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Monticello Road is a community arts project in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through photography and a series of public events and conversations, we explore how an art can be an essential, integral and everyday part of a healthy community.


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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Garrett Street Mural is a Step Forward



The site chosen by the Tom Tom Founders Festival (the corner of Garrett and 6th Street in Charlottesville) for its City as Canvas mural project was already slated for a capstone expression in the Bridge PAI’s Play the City program. My initial reaction was to ask myself, “Doesn’t anyone talk to each other around here?” As I dug deeper and spent time with artist Mickael Broth and his project, I came to the conclusion that it really doesn’t matter. We should just celebrate the mural, which is pretty cool and it's real.

The site was not just a blank wall—it’s at the heart of a major urban renewal project that effectively erased a neighborhood and replaced it with a new housing project, which is in its turn now the subject of intense speculation. Bitterness about the erasure of history cohabits the zone with nervous speculation about the future, along the historic 6th Street right-of-way and steps from multiple public housing complexes with many children. The location offered a tremendous opportunity for the community to work through some of its issues through the arts and make a strong statement with its own ideas about its specific dreams and desires. That’s an ambitious goal.

Meanwhile, the Tom Tom organizers saw an opportunity to make a mark of their own. They reached a private deal with the landowner (no public bodies needed to be consulted in this case) and they hired an artist from Richmond, essentially freezing out community discussion. The result would undoubtedly be livelier than the status quo, but perhaps a missed opportunity to have something more layered, in line with advanced contemporary thinking on public art.

There was a degree of fiefdom overlap and toe-stepping here and I could write a whole series of posts about Tom Tom’s very mixed history of collaboration/conflict with incumbent institutions but it is also fair and reasonable to posit that this part of Play the City might never have happened anyway. And it could still can in other places, other ways or even succeed the existing if an ever better vision comes forth.

All of that musing, however, fails to properly recognize the very real step forward Mickael’s mural represents. It is a very positive asset for the community, without any real downside.


Just this little section outplays the entire mural down the street depicting a universal hand-hold. And there's alot more than this.

The piece goes way beyond the idea of simply adding a splash of color to an otherwise dreary spot, although it does that too. It speaks of dreams, frustration, mobility, technology, plants and animals—there’s a lot going on. And while it does not specifically address that site or its history, it talks about universal human issues that everyone who sees it can relate to. Significantly, it does so boldly and with a specific point of view.

Rather than giving a history lesson or a manifesto, this new painting aims to enliven, enrich and inspire. It does those things, as art should, and people like it. I suppose it could be possible to create a masterpiece that synthesizes past, present and future but public art that accomplishes that is extremely rare.

I’m so glad I got past my initial snark and got to know Mickael and his work. He’s the real deal and he’s made a very good contribution.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Tom Tom Belmont Block Party Preview


I went deep on last year's Belmont Block Party, with a free pop-up photo booth and a three-part analysis of how the event came about, how it went and what I got out of it from a community-development perspective. This year I just plan to have fun.

The Tom Tom Festival Belmont Block Party, an all-day block party on Monticello Road, was one of the neighborhood highlights of last year. It's happening again this Sunday, April 19, 2015, and we're very excited. It starts in Downtown Belmont at 9 a.m. with a mandala touch-up. There will be music, crafts and a beer garden from noon to six. After that, a new addition, the Front Porch Concert series (Porchella) will spread music throughout the neighborhood.

I checked in with Carolyn Zelikow (Tom Tom's assistant director) about what to expect and here's what she had to say:

Monticello Road: This the second year for the Belmont Block Party. What successful elements are you repeating and what are you doing differently this year?

Carolyn: It's neighborhood run and focused, like last year. We felt like the party was distinguished by a great sense of community. We're shooting to repeat that and deepen those neighborhood ties by hosting an event called Porchella, where local residents can host acoustic concerts on their porches.

Talk if you would about the difference between a party in a neighborhood versus in a neutral site like a park. What are some of the unique challenges and rewards?

I wouldn't say a park is neutral, exactly. In both cases, you're dealing with a combination of professional administrators like the Fire Marshall and non-professional stakeholders like nearby business-owners. I think you can be a bit more creative when you're incorporating the viewpoints of more people, as is generally the case in a neighborhood, but by the same token, you have to be open to incorporating more perspectives, some of which might depart from what we, in our event experience, have seen to be successful or worth the trouble. You kind of have to cede some level of control, which is fun, but also introduces more risk and logistical complexity.

Well a park is designed for public gatherings, but a neighborhood usually sees smaller interactions and even simple everyday commerce--people going to work or getting their tire changed. I can think of ways that an event like this might change people's perceptions about the street and public space, but how does a neighborhood site, with all it's history and daily inertia, flavor the event?

That's a nuance I hadn't thought of before, but it's a great point. Belmont definitely has a very special feel, even compared to our other block parties, which are a lot of fun. Belmont is less "let's go to this destination for something to do" and instead a keener sense of ownership, "this is our neighborhood and our party." The streets them selves and surrounding businesses are much more a part of the action, as people move between different spaces.

Here's what Melissa Easter, the owner of La Taza had to say about what it meant to have the Block Party in the neighborhood – I think it sums it up better than I could:
“Sundays are usually pretty busy for us, but that particular Sunday we almost doubled our normal sales. It was our most profitable day ever... As a small coffee shop/restaurant in the middle of all these fantastic restaurants in Belmont, it helped us showcase our talents and welcoming spirit here at La Taza. It is hard to find a real community in Charlottesville, and Belmont has one. The Belmont Bash solidified it. Three months later, I still have folks coming up to me to tell me how great it was.”
Because of great citizens like you, Brian Wimer, Tomas Rahal, and others, who have championed this event as a way to inspire caring and a a sense of place among Belmont's residents. Belmont is also just a great neighborhood, close to Downtown, that has a wonderful history of being home to offbeat people and ideas, like the Graves Street Block Party.

Last year’s version of the Genius Hour was in Lee Park. Why move it to this event?

As a daytime event, this is family-friendly, which made it appropriate, and it's a little less hectic than Lee Park, which will give the students more room to shine.

Tell me more about the Porch Concert Series.

This is an event organized by Emily Morrison and Emily Pickelhaupt, who deserve tremendous credit for energetically rallying residents and musicians. Basically, as the sun sets on the Belmont Block Party, musicians will strike up on porches throughout Monticello, Graves, and Goodman. Last year, we noticed that people seemed like they were ready for more – but not necessarily something super high energy – after the Belmont Block Party. This seemed like a really unique way to wind down, while getting to know the neighborhood.

How will visitors find the porches? By design, they seem like intimate affairs. Are folks supposed to stumble on them or will they be directed somehow?

That's a great question. We recently put all of that information up online: tomtomfest.com/events/porchella/

The music starts at noon in the block party and then the porch parties run 6-9 in multiple venues. That’s a lot of music—possibly too much?

Well, Charlottesville is a town that loves music. Porchella also brings in a broader variety of genres, and is a bit more friendly to participation, aka jam sessions. A lot of it is about hanging out, visiting with friends, and enjoying the day. In my experience, you can never have too much of that.

Big picture, where do you see this part of Tom Tom going in the future? Moving? Evolving? A model for other neighborhood parties?

