Ask anyone who lives in a neighborhood riddled with foreclosed homes and derelict storefronts, and they’ll tell you: an empty building is much more than just an empty building in hard economic times. These neglected spaces become a locus for petty vandalism and crime, the abandoned commercial and residential properties’ growing disrepair an unmistakable hallmark of a community on the ropes.
It’s rare to see just one foreclosed home in my working class neighborhood on St. Paul’s east side. You usually find them in clusters, two or three on the same block. Now that the weather has turned warmer, the grass is starting to get high and weedy around some of the properties, their doors and windows boarded up and marked with tell-tale notices, many of which have been taped there so long they’re yellow and curled with age. Storefront vacancy rates tend to climb at compounding rates, too; empty shops beget empty shops, eventually leaving whole swaths of a neighborhood bereft, depressing property values and community morale in equal measure.
To my mind, it’s in these forlorn spaces that artists’ “creative placemaking” efforts stand to do the most good. Bring the productive, fruitful hubbub of art-making here, and it’s like throwing open the windows to let sunshine and fresh air reach the dark corners of a musty room. There are a number of such activities afoot in the Twin Cities at the moment; I’ll note a couple below going on in St. Paul, both of them along the Central Corridor. That’s a stretch of town currently hard hit by growing commercial vacancy rates and by the disruptive fracas of light rail construction. Bringing people into these areas – to make and see a show, to spend some money going out to eat or shopping – is a much-needed shot in the arm for the neighborhood.
One such program, the Starling Project, the brainchild of a handful of concerned University of Minnesota graduate students, is working to connect prospective tenants with property owners of vacant storefronts along University Avenue, helping them arrange short-term, “in the meantime” leases and putting empty commercial spaces to productive use. So far, they’ve arranged a number of partnerships with neighborhood-based organizations, and the project is beginning to bear fruit.
For example, through the Starling Project, Art du Nord recently opened a pop-up shop for locally made visual art and furniture design in one of the vacant storefronts. Twelve artists are involved in the venture, which inhabits the space of what used to be a frame shop on the corner of University and Raymond –a space that sat empty for the duration of light rail construction. Art du Nord’s spring show wraps up this weekend, and will be open during this, its final week, Wednesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at 2401 University Avenue West, St. Paul.
Interested in looking into such a space for your own creative endeavor? The Starling Project is currently taking proposals for a number of projects and will begin organizing programs and events in vacant storefronts along University Avenue, in partnership with St. Anthony Park Community Council, beginning in mid-May. Find out more here: starlingproject.com/inquire.html
On a related note: Skewed Visions’ site-specific production, “Black Water,” has overtaken a long vacant storefront, as well; the University Avenue site was formerly home to Spiro’s Mediterranean Market. The show, inspired by drone warfare and W.G. Sebald’s novel, “Austerlitz,” is billed as “a comically visceral look at the intersection of remote violence and forgotten history. Created for the lost space of an empty market…”
“Black Water” is a site-specific production by Skewed Visions, created by Charles Campbell and featuring performances by Campbell, Megan Mayer and Laurie Van Wieren, with design by Irve Dell, sound by Elliott Durko Lynch, lighting by Heidi Eckwall and video by Kevin Obsatz. It runs through June 2, Thursday to Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., at 2264 University Avenue West, St. Paul. For show times, tickets and detailed information: www.skewedvisions.org/2012/05/black-water