Opinion: It takes an artist to raise an Artist Village

NORWALK, Conn. – Maybe Gertrude Stein coined the phrase, “There’s no THERE there,” about Oakland, Calif., during the 1930s, but the timeless sentiment seems very appropriate these days for downtown Norwalk.

From the first weekend at Freese Park.
From the first weekend at Freese Park.

This observation is one that the state of Connecticut has attempted to change with the Creative Placemaking initiatives that brought pop-ups and creative uses off downtowns all over the state – a natural fit for us at Norwalk 2.0 since we built the organization four years ago for that very thing, creating a place where the challenges were all about making a there, there.

This year’s project brought four shipping containers to the tiny Freese Park, overlooking the Norwalk River in the heart of the historic downtown. The reasons for why this project was created starts with the story of the ubiquitous shipping container.

Did you know that, at every port in the U.S., thousands of containers are stockpiled in yards because they don’t want to ship back empty containers? The history of how goods came to be shipped in containers is told in numbers on Wikipedia. The real story is that empty shipping containers is the shipping industry’s $1 billion problem, with too many goods arriving here in containers and not enough goods being shipped back. The Washington Post even reported a few months ago that China doesn’t want to recycle our trash anymore.

The containers are a metaphor. Here we have a beautiful historic downtown, yet many storefronts are vacant, because we’ve chosen to buy things in different ways, whether its big chains that import goods cheaply, or on the Internet, where you can get anything delivered to your door. We’ve forgotten how to enjoy a place where people can meet and see things created by people who live here.

From the first weekend at Freese Park.
From the first weekend at Freese Park.

In February, a Call for Ideas went out, and local artists came up with projects to use the containers, and build a village. Norwalk was founded here, and so it made sense to build a village that would bring people back to the center of town to see something locally made.

For several years, Norwalk 2.0 has revitalized existing storefronts in the Norwalk Center area and infused new vitality in a blighted and difficult area. Today, the area hosts several arts organizations and many development projects. It also is the site of the new infill housing in downtown Norwalk since the recession, a 569-unit, six-story development by Belpointe Real Estate, a $250 million investment.

While the Artist Village project is the first in Connecticut, other cities have used the shipping container in projects like the DeKalb Market in New York and Proxy in San Francisco. “Creating Relocatable Urbanism.”

Norwalk 2.0 has recently collected input, feedback and suggestions from community members through a series of workshops, events and community conversations. Priorities expressed by the community include:

  • enhancing neighborhood identity
  • increasing connectivity between the neighborhoods and focusing on the pedestrian experience to and from neighborhood gateways
  • way-finding and signage
  • pedestrian lighting, distinctive design and architecture
  • affordable and mixed-income housing and affordable and mixed-income gallery and live/work space for visual and performing artists
  • bike facilities including bike lanes and bike parking

Desired events and activities include:

  • informal markets for crafts and hand crafted goods
  • performance spaces, informal gathering spaces and space to host community events
  • pop-up restaurants, cafes and beer gardens (and food trucks) with outdoor dining
  • pop-up retail
  • community gardens
  • incubation space for small businesses
  • space for education and life-long learning in the arts, yoga and exercise, cooking and other subjects
  • interactive and temporary public art including murals, lighting and projections
  • opportunities to record and retell the history of the area
  • flexible, and multipurpose space which serves the evolving needs of the community

Shipping container projects and proposals should support the development of a dense, diverse, walkable and sustainable urban community.

The first weekend opened with:

A vase on display during the first weekend at Freese Park.
A vase on display during the first weekend at Freese Park.

FIRST WORLD problem is a nonlinear comedic web series about Stan and Annie. ‘The Boat Episodes’ shot in downtown SoNo, at Rex Marina, in the harbor near Veteran’s Park, and on the Long Island Sound throughout the Norwalk Islands was screened.

Kids Creative Collective brought its groundbreaking NYC-based theater workshop. Stacey Linartz, born and raised in Norwalk, is a professional actor who holds an MFA from NYU Grad Acting, is artistic director of Kids Creative Collective and executive producer of Third Wing Media. They will be back Friday and Saturday June 13 and 14.

A Walking Tour of Norwalk’s WPA Murals engaged art history lovers, parents and children, art lovers, and Norwalk history buffs. Susan Wallerstein and Melissa Slattery led participants on a stroll from Freese Park Artist Village to Norwalk City Hall. At City Hall, they were given a private themed tour and returned back to the Village. The participants then headed over to Paella for a themed drink, the “Rummler” a vintage rum cocktail, and overlooked the Village in the wide open windows of Paella. Additional Fridays from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. are June 6, and June 13 for the walks.

Fifteen poets painted and read their poems on the sides of a shipping container whilst other poets read aloud some of the work they’ve painted. Poets Nicholas Miele and Bill Buschel have been involved with the Stamford poetry outreach program, Poem Alley, for the better part of a decade.

Frank Foster Post created The Black Box, a floor-to-ceiling blackboard surface for the public to experiment with.

The Mysterious Art Society is part creativity lab, part treasure hunt. Create amazing things using simple techniques. Take some art home and hide some for others to find.

“Kamikaze Jones” is providing an interactive performance space dedicated to exploring the power of the human voice. They will sing songs, recite poetry, memorize soliloquies, whisper incantations, chant ecstatically, babble incoherently, laugh uncontrollably, and speak our minds. The work will then be broadcast as a sonic collage.

RED, an electronica band from Taiwan performed Saturday night to a curious crowd.

Other scheduled music includes:

  • DJ Tavo, 7 p.m. Thursday, June 4
  • Sarah LeMieux Quintet, 6 p.m., Saturday June 7
  • Edisun, 8:45 p.m. Saturday, June 7
  • Further, 8 p.m. Saturday, June 14
  • Craving Strange, 8:45 p.m. Saturday, June 14

Makers scheduled:

  • Melissa Gonzales – Vintanthromodern Vintage & The Vintanthromobile, June 5.
  • Fairfield County Makers Guild (third printing), Friday, June 6 and 13.
  • Becca Bryan of Whisk + Brushwww.whiskandbrush.com, Friday, June 13

As women entrepreneurs, founders Jackie Lightfield and Maribeth Becker have tapped into the growing start-up culture amongst a diverse creative economy and arts community. Our goal is to actively engage and provide opportunity for young people, people in career transition and creative industry professionals to explore new ideas. We have iterated our public arts program to mix historic preservation, downtown revitalization and arts entrepreneurs to engage in building a vibrant downtown.

The hour dates for the Freese Park Artist Village are 6 to 11 p.m. June 5, 6, 7 and June 12, 13, 14.

(Click on the images to see the full photo)


One response to “Opinion: It takes an artist to raise an Artist Village”

  1. EveT

    One of the most innovative events we’ve seen around here in I don’t know how long. That said, sometimes making a community attractive and desirable comes down to the basics, like signage, wayfinding, and street lighting.

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