We hope that people see Tom Tom and realize that, while hosting a Festival is kind of an ambitious thing, hosting a block party in their own neighborhood is very doable, and can be a really awesome experience for musicians, friends, neighbors, and kids. Someone recently told me that someone was hosting a party in Belmont Park during our Belmont Block Party. McGuffey is hosting a picnic across the street during our Picnic Day. All of that adds to the culture and vitality of Charlottesville. It means civic engagement, neighborliness. We're very encouraged to see that kind of thing happening, and will always be open to partnering with events that evince those values.

Tom Tom could go in a lot of different directions. Our innovation programming continues to become more ambitious. Our art programming this year has definitely been a step up over previous years. We want to continue to support a variety of local musicians, while bringing in more exciting acts from around the country. As we said around this time last year, Tom Tom doesn't need to grow in size. With approximately 20,000 visitors, we bring plenty of people Downtown over the course of the week. We are looking to develop better and better events that continue to challenge and inspire our community to grow.

More Information on the Belmont Block Party | Coverage from 2014 | Photos

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Update on Monticello Road Extended

Monticello Road continues hidden and abandoned on the other side of Interstate 64. There is a plan to bridge + tunnel to that right-of-way for safe pedestrian access from Charlottesville to Monticello.

Our friend Michaux, who is a Monticello Road resident and project participant, was the most recent of several people to ask me about the plan to extend Monticello Road to—ahem—Monticello, via multiuse trail.

Such a connection would be a game-changer for the City and the World Heritage Site with a rare grand slam of benefits: health+fitness, access an unusual ecosystem, both social and political history and non-auto connectivity. When I mentioned it to a planner friend the other day he said, “Oh, you won’t have to sell that idea—it’s obvious.”

It's something I've been monitoring and wondering what's up so I reached out to Chris Gensic, Charlottesville’s trail coordinator, who is the author of the idea and an effective champion. Here’s what he said:
We are working now with Monticello and Mr. Dulaney* to secure trail easements needed. Once those are in place, we can pursue the funding (more than $1million) to build a tunnel under 64 and few bridges to connect the old right of way, which would get us to Route 53 at Michie Tavern. Longer term would include a bridge over 53.

My best guess is it will be at least 3 years before the tunnel is in place, if we can get the funding. We will keep plugging away at it!
I was positively surprised to hear that time frame. We’ll keep checking in with Chris and, when the time come, mobilize to support this amazing plan. Hopefully more soon...

* Mr Delaney owns the gas station at the foot of Monticello Road, as well as other surrounding parcels. The route would directly impact his property and probably pass through it.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The People of Monticello Road: Remembering Alex Caines


Alex was one of the most supportive people I've ever met.

News of Alex Caines’ passing flowed quickly through social media and when a remembrance page popped up on Facebook, one of his friends pointed to the irony that arguably the most social guy in town did not play in that sphere.

“Alex was a live, face-to-face interacting person. I think it's great that Alex never had a need for Facebook or other social media. Belmont and Downtown were his social media.”

Running into Alex on the street or at an event, as happened on a more-than-weekly basis, was the capital form of interaction with Alex. It always led to a conversation and often an invitation to the table for an extended visit.

In an earlier post, I pointed out the well-accepted fact that he was the Mayor of Belmont, with a specialty in nightlife. There was an admiration for his ability to know everyone and to seemingly be everywhere at the same time. He always knew where the action was but now that he’s gone, I can see that there was more to the designation. In a very real way, he was our leader.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Biophilic Art at the Bridge


Natalie Jeremijenko's "Greenlights" filter the air and produce oxygen while providing a pleasant indirect light. They're a great example of biophilic design, which recognizes human affinity for natural forms and processes. Excellent video about Natalie's work.

This past weekend I had the pleasure to meet NYC-based artist and environmental activist Natalie Jeremijenko at the Bridge PAI. Her primary ambition is to reorient our relationship to health, as signaled by the emergency red cross rotated on its side.

In her view, the bacteriological paradigm of healthcare, in which individual bodies are treated in isolation is not only a dead-end but counterproductive. The culprits for the worst public health problems are environmental, so the path toward well-being must be radically decentralized and aimed at fostering more bio-friendly conditions. And it must happen with urgency.


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Cities + Nature


There's abundant nature where people live their daily lives but do they experience it? I took this shot during a vacant-lot safari with Sebastian at the corner of Monticello and Carlton Road, a block from our home.
As part of my professional development, I’m taking a class called Cities + Nature at the University of Virginia. It examines the importance of interaction with Nature and ways for planners to make it part of the everyday experience. This post is part of a series on the subject.

My professor invokes the notion of a Nature Pyramid to describe a practical diet of exposure to the Natural World. At the top, one finds rare but intense lifetime experiences such as a safari or a raft ride down the Grand Canyon; in the middle trips to state parks; further down daily or weekly rituals like gardening; and all the way at the bottom views through windows or even looking at art. When I worked in a downtown financial firm, the productive people all had flyers for cruises or postcards pinned to their cubicle walls so they could rest their eyes several times an hour. A pet or a houseplant serves a similar function.

From an urban planning perspective, it makes sense to focus on the bottom half of the ladder, seeking ways to improve the quantity and quality of experience in towns and neighborhoods where people spend most of their time. Do we hear birds or see butterflies? Smell flowers or leaf rot or a skunk’s nocturnal passage? Do possums cross our yard or robins nest in our porch? Can we see the sun rise or set or clouds pass overhead? Feel fresh breezes or crunch on a frosty path?

These are not man-on-cliff confrontations with the Sublime but through a lifetime they add up to a connection with something much larger than ourselves, a centering force that makes us better and healthier.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The People of Monticello Road: Aimee Hunt



Aimee Hunt has lived on Monticello Road since 2007. An artist and educator, she works at the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia while also studying art education at Virginia Commonwealth. She enjoys, and is part of, the neighborhood’s creative community.

Aimee has made an intriguing contribution to the physical environment through an unconventional home renovation with results that somehow manage to be both subtle and audacious. I spoke with her about it over tea as her two children assembled her daughter’s 12th birthday cake.

I first learned about Aimee’s project when I was visiting her then-neighbors Dan and Serena a few years ago and noticed that her small cinder block home had a tarp where the roof should be. Because of the lot’s wedge shape, it did not make sense for Aimee to build back into it, so she built upward. That decision was in some ways made for her when she discovered structural issues that would have doomed the existing hat.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Holiday Celebration = Social Investment


It pays to take a breath and notice the resources we have in one another
.

I recently wrote a celebration of shallow ties that unite the community and enrich us all but we can’t overlook the deeper ones either. From a social perspective, the holidays are about recognizing and reinforcing our connections on all levels.

From a nod on the street, to an office party, gift baskets for customers, Christmas cards for old neighbors we no longer see, brunches with friends and visits (even under duress) to or from families out-of-state, the season is a gauntlet of social obligations.

The other day, my wife and I shared our annual holiday freakout from being overwhelmed by it all. I asked her to take a deep breath and I needed one myself. So I walked to the studio through the neighborhood.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Architects Should Listen to their Mothers


This is a common problem where the old and new meet, but it doesn't need to be.

Charlottesville has been popping up in the New York Times a lot lately—and for mostly unfortunate reasons. The latest breakfast-table surprise was an op-ed piece about high-concept, tone-deaf architecture.

lament big-A Architecture’s willful disconnect with the public and used a specific case in our fair city as an example. While the whole thing is very well written (you should go read it now and come back) I thought it was great because it offers a solution right at the top—although not explicitly.

