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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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.

A Cacophonous History
A day in the archives yields a thick stack of news reports of public dissension around two main issues: excessive automobile speeds and out-of-control noise. The mandala and the one-day road closure were direct responses to the traffic (which is admittedly quite tame). Still, one person’s speeding is an other’s travel convenience, so this had to be handled carefully.

The noise issue is more tender. A series of badly run night clubs had fractured the neighborhood, pitting old versus young and residents versus outsiders. The specific conflict was resolved a few years ago but memories (which last a long time around here) are quite fresh.

The volume and hours were kept very reasonable, but equally important was the choice of music and musicians. We had indigenous music by neighborhood musicians. This is one of several the reasons why the gospel bluegrass was so important as a tone setter. It felt like providence, because we did not seek them out—they approached us to offer their musical gifts. These are the mechanics of the party arising organically from community.

Communication is Key
The most challenging issue was communication and that one exists in every neighborhood. Unlike the music, divine providence would not serve—even though we knew that word-of mouth would do a lot. As everywhere, there are difficulties related to geography, age, attention and access to digital media. We had a mass email, social media and posters but we did not feel like this was enough to counteract the grievances around a history of exclusion that is simultaneously imaginary and very real.

“If this is to be a celebration of the community by the community, we need to make sure that everyone is included,” said Julia, one of the planners. “The neighborhood association has spent the last several years reaching out to the community in concrete ways and we need to do that here if the event is to be the unifying force you describe.”

The communication was important for two reasons. On the one hand we worried that residents (some of whom would be partially landlocked by the street closure) would see this as an annoyance and we also wanted for everyone to feel welcome. It’s only an inconvenience if it’s someone else’s party, right?

My friend didn’t just have the right ideas—she was prepared to work hard to make them real. She crafted a plan and mobilized volunteers to go door-to-door flyering and conversing with hundreds of residents. It took her and her team all day but there’s nothing better than direct, person-to-person communication; again: the mechanics of a healthy, connected community.

Undoubtedly there exists a manual about how to run the perfect block party. Clearly, we didn’t read it and not everything went perfectly. But we co-discovered a very good process that set the table well for a positive moment in the life of the community.

The next post will talk about what I learned during the day’s interactions on that special occasion.

Learn More about the Belmont Bash

Photo Gallery | Origins | Community Inclusion | Interactions and Engagements
Thank you:
Tom Tom Founders Festival and their Sponsors,
Belmont Carlton Neighborhood Association

Organizing Committee: Paul Beyer, Melissa Easter, Adam Frazier, Deb Jackson, Greg Jackson, Peter Krebs, Robert Lewis, Pete O'Shea, Tomas Rahal, Lena Seville, Matthew Slaats, Julia Williams, Brian Wimer, Carolyn Zelkow and many community organizations.

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