This piece is about a small lot, forty-five by sixty feet in dimension, that started its life when the city of Salem demolished the dilapidated building that occupied it. Although its owner had long abandoned both building and parcel, the lot remained private property. No public action seemed possible. 1 Informal interviews with local residents desiring improvements to the lot prompted us to create a space for community action, despite legal entanglements. On this privately owned but abandoned parcel, Salem Public Space Project hoped to inaugurate a participatory democratic action. For eight consecutive weeks, every Friday afternoon, we established a civic practice whereby residents gathered and helped build a fifty-foot long orange suggestion wall that read: "I imagine this lot could be _____" in English and Spanish. In an area of low voter turnout, the ReImagine A Lot project gathered over ninety suggestions written on its bright panels. 2
The return of art to the social through context-specific participatory work, especially since the early 1990s (Bishop 2012), is manifested in fields including community organizing and city design. Community participation in neighborhood planning marks a shift from the expert, top-down system of city design to a grassroots, bottom-up process that stipulates new projects derive from community desires. In the article "Implacing Architecture into the Practice of Placemaking," the authors regard community participation as a worthwhile aspiration that "can create profound opportunities for democratic action and the celebration of everyday life" (Schneekloth and Shibley 2000, 130). Through collaborative planning processes, the community transforms from passive audience members to active stakeholders and coproducers of new projects.
Creative placemaking has emerged as the umbrella term for artistic efforts that strive to engage the community in transforming underutilized spaces into places regarded as communal assets. According to Projects for Public Spaces, " 'Placemaking' is both an overarching idea and a hands-on tool for improving a neighborhood, city or region. It has the potential to be one of the most transformative ideas of this century" (PPS 2014). The funding coalition of ArtPlace America and the Our Town initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts have accelerated the number of grants awarded for placemaking projects in the past few years (Nicodemus 2013). Tactical urbanism, nimble and soft design, temporary urbanism, and Project for Public Spaces' "lighter, quicker, cheaper," all point to the growing support among planning and design professionals of the small and temporary to tackle problems in neighborhoods low on funding (Zeiger 2011; Driggins and Snowden 2012; PPS 2014; Silberberg 2013). Nevertheless, the ephemeral nature of these projects and lack of systemized documentation hinders evaluation, leading some in the field to note that despite its "rapid ascent as cultural policy, [placemaking] is now at a crossroads—'mature and gain substance' or 'shrivel up under the heat of scrutiny'" (Nicodemus 2013).
The ReImagine A Lot project was initially inspired by Candy Chang's now famous "experiment in making a public space into a shared space" by writing on a chalkboard stenciled with the prompt: "Before I die I want to ____" (Grinberg 2013). Through the social and physical context of the Point neighborhood, the ReImagine A Lot project evolved beyond a suggestion wall into a space of civic practice and collective expression. By placing the suggestion wall in unsecured, uncurated, unmonitored public space, we invited our neighbors to act, to join a conversation conducted through deeds across space. This is a story about the small; it is a documentation of seemingly small actions that reveal a community.
An action, ephemeral and untamable, claims its success at the onset, through its very birth, since its end is plural and unpredictable. It is because the outcome is open-ended that participants, the agents of action, reveal themselves. As a step into the unknown, then, it is a courageous thing to undertake, no matter the ending. Roberto Bedoya, Executive Director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council, encourages only such actions within creative placemaking that serve "not as a development strategy but as a series of actions that build spatial justice, healthy communities and sites of imaginations" (Bedoya 2012). A development strategy is focused on attaining a desired outcome, such as increased foot traffic or property values; true action confounds expectations (Arendt 1958). Actions taken by a group of people may not be what the planner or artist anticipates when introducing a project into a community. At the beginning of ReImagine A Lot, parents warned of its potential destruction, but the communal building process resulted in a strong connection between participants and the project they helped create. The small moments of building together enacted the "aesthetic of belonging" (Bedoya 2012) championed by Roberto Bedoya that enhances feelings of ownership for participants who cocreate new projects through freely chosen actions.
Hannah Arendt's articulation of action as not "the beginning of something, but somebody" (Arendt, 1958, p. 177), clearly resonates with the process of participation that unfolded during ReImagine A Lot. The boundlessness and unpredictability inherent in actions elude metrics and frustrate examinations based on the end product; city officials and urban professionals desire the fruits of participation, answers to specific questions without the unpredictable and difficult effort to categorize the nature of open-ended engagement, as though "if men only renounce their capacity for action" and just provide the information indicated on the survey, "there could be a remedy for the frailty of human affairs" (Arendt 1958, 195). As a visible act in the public domain, participatory action has the capacity to generate democratic inclusion against the tide of undiscerning growth and eventual displacement. Action, the way people reveal themselves to each other in public, is the most significant democratic characteristic of creative placemaking projects. These spontaneous, temporal personal relationships between participants are significant stories that show interpersonal growth and add depth and nuance to creative placemaking. The small, temporary, and individual projects and stories need to be acknowledged and celebrated.