It opens with an exchange between an architect and his 88-year-old mother critiquing a house on Elliott Avenue, presumably the one pictured above. The mother thought it looked like a shipping container with some cheap scrap metal shoved against it and completely unconnected to its surroundings, which is true.

The problem isn’t that the layperson lacks understanding of the architects’ vocabulary, it’s the converse. Architects too often show little interest in the site’s heritage and none for the neighborhood vernacular, as if they're annoyances or threats to freedom. If architecture aspires to art or genius status, it must simultaneously sit in the past, present and future. It’s not enough to be bold or forward-looking unless you’re trying to do something that is completely irrelevant, disconnected from what’s on everyone else’s mind—the world of what was and/or is. Context matters.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Power of Weak Ties


There are many spaces along Monticello Road that are suitable for casual interactions.

I’ve just finished Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class and while I don't agree with everything he said one thing jumped out. About halfway through he offers a counterargument to Robert Putnam’s best-seller Bowling Alone. Putnam laments a loss of social capital in America as a result of less participation in civic and social groups like clubs and bowling leagues.

After arguing that it’s not even really happening—today’s kids are more likely, for example, to be in a soccer league than I was—Florida explores the possible benefits that come with shallow ties. That really got me thinking about my own project because I think it says a lot about why Monticello Road is such a great place.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Running and Place: a Conversation with Allan Steinfeld


Courtesy NYRR

Allan Steinfeld is the former race director of the New York City Marathon and president of New York Road Runners. I am fortunate to say that he is also a mentor and a friend. I had an email conversation with him about the relationship between running and sense of place, a few days prior to his induction into the NYRR Hall of Fame and the Marathon’s 44th running.

Peter: To know a place you must get out of the car, but when most people say that they’re usually thinking of walkers. How does one’s perspective about a place [neighborhood, park, road, etc] change as a runner, as opposed to walking, riding a bike or driving through it?

Allan: I believe that running in a place gives a new perspective of that place. By car or bike you go through it fast. Walking or running allows you to "feel" as well as see this environment and concentrate on your surroundings.

There’s doubtless a deeper appreciation but what about new, non-running, behaviors within the space such as trash-picking, social interaction or even safer driving?

Hopefully, all thee will occur.

Does the presence of runners change the place as well?

It certainly does. It gets its character from the runners like no other modality.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Front Porch Chat with Rosie Breeden



I often have front-porch chats with my neighbor Rosie. She's an absolute master of this important and neglected form of social interaction. She agreed to go on-the-record this time around.

Peter: Did I hear your birthday’s coming up?

Rosie: This September. The 25th.

[I didn’t ask her age because that would be rude.]

Peter: How long have you lived here?

Rosie: Since 1969.

Where did you come from before?

The University area—right where the hospital is now. We lived in a house in that area.

Why did you choose this house?

This was the one we could afford! It wasn’t very expensive then.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Erasing Unbearable Reminders of Better Times


Were the Accomack Arsonists trying to erase painful memories, better than the present?
[New Photos | More Succession Photos]


My secondary project, Succession, explores human spaces being reclaimed by Nature. I have found rich inspiration for this work in the many abandoned homesteads along Route 13 on the Virginia Eastern Shore. Last year, serial arsons terrorized the region, torching nearly a hundred structures, almost all unoccupied, and a few that I had photographed.

Most initially suspected some real estate or insurance fraud motive but profilers eventually identified and authorities apprehended a troubled couple that included, also predictably, a disgruntled former volunteer firefighter. Case closed, people returned to their daily lives. But is the underlying issue really settled?

They were clearly wrong and unhinged but weren’t they also responding to feelings widely shared? Some people actually applauded the removal of so many “eyesores” but what makes them fit for destruction? I think one deep motive could be related to a sickening and ultimately intolerable mismatch between tradition and current conditions that even a non-native such as I found very striking long before the crimes took place.

At the turn of the last century Accomack County was one of the Nation’s wealthiest. Before California was irrigated, the Eastern Shore was a primary source of produce and poultry (as well as seafood) for the growing cities of the Northeast. Like the rest of rural America, that food came from family farms and this area did better than most because the land is pancake flat, exceedingly fertile and, most importantly, very close to huge markets.


Monday, July 14, 2014

Conversation with Amanda Poncy


Three roads, each quite different, run parallel through the neighborhood. Belmont Avenue is a quiet residential street. Monticello Avenue (pictured) carries State Route 20 into town. Monticello Road is a hybrid, historic, pathway that predates colonization and is narrow, a little windy and a strangely compelling route for people pedestrian, bikes and autos.

I sat down with Amanda Poncy, Charlottesville's Bike/Pedestrian Coordinator for a conversation about Monticello Road and what makes a successful neighborhood street.


Peter Krebs: I saw you measuring Monticello Road the other day, what were your impressions?

Amanda Poncy: We were looking at some of the curb ramp locations because it is one of the tighter, less accessible routes. Virginia Industries for the Blind is right there so it’s one of the more important places to make accessible. And of course it’s right next to the school as well so we’re trying to provide that accessibility for a range of users of the street.

There are a lot of places that are really tight and the crossings are very tough, especially near the school and Tufton where there’s that blind curve. That’s a challenge and the sidewalks are very narrow, even more so with the utility poles. There’s a sidewalk on the one side but in many areas you have to cross over to get to the sidewalk and it’s definitely a challenge.

Peter: What would you describe as a successful neighborhood street?

Amanda: I feel like Belmont Avenue is a really nice neighborhood street. I was walking down it this morning with my son and it’s nice. You’ve got the parked cars and there’s a nice tree buffer separating the sidewalk. Front porches are on the street so if people are out you’re able to interact and say “hi.” I think all of those things make it a great street—one of the few really great neighborhood streets in Charlottesville.

How do you transpose that onto a road like Monticello Road that’s really constrained? You walk down it and even the sidewalks have a lot of constraints within them. It feels tight and it feels like the cars are traveling faster because the sidewalk is right on the road. The parking is sort of intermittent because some places have off-street parking so the cars parked on the road aren’t as frequent so it just feels like the cars are right on you, whereas on Belmont Avenue they don’t feel that way.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

DC deserves personhood status.


Detail, Yoko Ono's "Wish Tree for Washington DC" at the Hirshorm Museum and Sculpture Garden. Definitely feeling some love on this trip....

I just got back from a Fourth-of-July getaway weekend to Washington, DC—the place where I grew up and came of age. Meredith and I lived there during an unforgettable period—Marion Barry’s bitch-set-me-up heyday—and a pivotal time in our own small lives. Our first independent households, careers born, graduate school, married and identity frameworks forged. It will always be a special place and I love going back there but I was especially jazzed to notice something profound on this past trip: a new maturity, though I cannot say whose.

The DMV has arrived as a major metropolis, in ways that go beyond its enormous size. The Metro is still pretty clean but now it has buskers, rats, people selling crap—and a feeling of shared endeavor. There’s a lot going on around town, quite different from the easily exhausted scene in the eighties and nineties. It’s grown nicely and added many cool things—like the terrific Capital Bike Share, on which New York’s CitiBike is modeled. The infrastructure has improved and it’s even more pleasant to walk, run and ride about then it was before.

