7_ILoveAkronToo-300x225.jpg

    This temporary duct tape installation at various Akron sites encouraged a collective civic pride.

  • First Love Project41.083679-81.513717http://2014tour.creativeinterventionists.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/citour111-300x225.jpg

    Summit Artspace hosted the First Love Project in their gallery, and Franks placed stories on a clothesline on the sidewalk outside the gallery to activate the space and invite passersby inside.

  • League Chapter Launch41.084411-81.515718http://2014tour.creativeinterventionists.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/page7_Leaguelaunch-300x225.jpg

    The Akron League launch saw immense creativity from the over 40 attendees. Using duct tape, string, and chalk participants created, amongst other attractions, a Cave of Wonders that stood for over a week inviting locals to reimagine the space and the possibilities for their city.

League prospers

While in Akron, Franks launched a chapter of the League of Creative Interventionists, and the League chapter has grown its community quickly and impressively. The League chapter Facebook organizing group has grown to over 250 members and the ideas, and actions, have been flowing.

Projects have included collecting phrases from residents of what they were grateful for and projecting those onto the side of the Akron Art Museum, a Bus Stop Confessional to encourage people to think and talk about fear in a way that can inspire personal growth, and a FriendsGiving dinner in collaboration with the Akron Cooking Coalition.

League projects have engaged local residents and shown the possibility of what can happen when people come together with their ideas and collective networks and abilities to create the city they want to see. “The Akron chapter has flourished online and offline,” said League leader David Swirsky. “The network grows every month with connections being made between creatives in every part of town. Partnerships with other arts, public, and non-profit organizations have also spread the impact even further.”

Detroit, Michigan

The final stop on the Tour was Detroit, a city that in the eyes of some has become the poster child for urban decay and failure because of its widely publicized bankruptcy. Franks organized a variety of activities designed to counter that negative stereotype and to cultivate a renewed sense of civic pride. His efforts focused on connecting two very different communities Lindale Gardens, like many Detroit neighborhoods, is dotted with abandoned buildings and crime. He organized a Neighborhood Postcard project in which Lindale residents sent their stories to random residents of Grosse Pointe, an affluent Detroit suburb notable for its multimillion-dollar mansions and pristine lawns. But this time the project had a twist; the postcard included a photograph of the writer, and the recipient was invited to set up a time to meet the author.

A postcard written by 20-year-old Lindale Gardens resident Martaz landed in the mailbox of Grosse Pointe resident Mary, and it resulted in one of the most memorable encounters of the Tour. Mary and her friend Amy sat down with Martaz and his mother, Lisa, for a lively conversation filled with stories and smiles. During the hour-long get-together, Mary discussed her volunteer work and Martez talked about his love for wrestling. At the end of the meeting Mary and Lisa exchanged contact information and everyone hugged a warm goodbye. “I hope we can keep going with this, I really do,” Martaz remarked. “This is what the city needs.”

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  • Neighborhood Postcard Project42.439587-83.100756http://2014tour.creativeinterventionists.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/citour12-300x225.jpg

    The Detroit Neighborhood Postcard Project connected residents from the disparate Grosse Pointe and Detroit residents for an in-person conversation.

  • First Love Project42.348453-83.041009http://2014tour.creativeinterventionists.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/citour4-300x225.jpg

    The First Love Project was carried out in Detroit's famous Eastern Market, where a diverse crowd of locals shops every weekend.

  • League Chapter Launch42.331003-83.077543http://2014tour.creativeinterventionists.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/untitled-20-300x225.jpg

    For the Detroit League chapter launch, participants added some color and possibility to Roosevelt Park with yarn and chalk.

Learnings

So what lessons did Franks draw from his whirlwind tour of four American cities?

1. Give people permission

It is important to start small so residents can see the immediate change and begin to reimagine their city as a whole. “These are people who are used to blight, decay, and crime, used to lots of negativity about the communities they live in,” he remarked. “My work gave people permission to challenge the norm, to practice creativity in public.”

2. People make places

Franks found residents in each city filled with passion and love for the place they call home. “People make everything possible,” he remarked. Creating meaningful change, he added, happens person by person, one by one. “People have a lot of pride in their stories, whether it’s a happy story or a sad one,” he added. “What I do is enable people to tell their stories. I plant seeds where people can continue on the road to finding positivity in their lives and their city.”

3. Work with, not for

For anyone considering organizing a creative intervention in their city, Franks said it was also important to identify people who are active in the community early in the process and to enlist them in planning and executing activities. “It is crucial to work with neighborhood residents and organizations that already possess an intricate understanding of the challenges and opportunities,” noted Franks. He noted that it is impossible to build trust as an outsider coming into a city or neighborhood for the first time and having an established, trusted organization to work greatly increases the impact of a project.

4. Make it accessible

“People need to be able to see and feel that they can create change,” said Franks. “Create low barriers to entry, and carry out projects in public so everyone can see them.” Despite all the challenges facing the communities he visited, Franks said he was struck by the optimism and resilience of the people he met. “There are lots of positive people and lots of good things happening. You have to make those positive things visible, and you can do that by creating inviting spaces where people feel safe and can have fun,” he said.

5. Focus the scope

Each city Franks visited had years of history that could not be changed in the three short weeks he was there. “I learned to narrow my scope,” Franks said. “I knew I was not going to change an entire city in that time, and so I focused on one area or set of challenges as best I could. This allowed for higher impact of my work in that time.”

6. Sustain change

“I wanted to not only help show residents what was possible, but help them create and sustain that change,” Franks remarked. To accomplish this, Franks established a chapter of his League of Creative Interventionists in each city he visited. The League chapters have since flourished and continue to building their member base, regularly creating small-scale impactful projects, and establishing partnerships with other local organizations and initiatives.

Franks said his philosophy could be boiled down to a remark Ronald Reagan once made: “I’ve always believed that a lot of the trouble in the world would disappear if we were talking to each other instead of about each other,” the president said. Let’s start talking.

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Story by Peter Kupfer
The Creative Interventions Tour was carried out with support from