Building Stronger Communities through the Arts

From the stage at Central City Fest in New Orleans

Image: From the stage at Central City Fest in New Orleans

Photo Credit: Victor Robinson; courtesy of Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard Merchants & Business Association

Across the county, communities are embracing the arts as a catalyst for revitalization--of buildings, businesses, and local culture. In our Main Street America Network, we see small towns, big cities, and everywhere in between, treating the arts not as an “extra” or a “would-be-nice,” but as an integral part of what they do to build stronger communities. Let’s take a look:

Covington, Kentucky, which is located across the river from Cincinnati, boasts 27 pieces of public art throughout their downtown. Most are in previously unused space, including a four-story mural spanning two buildings painted by Brooklyn-based artist Faile. To fuel art activities, Renaissance Covington redesigned a vacant parking lot into a designated space for public art and performance. Renaissance Covington—the local Main Street America program—also hosts an annual urban art festival, Art Off Pike, to showcase local and regional art. “Our community embraces this creativity and as a result, we not only have a truly walkable downtown, we have seen an influx of development, businesses, and residents,” said Katie Meyer, executive director of Renaissance Covington.

Further south, the city of Gulfport, Mississippi is taking a different approach to enlivening public space. Fishbone Alley was an underused, unattractive alley right in the middle of the downtown district that was transformed into a vibrant public space, featuring century-old brick pavers, whimsical public art, and enchanting lighting. Gulfport Main Street Association won an Innovation Award for their efforts, but the real reward is that the community uses the space an “urban living room,” fostering a newfound appreciation for the arts.

The city of New Orleans is no stranger to using the arts and culture to activate community and help revitalize the struggling local economy. The Main Street America program located in the Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard neighborhood hosts monthly First Fridays events, often in partnership with local arts organizations, as well as an annual Central City Festival, featuring a variety of dance, music, food, and fashion, in addition to the jazz you’d expect in New Orleans. These events have been a huge draw for the neighborhood, which experienced decades of disinvestment before its turnaround. “We are proud that the corridor is now a well-rounded community that enriches the life of its residents, providing easy access to education, business opportunities, art, recreation and entertainment,” said Linda Pompa, executive director, Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard Merchants & Business Association.

Rural communities are also using the arts in fun and unexpected ways. Glenrock, Wyoming, (population 2,595) recently commissioned two professional murals with the express purpose of “enhancing their quality of life.” Chillicothe, Missouri, is home to over 20 murals, which they credit with creating the drive to open the Cultural Corner Art Guild & Gallery. Barstow, Florida, hosted a temporary community art exhibit in empty storefronts to draw attention to unoccupied spaces in their Main Street district. Rock Springs, Wyoming, installed an art gallery in a pedestrian underpass, transforming it from an unfriendly pass-through into a beloved public space.

No matter where, no matter how, the arts are helping to build stronger communities across America.

Author bio: Emily Wallrath Schmidt is the Associate Manager of Communications for the National Main Street Center. Main Street America has been helping revitalize older and historic commercial districts for more than 35 years. Today it is a network of more than 1,600 neighborhoods and communities, rural and urban, who share both a commitment to place and to building stronger communities through preservation-based economic development. Main Street America is a program of the nonprofit National Main Street Center, Inc., a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.