Even though much has been added through in-fill (enterprises ranging from garden shops to a baseball team), many of the institutions from back in the day are still there as well: stores, restaurants, bars, secret gardens, shortcuts through the woods, places to hear a guy play sax by the river.

By contrast, nearly all of my friends have moved on, which surprisingly does not bother me—it’s just the flow of life. It’s almost the opposite of New York where most people are still there, clinging to whatever branch or root they can find, while the landscape around them is blasted away by a flood of real estate money.

Meantime, DC has continued to grow and flourish, playing with new ideas and points of view. Being back this time felt like visiting a friend that has retained its main personality traits and is still very familiar and welcoming but has developed in the meantime, with new thoughts to share. The city had acquired personhood—or maybe I just noticed it.

I grew up a huge devotee of Italo Calvino, Armistead Maupin, Lawrence Durrell and writers who talk about cities as living, organic entities. But that didn’t really feel the case for my hometown. It was as if the abundant green space dispersed the energy too much for it to coalesce and ignite fusion, making it a pleasant place but not a real city.

The spark is definitely there now, but if Calvino taught me anything it’s the impossibility of knowing whether it’s the place that has changed or if the maturation I’ve noticed is my own.

Postscript:

I ran the concept by my friend long-time James, traveler, poet/philosopher Lawrence Durrell character. He just recently gave up his DC address but was back in town to work the Folklife Festival and couch surfing--much as I do for the Marathon. We watched the fireworks together on a rooftop with a partially obscured view, then went back to his friend's apartment and drank Virginia viognie and talked about the world. A typical evening. Anyway, when I texted my thesis to him, he responded:
I think DC is stuck in an adolescent purgatory and will never attain personhood. This is because it is a 4-year town. If we move the capital to St Louis,  DC will become Fred Sanford.
Well then.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Underpass or Bad Bridge: a False Choice

Several years ago, the Belmont Bridge, in the heart of Charlottesville (and the terminus of Monticello Road), was deemed structurally deficient. That analysis was performed by the firm, MMM Design, that would be tasked to design a replacement. That's an apparent conflict of interest but it's true that the eye-ball test confirms that the structure is in terrible shape and is a Robert-Moses-era eyesore in the heart of a beautiful small city.

The community widely rejected a an MMM proposal to replace the structure with a carbon copy and a citizens group, called Project Gait-Way, initiated a process that yielded an alternative that included an auto underpass and a foot bridge. City Council was to vote on one of the two directions; I spoke in their chambers and was misquoted in the C-Ville Weekly as endorsing the underpass. I was offered an op-ed to clarify my thoughts. Note: the vote was tabled, changing the session into a hearing.

I was misquoted in the lede of last week’s brief, “Underpass gets public support as Council delays Belmont Bridge vote.” I appreciate the opportunity to clarify my thoughts.

The Gaitway team has done a tremendous service. They’ve shown that we can have better design that is imaginative, bold, forward-looking and—yes—iconic. What a refreshing change from the lameness MMM had proposed! The citizenry has seen a new standard and we now know that is what we deserve. No going back.

But that does not necessarily mean that we should build the underpass, even if it contains those traits. Along with advantages, the plan contains some fundamental flaws. The team does a terrific job of mitigating most of them, but those solutions often make the vision even more difficult to execute.

Take the chief work-around: the pedestrian bridge. No one would even consider the design without it, yet it is not budgeted. I’m all for bike/pedestrian mobility but if we’re going to employ serious financial wizardry, this is not even the most strategic connection we could go for. For example, Monticello and the Rivanna are higher-impact, currently broken, links in the same price range; while an appealing multi-modal crossing would render the Belmont pedestrian bridge redundant. Or what about the middle school renovation that’s perpetually on hold for want of capital? Talk about a gateway!

I would have loved to see what the team could have done with an enhanced bridge. They were tasked with that and worked on it for about five minutes then dropped it (or were dropped) to focus exclusively on the underpass. I've heard stories from both sides about why but it doesn’t matter. This is a rare opportunity and we need our best minds on the whole project.

Based on what we’ve seen, that might not include MMM for this phase. They may be fine engineers but they’re clearly not imagineers or even urban planners. Gaitway or a team like them should seriously explore bridge concepts that embody the new standard of excellence that we now expect. An independent group, free from conflict of interest, should audit both schemes using transparent, matching, criteria.

This should not be a false choice between creativity and a pothole-ridden bridge. It’s about getting the best outcome that approaches consensus by being ambitious yet really smart with our limited resources. That is the genius that we deserve.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Open Love Letter for the Neighborhood School


The 4th Grade Photo Club documented the school and its neighborhood. The School has been the core of Sebastian's realm and he has thrived in that arrangement. (Photo: Sebastian Krebs)

“I am both happy and sad,” said Sebastian at bedtime, four days before the end of fourth grade and of his tenure at Clark Elementary School. I told him that sounded about right. The neighborhood school is a sweet little nest that he is now ready to leave—as he should be.

Meantime, it’s been a victory lap of celebrations of what the kids have accomplished together—field day, talent show, concert, dance performance, art exhibition, basketball game versus the teachers, awards, trip to DC and a step-up ceremony. It’s a cheerful gauntlet worthy of a Superbowl champ but there will be tears because these youngsters are coming to understand that life only flows in one direction.

We bought the house specifically because it sits across the street from the beautiful historic school and its community playground. We enrolled him in kindergarten at the first opportunity and every morning since Sebastian has sprinted out the door so he could be waiting when the doors open. We actually have to restrain him at times so he won’t be a nuisance. Fortunately the librarian caught on and managed to harness his enthusiasm for some help shelving books or catching up at the circulation desk; it just encouraged him to try to go even earlier.

The school and its grounds are the center of his life; after spending all day there he dashes home, drops his enormous backpack (full of important primary school things), hits the bathroom and goes roaring back to the playground. We have a New Years Eve party horn that we blow real loud when it’s time for dinner. He runs back like a mystical wild horse, then back afterward until darkness hides the basketball rim. He has a defined realm.

Wonderful as it has been, Clark is not a fake fantasy world. Sebastian has certainly heard more stories of struggle and woe than I had at his age. There were some tragedies that were completely random and others of the harder reality that you can see coming a mile away. Healing is a shared endeavor and the there are enduring signs of it in the gardens, on the walls and all around.

And yet. It’s a joyful, loving community full of singers, fabulous dancers, little brothers and sisters plus a few amateur rhetoricians: a place where the kindergarten teacher (star among stars) would make an excellent President. The staff is enthusiastic and well motivated, always very focused on the kids. They give and give and treat each student according to their needs.

It definitely feels like a family and the best knowledge Sebastian will take away is that ours is a world where everyone is different but with love and patience and listening we can all learn and grow together. He has succeeded academically too. Although testing has its drawbacks it’s a truly gratifying to have data that affirms that all is as good as it seems—sometimes even better.

Belmont is so great in large part because it has this huge energetically beating heart contained in a jewel box right in its geographic core. I’ve worked hard to know the community and this blog flailingly attempts to sketch it out but that school is where the most actual community engagement is happening.

I could spend hours (more than I have) talking about the amazing teachers, field trips, gifted program, afterschool clubs or the surprising fellowship around the breakfast table (we allow him an occasional “second breakfast” at school). The impression that I think will always last is of three kids walking down Monticello Road one evening with their mother. They were siblings ranging from Sebastian’s size to a toddler and all piped in unison “Hey Sebastian!” Smiles followed with an understanding of what a neighborhood school is all about.

