Sunday, June 5, 2011

Public Art Where Community Counts

Posted by Deirdre Oakley, FREEDOM PARK, ATLANTA, GA – In his new book Cosmopolitan Canopy Sociologist Elijah Anderson puts forth the notion of public spaces as canopies: pluralistic places of racial diversity and harmony. But canopies shouldn’t be confused with community. Even if they evoke a sense of interaction, exchanges are superficial, fleeting, and uneven – for example homeless people are less welcome than others. 

Are there public places where diversity builds community? Surely such a question will yield multiple and conflicting answers. But Rise Up Atlanta by Artist Charlie Brouwer, provokes our imagination to the possibility. This innovative public art installation was made out of ladders of all different types and sizes, each depending on the other, and equally important to the finished sculpture. And not just any ladders. They were loaned to the project from all types of people from all walks of life in the Atlanta community. Even Governor Nathan Deal loaned a ladder, although that certainly doesn’t let him off the hook for signing the Arizona-style immigration bill, and cutting funding to the HOPE scholarship which enables many low income Georgians to attend college who ordinarily wouldn’t have had that chance. In fact, I'm surprised someone didn't try to something to his ladder. No extra security was apparent at the scupture's site. Perhaps this didn't happen because in Rise Up Atlanta, Governor Deal’s ladder is on the same footing as all the others. As Brouwer sees it, the loaned ladders fit together in complex and unexpected ways, becoming a powerful metaphor for the hopes and dreams of the community as a whole -- hopes and dreams where those of each individual matter.

The striking sculpture moved people to stop, look at it for a while, and talk about it to the strangers next to them. But the viewing came to an end on May 31st and the ladders will be returned to their lenders or donated to the Atlanta Community Tool Bank. Will Rise Up Atlanta have any lasting social impact? That would be a tall order. But it certainly gives one hope. At least for a month-long moment there was a symbolic space in the city where everyone in the community counted.

Deirdre Oakley is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University and the Editor of Social Shutter. You can contact her at

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