Social Alchemy: Jim Walker on Placemaking as Utopian Experiment

Jim Walker
May 12, 2021
May 17, 2021

Editor's Note: Jim Walker is a co-founder of Big Car Collaborative, an Indianapolis-based art and design nonprofit and a co-presenter of our upcoming Walk/Bike/Places conference June 15-18, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana, and online. May 17, 2021 is your last chance to register to attend in-person. Don't miss out!

People working in this field often get the same question: What, really, is placemaking? A good answer, in my view, comes from considering the “short-term action for long-term change” of tactical urbanism and the “lighter, quicker, cheaper” strategy Project for Public Spaces has long advocated for in making places better for people. 

The very important next questions are often, “Who are these places made for? And how are they better?” In true placemaking, the places are for everyone. And better places are welcoming, inclusive, accessible, comfortable, and respectful ones for all who’d like to be there. These places should be flexible, adaptable, and designed for visitors to shape their own experiences. 

A gathering in front of a home for visiting artists in Big Car Collaborative's affordable artist community in the Garfield Park neighborhood of Indianapolis, Indiana. The home in the foreground includes a gallery, and the house behind it is another affordable artist home for a family of five. Photo by Jim Walker.

True placemaking is also, at its core, about supporting social infrastructure that facilitates connections between people — places where we can talk with each other and enjoy being together, even when we don’t yet know each other. Less isolated folks are healthier, safer, happier, and more successful. And a community of connected people is more inclusive, trusting, empathetic, resilient, and civically involved. 

In many ways, placemaking is a way to work toward a sort of utopia

Why Not Try?

That’s how we look at our mission at Big Car Collaborative, the nonprofit I helped start in Indianapolis 20 ago in our neighborhood with other artists who saw things we wanted to change and became what Project for Public Spaces founder Fred Kent calls “zealous nuts.” 

We’ve tried lots of stuff. Some worked. Some didn’t. But, at first, the stakes were low. The scale was small. We experimented (as artists often do) and learned and adjusted along the way. Some of the things we tried — the things that worked — stuck and grew. And we were pleased to begin seeing similar things happen in other places around town. We were happy to prototype and pilot and watch ships sail.  

The Tube Factory, an art space that is part of Big Car Collaborative's micro-community south of downtown Indianapolis. Photo by Jim Walker.

We also researched how our work fit into the context of what was happening around the world. And we looked at links to the past. As we began to think about longer-term, deeper impact projects in our home neighborhood, we began a deeper study into utopian experiments. This became our Social Alchemy project in which we’ve dug into the history of 19th Century American utopias and connected the past to contemporary approaches with creative placemaking and affordable and inclusive communal living. 

This includes the micro-community we co-own with 16 affordable houses for artists and two converted factory buildings on a single city block south of downtown Indianapolis. In 2015, we moved into a vacant factory building in the neighborhood where our co-founders and several other staffers lived (and had recently worked with neighbors on two Better Blocks). There, we saw half of the houses vacant and boarded up. So, with grant and donor support, we were able to buy these houses and preserve them as homes for low-income artists in perpetuity. Five are now co-owned with artists. The rest are affordable rentals — a necessity because many artists aren’t ready to buy or struggle to qualify for a mortgage. We now have 23 artists or their family members living on the block.

A future home for an artist in Big Car Collaborative's micro-community, temporarily decorated during renovation by APLR artist Justin Cooper. Photo by Jim Walker.

As we’ve seen with historical utopian experiments, we set out to create an ideal place of sharing and working together toward a common good. We’re realistic about it. A lot of ideas won’t work out, we know. But why not try? 

So we set goals for a block where we collaborate with neighbors (in the program and outside of it) to displace nobody, to encourage existing residents to stay, to own or co-own the real estate and avoid being displaced ourselves, to create a socially and financially secure place, to support inclusivity and increase the diversity of residents on the block, to share tools and resources and skills, to build and activate a common green space and our arts facilities for community gatherings, to support and value artists as leaders, and to team up as artists to give back (as a sort of exchange for affordability) to the neighborhood and broader community.  