Sebastian has learned to be a part of the human family: loving, decent, striving for something better together. And we have been blessed to walk along with him.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Art and Public Policy: Synthesis

As part of my professional education and ongoing research, I was fortunate to audit George Sampson and Lindsey Hepler’s class on the Arts and Public Policy in the Architecture School at the University of Virginia. This post, and others in this series are reaction to our readings and discussions in which I find links between our readings and discussion and the front lines of community-based art. This is my end-of class synthesis essay.

The Citizen Artist, protagonist in our Arts and Public Policy course, embodies the broad intersection between art and policy. We’ve described him, asked what he can offer and wondered whether he is getting what he needs to thrive. This question is about more than personal satisfaction: the citizen artist is ideally suited for our rapidly changing world and his critical thinking, creativity, synthesizing approach and ability to imagine into reality are key ingredients for a healthy democracy. As Bill Bennett says, those who are competent manage but those who are creative lead. Prior to the course I suspected, and the readings and lectures have confirmed, that the dominant public policy approach is not particularly well suited for assessing or fostering creative civics; it has a real blind spot there. Perhaps the question needs to be inverted: rather than focusing mainly on the worthy goal of fostering the arts through policy, let’s ask how the arts can inform better public policy—or, at least, how they can work better in tandem.

Artists actively engage their own experiential development—discovery, experimentation, synthesis, pursuit of excellence. They delight in process as much as result, and are therefore disciplined in developing their ideas and capacity through endless iterative and synthetic experimentations. They want to sharpen their skills so they can bring their creations to life. They also broaden their vision and have a high capacity for diversity (for it is their fuel) and they are therefore unhindered by the central dilemma of democracy: how to reconcile freedom and consensus. They do it all the time in their artwork. The America of our dreams where creativity, discipline and joy in work open a brighter future for all will need a population rich in these qualities.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Belmont Bash Part 3: Interactions and Engagements


All kinds of people stopped by the photo booth but they all shared a desire to document their love for one another.
[More Photos]


The Tom Tom Festival / Belmont Bash was a unique celebration in many ways. It had an unusual origin and interesting results. For me, the whole thing was an experiment in a few ways: how would one plan a multi-source celebration, what would a 100% DIY street festival look like and how such a party could inform public planning? It was amazing thanks to many people’s hard work.

This three-part story examines how event came about, how it went and what I got out of it from a community-development perspective. I’ve spoken about why the idea became a reality and some issues that arose along the way. Today I’ll share some impressions about the interactions that took place—of course from my own perspective.

The Belmont Bash was really successful.

Tons of people showed up and it seemed like everyone had a good time, with few if any complaints. It was a beautiful day, the music was great and there were many small touches that really created an atmosphere of sharing—like folks from the neighborhood association strolling around with free cupcakes.

We knew that it would be a fun party but it was also a project; an experiment of sorts. We wondered, for example, what kind of crowd would come? Would it be neighborhood regulars or people from outside looking for a good party? Would there be unique interactions? Could a block party serve as a venue for city research about community preferences?

My answer to the first question is “yes.” The party attracted both the usual suspects and itinerant revelers but mainly a surprising category that seemed the largest to me. I met many people who live, work, and play in the area but who I had not met before in the standard channels (like the neighborhood association or PTO) or even in my atypical engagements like the photo booths. This was really exciting because there was a huge joy in mutual discovery but also it really validated the model of block party as community networking tool. As a very real illustration, the neighborhood association meeting that took place the following night included several new members who had been recruited at the Belmont Bash. That's concrete evidence-backed success.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Belmont Bash Part 2: The Chalenges of a Contested Space


It was important that the community see the event not as a nuisance but as an asset--and one that they could own themselves. We developed some strategies make sure that would be the case.

The Tom Tom Festival / Belmont Bash was a unique celebration in many ways. It had an unusual origin and interesting results. For me, the whole thing was an experiment in a few ways: how would one plan a multi-source celebration, what would a 100% DIY street festival look like and how such a party could inform public planning? It was amazing thanks to many people’s hard work.

This three-part story examines how the event came about, how it went and what I got out of it from a community-development perspective. Last time I explained why the idea became a reality and today we’ll discuss how that came about and some issues that arose along the way.

Downtown Belmont is a contested space.

It's quite different from the type of neutral space where events like this normally take place. Eight streets and many more social threads converge in a two block strip of Monticello Road. The social challenges were more daunting than the logistics but that same rich heritage also held tremendous upside: the potential for an organic celebration arising from within the community and a new way to come together with art and music as catalysts. That's why the idea was so compelling.

In an era when everyone is talking about “place” as an abstraction, this site has character that cannot be made from whole cloth. The party arose from a hundred years of social interactions and it would contribute its own share toward the future. It was very important that it be done right.

The area is fairly unique within the city—a neighborhood commercial zone that is designated for commercial activity destined for the locals. It’s a tiny patch of urbanism within a quiet neighborhood and a zone of cultural experimentation within an old neighborhood that is even divided about whether the word "historic" is helpful or not. Ironically, those characteristics make it a very appealing place to visit, which brings challenges. It’s a crossroads where different people—and different agendas—interact, and not always harmoniously.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Belmont Bash Part 1: Origins


When the Hintonaires signed on, we knew it would be a special event.

The Tom Tom Festival / Belmont Bash was a unique celebration in many ways. It had an unusual origin and interesting results. For me, the whole thing was an experiment in a few ways: how would one plan a multi-source celebration, what would a 100% DIY street festival look like and how such a party could inform public planning? It was amazing thanks to many people’s hard work.

This three-part story examines how event came about, how it went and what I got out of it from a community-development perspective. Today we tackle the origins.

The Belmont Bash has been around for a long time but never like this.

It has appeared sporadically every few years in Belmont Park, depending on how organized the neighborhood association happened to be in any given year. It’s usually a blanket-in-the-park family picnic in the fall. Two years ago, it was really organized; last year it didn’t happen at all.

Ever since the City undertook some minor street improvements in Downtown Belmont (about two years ago) there has been simmering talk of having the Belmont Bash in the streets to celebrate the change and initiate real public ownership of the small parklet that was created. But it never got past the “wouldn’t it be cool” phase.

Separately, last year’s Tom Tom Founders Festival included a small block party at the nearby Bridge PAI. I participated with a photo booth and it was fun but there was no real hook—it was a nice little party on a weekend already oversaturated with Tom Tom events.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014



The April 13 Belmont Bash was really successful and alot of fun. The Photo Booth was terrific--definitely the best yet.

I'll be back soon with many impressions. For now, check out the pictures from the photo booth and this timelapse of the amazing mandala painting that went down. Huge kudo's for Brian Wimer's leadership in making that happen.


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Photo Booth at the Belmont Bash




I will be conducting my sixth pop-up neighborhood photo booth in conjunction with the Belmont Bash on Sunday April 13, from 2 - 5.

Members of the public can walk up, have their picture taken and receive a free print on the spot that I make with a small portable printer. The photos are then added to a growing slideshow of the People of Monticello Road, which is occasionally projected in public neighborhood settings during the summer.

I will be roaming the event but the booth headquarters will be on the porch of the old brick house across from Belmont Market.

The photos are free for the public but not free to produce (they cost me about $1-3 each). Donations will be greatly appreciated so we can at least break even. I could also use one or two helpers. Contact me for info.

