My last blog essentially about the beauty one finds in your neighborhood, such as the natural beauty in open green spaces and the need to protect them, or the beauty we can create by transforming underutilized or unsightly areas through the use of community gardens or public art projects. With this blog I’d like to offer suggestions on how to utilize our cityscapes in the Charlotte region to promote the arts and spur neighborhood development. A short bio on me might help you place my thoughts and future vision into proper context. I was born and raised in New York City during the sixties and seventies, attended college in New England from the late 70’s to the mid-80’s, and arrived in Charlotte in the mid-90’s.
Outdoor stages for the arts
Spending my childhood years on the streets of New York, in Central Park and on the subways gave me an appreciation for the how the streets were actually a performing arts stage. From a close family friend, a homeless man with a melodic voice reminiscent of Nat King Cole, who claimed 79th Street & Broadway as his mini-sound stage to share his talents and collect the coin tossings of pedestrians, to the saxophone players on the subway platforms of Times Square, the conga players at the Fountain in Central Park, or sketch artists outside the Metropolitan Museum, to name a few, New York City is a living, 24 hour sound, performing and visual artist stage.
The Uptown Charlotte scene that I first witnessed in the mid-90’s was a ghost town at 5:01 p.m. on most evenings. At that time, Uptown Charlotte was basically a banker’s town. Since then, the Uptown (now Center City) scene has experienced a resurgence, demographically with more residences, culturally with the McColl Visual Arts Center, Spirit Square and the Wells Fargo Cultural Complex, to name a few, recreationally with the EpiCentre Complex, Bank of America stadium and Time Warner Arena as well as more recently, Romare Bearden Park and Fifth Third Ballpark, and economically with the many new buildings, restaurants, bars, etc. that call the Center City it’s home. And while many artists do perform on the weekends at the plazas of Trade and Tryon or at the Wells Fargo Atrium or outdoor pavilion, the arts are not as spontaneous or pervasive on the streets of the rest of the city with the exceptions of the NoDa Arts District on a regular basis, or during the many festivals held throughout the city. I’d like to see this change by creating an environment similar to NoDa at peripheral city town centers or other historic neighborhood locations throughout our region.
How NoDa became an Arts District
My first impressions of North Davidson was that it was a edgy place, with high crime rates, high unemployment, poor housing stock and few community resources or cultural amenities. The Davidson YMCA received an infusion of capital, community goodwill and volunteer support to serve as an anchor for redevelopment of the surrounding area. The United Way funded the Success by Six program to improve early childhood development programming and outcomes. The Urban League invested in adult education programs to improve the employability of residents. Thompson Child Development Center opened up a facility adjacent to the YMCA on North Davidson. The historic Highland Mills complex was redeveloped, which spurred other similar mixed-use developments in the surrounding community.
The area was re-branded as NoDa and soon started hosting gallery crawls and outdoor festivities. The starting place was an undeveloped area and with broad-based community involvement, public-private partnerships, naming branding, innovative marketing, entrepreneurship and street-level performing and visual arts, NoDa became the thriving arts and entertainment district that we enjoy today. The journey took decades so let’s identify the next arts district in our region and start getting to work. One might look no further than the Blue Line Extension (from Center City to the University City area to the north) for surrounding communities in transition that are being actively redeveloped, and recognize that the “NoDa” of tomorrow is within our reach with proper planning, resource allocation and community involvement.
Promote Local Artists
There are an abundance of underutilized venues where local artists could be given a platform (and paid) to entertain passersby or customers. One of the treasures of visiting the SouthPark Mall is listening to the piano player as you descend the escalators of Neiman Marcus to get to the concourse level of the mall. The same could be said of the BB&T Building when the piano player is going to town on the keyboard. Maybe our new mayor could commission a volunteer group to identify such places and use art and music as a strategic way of making the city more attractive and a viable place for our local artist community to thrive. To be clear, I’m recommending both a growth of planned artist venues paid by companies or institutions but also encouraging a growth of visual and performing arts in public spaces in a more spontaneous fashion, such as what you might find in the Big Apple or along the streets of NoDa on Gallery Crawl night.
Calls to Action
If you are a visual or performing artist, come out on a Friday night to a town center near you, pick a spot and start displaying your talents or crafts. If you have the power and resources to hire a local artist in a public venue, please do so. If you represent a community with a need for a new vision and plan, hire a branding/marketing firm and form a broad-based coalition to redesign your area. Be patience because it will take a while to see the results of your labor. If you are a pedestrian, put some money in the hat. Thanks for supporting local artists!
To determine if I can provide appropriate guidance or expert referral to you regarding your consideration or adoption of any of these above ideas, please reach out to Bill Garcia at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a brief meeting or call.
Charlotte City Skyline by former Mecklenburg County Commission chairwoman Jennifer Watson Roberts (https://www.facebook.com/Jennifer.Watson.Roberts). The picture appears in its original form.