Learning from New Harmony

Shauta Marsh, a Co-Founder of Big Car Collaborative, walks through a labyrinth in New Harmony, Indiana. The pattern duplicates the original at Chartres Cathedral, built in the 12th century near Paris, France. In the background is the Richard Meier-designed Atheneum visitors center as well as vendors set up for a temporary festival.

Our surrounding neighborhood is about the size of New Harmony (population 719) — a beautiful small town in southern Indiana that was home to two distinct communitarian socialist utopias in the 1800s. You can learn about the unique and tragic history of the first by listening to this audio story we made. 

In New Harmony, two strong-willed leaders — one religious and one secular or “rationalist” — rallied zealous nuts to scrap the trappings of individualistic and capitalistic society, disrupt the norm, and attempt (without violent revolution that was en vogue at the time) short-term actions in communal living that they hoped would lead to long-term, global change.

Like all true utopians, they fully expected their experiments to enlighten humanity and create a better world for everyone. 

“It may be safely predicted that one of these associations cannot be formed without creating a general desire throughout society to establish others, and that they will rapidly multiply.” — Robert Owen

“It may be safely predicted,” industrialist Robert Owen, who founded the second utopia in New Harmony, wrote in 1820, “that one of these associations cannot be formed without creating a general desire throughout society to establish others, and that they will rapidly multiply.”

Instead of taking a gradual approach to change through influencing policy in political ways, utopians like Owen, Ann Lee, George Rapp, John Humphrey Noyes, Francis Wright, and Charles Fourier just went ahead and built brick and mortar communities on foundations of equality, communal living, and shared property ownership and resources.

A present-day museum at Old Economy Village, another Harmonist community outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Harmonists collected items from nature to display in one of the first public museums in America. Photo by Jim Walker.

None of their utopias lasted very long. But — when you look at their influences on society — none of them failed. Their experiments (most of which took place before the American Civil War) created innovations in education and government. They opened and funded some of our first public museums and libraries. And, most importantly, their utopian efforts helped advance the rights of workers, women, and Americans of color. 

Plus the utopians — who radically rejected the status quo of everything — invented all kinds of cool things from clothespins, to circular saws, to motorized washing machines. Historical sites of some of these utopian societies remain open across the country. And they’re well worth a visit. 

Shauta Marsh, the Big Car co-founder who partners with me on Social Alchemy, and I will lead a conversation on placemaking and utopianism as part of Walk/Bike/Places (which Big Car is proud to be co-organizing with Project for Public Spaces) with staffers from the former Harmonist sites at Old Economy Village outside Pittsburgh and New Harmony as well as the Oneida Community Mansion House in upstate New York.

And, next year, on April 10-13, 2022, Big Car is also co-organizing a three-day Social Alchemy symposium in New Harmony on communitarianism and the roles of art, design, and place in society. Our conversations — both at Walk/Bike/Places and in New Harmony — will look at the role of utopian thinking today and tomorrow while connecting with the past. 

Jim Walker stands in front of the Oneida Community Mansion House, home of a utopian community in Oneida, New York, that is still famous today for their silverware. Photo by Shauta Marsh.

“The reform we contemplate will improve and elevate the condition of all, without taking from any. It can moreover be tried on a small scale, and will only spread, when practice has shown its superiority over the present system,” wrote Fourierist utopian Albert Brisbane in 1843. “Unlike political reforms, which, to effect the smallest change of policy, agitate and often convulse a whole country, and array one half of the People against the other half, it will not extend beyond these narrow limits unless its advantages — as practically demonstrated — excite a strong and general approbation in its favor.” 

The America that Brisbane was talking about 178 years ago sounds just like the country we know today. And that’s why we, as placemakers and citizens in support of everyone, must never stop striving for utopia.

Register Now: Walk Bike Places, June 15-18, 2021, in Indianapolis and Online.
In-person registration ends May 17, 2021!


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