See you there!

UPDATE: Photos Here!



The Belmont Bash is an annual tradition of the Belmont-Carlton Neighborhood Association. This year will be a unique block party in Downtown Belmont, part the Tom Tom Founders Festival in cooperation with the BCNA and a coallition of citizens, businesses and community groups. The event runs from 1-8, with a street Mandala painting starting at 10 a.m.

Monticello Road is a photography and story-telling project about the people and places along a mile-long byway that is simultaneously humble and historic, home to many and a reflection of us all.
 
More Photos:
Photo Booth I | Photo Booth II | Photo Booth III | Photo Booth IVPhoto Booth V

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Party in the Streets of Downtown Belmont

April 13, 2014, 12 - 8 p.m. will be a fun and unique celebration on Monticello Road.

Like last year, the Tom Tom Founders Festival Sunday block party will be in Belmont but this year it will be much, much more ambitious. They’re teaming up with the Belmont Carlton Neighborhood Association to bring the celebration into the neighborhood. The combined Tom Tom Fest / Belmont Bash will have hubs at the Bridge PAI and Downtown Belmont, which will be closed to automobile traffic and open for a family-friendly community block party.

There will be music, food, art, community information and discussion—and whatever fun you choose to bring. We're still working out the schedule but there will definitely be the following:

Street Mandala painting
Following the successful Belmont Avenue mandala, this creative street painting will calm traffic, and allow residents and friends to actively co-create an enduring neighborhood landmark

Porch Music
Local and acoustic music scattered on porches and patios throughout. More info coming soon.

Photo Booth, Story Station
Passers-by may stop in and have their photo taken and receive a free print on the spot. The pictures will then be included in a growing neighborhood slide show. We will also record stories and impressions from youngsters to long-timers for our future cell phone audio tour. 

Urban Agriculture Space
Mas will transform from world-class restaurant to an idea-sharing space that will feature community and design ideas and information from the food side this vibrant, innovation community. If TJ were alive today, he would definitely stop by to see what Schoolyard Garden and others are up to and hoist a local cider.

Community Groups and Vendors
Let us know if you or your organization would like to participate with a table.

Fun Block Party Stuff
Fire trucks, balloons and face painting

YOU bring the party!
This event is a true community celebration, rising from the ground up. If you have ideas for projects, would like to set up a table, or can volunteer your time, please get in touch! The only things that will happen will be what we do ourselves—together.

Note: Road Closure will extend from Belmont Market to Rialto Street beginning at 9:00 a.m. to allow community adults and children to begin the street painting. Streets will reopen by 9:00 p.m.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Design and the Public Interest

I was fortunate to attend a seminar on Design in the Public Interest this past weekend. Public Interest Design (PID) is an approach to architectutre with an organizing principle that “all people should be able to live in socially, economically, and environmentally healthy communities.” At the beginning of the session, we saw a slide with a pie graph with a tiny “2%” sliver. That represents the portion of the populace that interacts with architectural design. PID is for the other 98%.

Many industries have robust segments dedicated to the public interest—public health, pro-bono interest lawyers and community-based artists. As in those other industries, PID usually addresses the needs of the under-served, takes a humble listening-centered approach and is very focused on long-term impact. It’s relatively new and there is a developing set of best practices, ethics and evaluative tools—and a growing community of practitioners.

Many of their issues, approaches and objectives align with those of smart art policy. Terms like excellence, innovation, identity, diversity, heritage and sense of place are central in the discourse. The goals overlap quite a bit.

There was one moment, though, when I was struck by how far ahead the art discourse has advanced. In one of the discussions, someone said that “quality of life” is not a useful goal because it is difficult to define and perhaps impossible to measure.

Those who have studied art policy would disagree. The very purpose of art is to bring quality to life that exceeds existence and there is correspondingly much research about what defines a quality life, what cognitive tools and processes are employed and how art can spawn and nourish them.

NEA’s How Art Works study has defined the question with clarity and has map a methodical process that it is now following to examine the constituent sub-questions. We have a pretty good idea what makes people happy but finding the right approach is difficult. Although it will never be a settled question, it seems that smart strategies are available.

While PID professionals, who are mostly involved in small practices, might feel a little hopeless in the face of gigantic numerical social problems, they are a shining light when it comes to solving practical dilemmas—even if they are difficult. Funding is a prime example.

There is a strong current of social entrepreneurism guided toward the public interest. The question of resources is approached with creativity: every stakeholder is also a potential investor, in their own way. Lines blur between practitioner and client and then customer feedback becomes inherent in the early design process. It made me think a lot about the idea of the citizen artist, who is both audience member and performer, reader and writer depending on the time of day, location or hat.

There’s a powerful notion that art is for everyone because art is everyone. It’s inspiring to see designers working from a similar script, and their practical-minded problem solving approach provides good ideas.

It’s a great synergy.

The conference was organized by The Public Interest Design Institute.
 
As part of my professional education and ongoing research, I’m fortunate to be permitted to audit George Sampson and Lindsey Hepler’s class on the Arts and Public Policy in the Architecture School at the University of Virginia. This post, and others in the series are reaction to our readings and discussions in which I find links between our readings and discussion and the front lines of community-based art. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Robbing Art to Pay Reading

I received an email today from the Charlottesville City Schools Arts Coordinator (who is also a neighbor and Monticello Road collaborator) telling me that the school district is considering reducing his position to part-time (actually 10-month full-time).

This is an unsound idea but it also reflects a shortcoming that is consistent with much of what I read in the planning literature. There are two problems: it is strongly biased toward short-term metrics and it is negativistic. Let me explain.

The City Schools are facing a tight budget, like so many others. Yet, while eliminating content specialists, the budget adds more “educational coaches” who spend time with young children who have difficulty reading. So, while not quite a wash, the change is more effectively viewed as a resource shift. To the extent that budgets are financial manifestations of our priorities, both the message and the results are the same: beefing up reading dialing back on creativity.

I don’t mean to be overly reductionist—it’s a very complex issue. Indeed studies show that early investment in childhood reading yields very good social outcomes. But, in a zero-sum scenario (and we’ll leave aside for now the notion that it does not need to be zero-sum) is it smart to invest in reading at the expense of art? We can’t really know but be do know that since reading is obsessively tested and creativity is not there is a powerful incentive to allocate toward the program that is closely evaluated. Without any bad intentions, district planners must be sorely tempted to load resources toward measures that show good metrical results for the district. That makes everyone think they (the schools) are doing a good job.

But of course, there’s a big difference between showing good results and educating our children well. This misalignment of incentives is driving parents and teachers crazy nationwide but it’s not surprising. The planning process is almost built to fail that way.

I see the same thing in public policy planning, where economic impact is an overriding concern. Studies show (usually with heavy footnotes) that the arts have a mildly positive economic impact but it’s not akin to that of a water main, a road or communications trunkline. Arts are not for economic growth and so discussions that are heavily founded on economics won’t reflect especially impressively. It’s not that the arts look bad under economic analysis, rather more take-it-or-leave-it.

However, beyond the modest fiscal boost, arts do some essential things that have very fundamental—but indirect—ramifications. Arts promote vitality, optimism, trust and innovation, all preconditions for prosperity. So by sharpening the point of the economic spear into ever-steeper slopes of measurable return, we risk undermining the shaft that’s driving it.

That gets me to the positivistic/negativistic dilemma. The school district sees a problem (must raise test scores) and is reaching for an obvious response tool: coaching. But by pivoting resources toward this quantitative problem, it’s neglecting the qualitative question—the only one that matters: what kind of education should our children receive? What are we preparing them for?

The schools’ most essential job is to prepare children for the future—a world that doesn’t exist and jobs that haven’t been imagined yet. They will need the perceptive and creative skills that the arts teach so well. Cutting those programs is understandable given the incentive structure but it’s not in the interest of the child.

These are the mechanics of art getting short-shrift in the planning process. It’s also a great opportunity to change the conversation away from burnishing whichever metric is currently en vogue and toward a discussion about what kind of community we want to be.

Art does very well in that conversation if we allow it in. In this case, by proposing arts cuts, the district is necessitating the conversation. Perhaps a gift in disguise.

As part of my professional education and ongoing research, I’m fortunate to be permitted to audit George Sampson and Lindsey Hepler’s class on the Arts and Public Policy in the Architecture School at the University of Virginia. This post, and others in the series are reaction to our readings and discussions in which I find links between our readings and discussion and the front lines of community-based art.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Is Extreme Wealth Killing Art?

It’s great when a newspaper story about art jumps off of the kitchen table and demands to be noticed. This week, it happened in two very different articles about money in the arts, both laments, about where our culture is going and how its creative edge is being dulled through neglect.

The tighter, more straight-forward piece was in Sunday's Washington Post. Philip Kennicott asks, “As the price of art rises, is its value plummeting?” It’s a great, if oft-posed, question: as asking prices for blue-chip art enter mathematical ranges, and it becomes monitized, what does that do to the motives behind its creation, curation and distribution? How can that have an other-than-malign impact throughout the food chain? If one assumes that art is meant to be for something does not the commodity role squeeze other things out?

It can be argued that other assets—grain, for example—successfully perform dual roles as repositories for wealth and useful social functions. But those roles, different as they may be, are apples-to-apples: they are both utilitarian. Art has a quasi-spiritual function and that is what differentiates a urinal from a DuChamps. As we move into a supra-corporate model of wealth, with oceans of opacity between owners and assets—and increasing walls between people, I can say as an artist that it’s despairingly difficult to connect money and meaning in art.

Kennicott opens the piece by describing the record-breaking sale at Christie's of a Francis Bacon triptych. He closes by noting that the piece will be on display in Portland for a short time and notes that the anonymous owner is being heavily reimbursed for the loan through a tax deduction. The bad thing in my view is this: almost no one will go to see Bacon's art (although justifiably many people love his work); let’s be honest—everyone is going to see the huge container of wealth, ostentatiously displayed by someone who is ironically uncomfortable (also, I think, justified) about that very wealth. And even this one act of sharing is heavily caveated.

If I were to hazard one explanation of art’s social purpose, it would be that art is an exploration of each maker’s individualistic condition and that by midwifing those ideas into an object and putting it into public space, it transforms into an independent object among us all for discussion and reflection. It brings us together despite all of our differences because we all have varied but equally valid connections.

But by standing in as an explicit class signifier, the Bacon becomes a symbol of difference. Instead of bridging barriers, it is wall itself and the crowds that will go see it do so in the spirit of fascination with a car wreck. Is that what art is for? Is that what Bacon intended? As an artist, it is discomfiting, to say the least.

Surely we can do better.

[Full Story]

Editor’s Note: This phenomenon is the reason why Monticello Road is explicitly non-commercial. Too often, the confluence of money and art is a barrier between people. As this project strives for the opposite effect, it was important (though difficult) to find a way to get money out of the picture. Anyone who wishes to have a picture can have one through a variety of channels and support strategies, all deriving from the community, not through government or foundation financial. 

As part of my professional education and ongoing research, I’m fortunate to be to audit George Sampson and Lindsey Hepler’s class on the Arts and Public Policy in the Architecture School at the University of Virginia. This post, and others in the series are reaction to our readings and discussions.

Can Charlottesville Plan its Way to a Better Cultural Scene?

The second article about money in the arts was more problematic. In reporting about the Create Charlottesville/Albemarle Cultural Plan, C-Ville Weekly reporter Elizabeth Derby zeros in on one, predictable, aspect of a complex plan: Can public money grow Charlottesville’s arts scene? I calmed down with the third reading, but I must say that I was put off from the first line, in which she describes the multi-year undertaking, which unified the cultural community like nothing before, as “absurd.” It’s the type of blithe snark that one expects from a free weekly and I hope that it was awkward writing--not her intent.

The question itself is an absurdity in itself, but in the opposite direction: of course money can grow the art scene, just as it can grow the restaurant scene or the skateboarding scene. The real question, though, is how best to grow the art scene? That’s what the plan is about and money is really a small part of it, notwithstanding the huge dollar bill on the tabloid’s cover.

The spirit of the plan is about working together as a whole community—different organizations, municipalities, interest groups, audiences, and cultural workers—toward making Charlottesville a livelier, more culturally rich place. After its inauspicious start, the article dives into the planning process in some detail sketching the whole process from the Arts and Economic Prosperity Study that inspired it, through 1,000 surveys and focus groups, all the way to the final draft and launch. It’s a lot to digest in just a few pages and the story sketches it out pretty well, notwithstanding the gloomy tone.

The Cultural Plan is a hopeful exercise based on the premise that it’s possible to work together to make the region better through cultural policy and planning. I happen to agree with that premise, but even if you’re not sure, what’s the alternative?

Those who have studied art and public policy know that power abhors a vacuum and, in the absence of public discussion, wealth will drive cultural priorities, as it does in other fields. That’s why I loved seeing the Post story next to this one—it highlights the market’s limitations as a cultural driver.

The Cultural Plan does not directly address supply and demand (and that is indeed a grave weakness) but neither is it a specific road map; more of a statement of values and priorities. The genius, really, is in the process: in bringing together diverse parties to discuss priorities, it sets the table for those groups to work collaboratively to solve some of the daunting challenges that lie ahead.

After I got over my anger at the article’s tone, it made me sad. It’s full of lamentation about what an interesting place Charlottesville used to be in some undefined golden age of hipness. (It should be noted that several of the story’s primary sources have not lived here for some time). I feel sorry for them, if that's what they want, but the collaborative process going forward can only improve the situation (marginally at the very minimum) that drove them away.

I’m glad the C-Ville decided to highlight this important discussion. How could it not, really? I’m sorry, though, that the story is written from such a pessimistic perspective. Yes, there is a malaise in the arts community, as if
“Art is just another hope to be abandoned, along with the hope that your children might do better than you’ve done.” [from the WaPo article]
But here’s a very real effort, with real investment (mostly time) by smart people, to make it better.

Let’s button our vintage flannels, roll the sleeves up and get to work!

[Read the C-Ville article here]

Disclaimer: I was closely involved with the Cultural Plan as a focus group leader and on the Artist Resources Task Force. Monticello Road and StoryLine are cited as successful models and McGuffey Art Center, where I am resident, is listed as both a key asset and opportunity for growth.

As part of my professional education and ongoing research, I’m fortunate to be permitted to audit George Sampson and Lindsey Hepler’s class on the Arts and Public Policy in the Architecture School at the University of Virginia. This post, and others in the series are reaction to our readings and discussions.   

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Citizen Artist

This week was a great discussion about the citizen artist and the role of the arts in the crafting of a meaningful, balanced and productive live. As this blog is all about a community art project, it’s necessary for me to add that arts are an important glue that creates healthy communities. The many demonstrable benefits that accrue to an individual who has a rich creative life project onto the community at large as well.

This happens on a few levels:

1. Art creates a common reference that two discrete individuals can share without giving up any of their individual autonomy. You can talk to your neighbor about a performance you’ve witnessed at the local school, just like you see people of very different social extraction bonding together about last night’s football game. (Read here about Bill Ivey's amazing riff on that topic).

That may seem trivial or superficial but those initial bonds are key. No conversation of any merit can take place without a hello and the more we share simple things, the easier it is to work together on the profound. Liu and Hanauer argue that these small bonds are the key to trust, which is the only glue that can hold democracy together.

2. Art is an opportunity for engagement and if it is successful it does so in a zone of the sublime. It inspires an active response; it provokes—and that is how it is different from craft, which comforts and reassures. So art clears out the cobwebs and opens the pathway toward constructive engagement, bettering ourselves in whatever crazy way we see fit and kicks off a virtuous cycle of inspiration, creation and sharing.

This breaks through the lethargy and demonstrates that we can do something and that difference between zero and one is profound. So, as we bond together in the previous case, we do so in a way that is optimistic and with a quiver of emotional tools for positive change.

3. Finally, the making of art can itself be a community building activity on the physical level, which reinforces so much that is good. For example, in my neighborhood we painted a mandala on the road, which is now a community landmark, and it is one that we built ourselves and invested in together. By getting our hands dirty together we literally made ourselves into a community and doing so through art imbued that process with profound meaning on top of the circumstance. It was much better than picking up trash, for example.

So clearly, art within the community (as opposed to being shunted off to some cultural reservation) has virtuous effects. While it’s great to have art in the community, it is much better when the art is of/from the community. That way we truly own it (the art and, by extension the community itself). A citizen is one who invests themselves in their nation, and like the other ingredients of a successful neighborhood, an art-rich community requires active participation.

That is why we need citizen-artists even more than we need art appreciators.

As part of my professional education and ongoing research, I’m fortunate to be permitted to audit George Sampson and Lindsey Hepler’s class on the Arts and Public Policy in the Architecture School at the University of Virginia. This post, and others in the series are reaction to our readings and discussions.  

Saturday, January 25, 2014

It Takes a Garden

We are at all times both cause and effect. Our mirror neurons and evolved social rites mean that how we behave influences how others behave, and how they behave influences us. The permuting patterns of those interactions become the shape our societies take.
-- The Gardens of Democracy. Page 34
The Garden of Democracy by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer (Sasquatch Books, 2011) could be a manifesto for the Monticello Road project.

Liu and Hanauer argue that it is time to look at society and its three arenas (culture, economy and government) according to a new understanding of how the universe works: interconnected, approximative, reciprocal and in need of constant, humble tending. We more like a garden than a machine. The authors call for a new form of self-interest that based on the notion that we do well when we all do well. Furthermore, the path to change will be the sum of regular people doing small things: democracy, heritage, economic growth—it’s really just us and the sum of our everyday activities, as much how we live as what we do.

I have always been intrigued by the garden as a metaphor for all complex systems: our bodies, our neighborhoods, the nation or maybe even the universe itself. It’s a big reason I left New York and the more I read and experiment with my own garden the more convinced I am that it’s true. This is hardly new—the Bible told us so.

The thing that our parents and teachers might have misunderstood, though, and we’re starting to learn now is that we’re not gardeners standing aloof—we are the soil. Actually one thing you learn as a gardener is that there’s not much difference between the plants, the bugs, the compost, or even the guy pulling weeds. It’s only a question of applied intent.

I don’t wish to dwell too much on the nuances of this metaphor. Like any device metaphors have their limitations, but the spirit of what this one says is powerful, namely that fundamental change is the fruit of underlying and atmospheric conditions and that hummus must be built and nourished through the introduction of positivity.

Society is not some arena where we duke it out, it is us, the sum of all of our interactions and the tone we take with one another.

By celebrating our neighborhood, by getting to know one another as individuals and lifting one another up are actively building the dream city we want to live in.

Together.

As part of my professional education and ongoing research, I’m fortunate to be permitted to audit George Sampson and Lindsey Hepler’s class on the Arts and Public Policy in the Architecture School at the University of Virginia. This post, and others in the series are reaction to our readings and discussions. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Artists are Agents of Negentropy

As part of my professional education and ongoing research, I’m fortunate to be permitted to audit George Sampson and Lindsey Hepler’s class on the Arts and Public Policy in the Architecture School at the University of Virginia. This post, and others in the series are reaction to our readings and discussions.

There are so many amazing ideas and topics that come up in this class. In just the first week’s reading and discussion I feel like I’ve uncovered a lifetime of food for thought. We’re looking at the search for meaning through experience and the process of creation. What tools and resources strengthen a life, a community or a nation? Ideal topics for a community-based artist on a mission.

The course looks at art through two main lenses: contemplation and expression and the first week has focused on the former. We spoke briefly with our neighbors about a contemplative approach and came together on the ideas that it is an active, conscious and intentional centering exercise that opens, cleanses and illuminates. Useful life skills in addressing the contradictions that weigh every decision.

We’re moving past a Twentieth Century that sought to cure the world’s ills (and caused more than it's share) by trying to identify dysfunctions and eliminating them. The new approach is a positive paradigm that desires to build and nourish. A positive paradigm is holistic (instead of zeroing in a syndrome) and seeks to grow the entity far past its baseline. It’s about potential instead of limitations and on this ground, Art is a potent force.

One of our texts, Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studies ways to optimize experience and find meaning, appreciation (and yes power) in all domains. The section we read talks about how to reconcile differentiation and integration on all levels from the deeply personal to the whole social. It defines meaning as purpose, intention/resolution and organization/harmony.

In a complex world, this is difficult and it is not obvious how best to reconcile competing and sometimes oppositional ideas—not only from different points of view but within a single individual. How do we keep our thoughts organized and positively employed? Yet we must if we are to thrive.

Perspective is key: what matters is how we perceive each of our circumstances and our ideas about what they mean go a long way toward whether they limit us or not. In fact, our circumstances actually empower us if we can be smart about where we go from them.

As I read, Csikszentmihalyi dropped a term that stopped me in my tracks and illuminated many things. He cites the word negentropy, which I had never heard before but which is supremely powerful.

The reverse of entropy, negentropy is the force that brings things together, establishes order where there was none. For example, Wikipedia, states that Life itself is a negentropic force:
Life is considered to be negentropic because it takes things in less order, like dead food, and turns it into things in more order, like cells in the body, tissues, and organs.
This is also what the artist does: gathers ideas, sounds, visions, etc and produces something new, coherent and perhaps even astonishing. Art is a negentropic tool and, when drawing from a shared heritage provides valuable insight into how to order the often baffling chaos that surrounds us all. So art is a search for the organizational structure for life itself.

The artist is an agent of negentropy: a bringer of perspective who offers insights that allow us to bridge experience and intention and move forward toward our maximum potential. It is part of our human makeup and available to everyone. It's good for the artist and good for the audience.

That is certainly a Positive Paradigm!