Creative documentation is the conscious chronicling of the ephemeral stories that emerge when people are included in the process of building. Creative documentation has three aims: to help evaluate the plural, temporary participatory practice by foregrounding the "how" of the process; to embed the process in the product; and to serve as a manual to facilitate future efforts in the area. In this multimedia essay, I illustrate aspects of date, time, weather, amount of project contact hours, participant demographics, number of participants in relation to project events, and the types of artifacts collectively created. The soundtrack includes sounds from the site integrated with a song written by youth participants with guidance from The Dejas, a local band, as well as this narrated essay, which analyzes the project through its chronology, the personal and collective identities revealed through participant narrative vignettes, and a postmortem on the ultimate meaning of the eight-week-long endeavor. Short-lived projects such as this one should not be analyzed solely based on a physical end product. Creative documentation allows placemaking projects to be productively evaluated and become part of a collective discourse that shows the people behind the action in a methodical way and has the capacity to place these ephemeral stories beyond the anecdotal, illustrating that "process is equal to the outcome" (Silberberg 2013).
ReImagine A Lot is a case study of how creative documentation helps generate a working methodology for assessing and discussing the community actions that result from participatory community projects, or creative placemaking.
The legal entanglement of the site necessitated a temporary intervention. In lieu of physical permanence, we relied on the regularity of gathering every Friday from three to six in the afternoon to create a sense of stability. The project consisted of two parts that reinforced each other: the first was a physical component that provided the space for civic-social events; the second was how these civic-social events facilitated social interactions and an opportunity for collective expression.
The fifty-foot-long, bright orange wall evolved to function as suggestion space, community mural, and bulletin board. The otherwise simple wall featured a slight curve to create a sense of enclosure in the space for action. Often, nearby children and adolescents joined in the activities. Sometimes, adults interrupted their walks and also helped. Over the weeks, the same faces came each Friday afternoon, with a sprinkling of new people from time to time. The work was unpredictable and, especially for those who only participated once or twice, it was spontaneous.
Over these two months, the neighborhood saw the project slowly materialize. They got to see it at vulnerable points: crooked, half painted, exposed to the elements. Perhaps they wondered what the following week would bring. During this time, we hosted three community events that more formally invited the community into the space. At other times, we observed people gathering there spontaneously. The elongated, open process revealed the project to participants as they helped construct it: young children and teenagers who played in the park across the way, their parents, the On Point staff and youth on probation, nearby artists, and residents who simply walked up and down Palmer Street and joined us. In turn, these diverse people suggested a different future for the abandoned lot, not only through their written suggestions, but also through their actions of building together, thereby transforming the empty lot into a space for civic action. Throughout the eight-week building period, participants regularly discussed whether the wall would get broken, tagged, or destroyed in some manner. Arendt deems such actions to be "the political activity par excellence" since they are open to unpredictable outcomes (Arendt 1958, 178).
The notion of destruction enters readily at the beginning of creation, and its potential multiplies when the creation is placed in public. During the fourth week of the project construction, with only a fraction of the fifty-foot-long community suggestion wall erected, a parent came to discuss his son's participation. While he was enthusiastic about the aim of the project, he lamented that it would be "destroyed before it got completed" (Participant's parent, pers. comm. 2013). I learned, as the project progressed, to be in awe not only for what our diverse collective was able to create, but also for what was not destroyed.
During week five, one of the young participants told me how just a few days before she saw a couple of young boys throw rocks at the wall. 3 She said she went and stopped them since "she had helped to paint that wall" (Participant, pers. comm. 2013); hers was an unpredictable action as much as theirs. Would she have stopped the potential destruction had she not felt some ownership over the project generated by her participation in its making?
Although the project was not destroyed, we had to accept the possibility that it could be. Without that acceptance, we could not create anything at all. The physical project slowly came into being over eight active weeks. We took the lack of destruction as approval, or at least curiosity. When, in the last two weeks of the project, the written prompt asked neighbors to "Imagine what the lot might be," the community responded through written suggestions.
The first week, when we began to paint, a neighbor, John, who owned an abutting building, bristled at our proposed project: the children got paint on the back side of his fence, and the whole effort would be a waste in this neighborhood, he complained. He promptly called the councilman to officially denounce the project. Over the weeks, his opinion changed. It was in week five, after the smaller children painted the back mural, that he came up to me to say he liked the project. He was glad the kids picked up bits and pieces of trash on Friday afternoons. By December, he allowed us to use his power supply to fuel the Christmas lights we mounted.
Carlo, a retired man from the Dominican Republic who doesn't speak much English and lives in the third story of John's building, came down to the lot in week six to give us a gift: a painting he had made, to add to the art beginning to accumulate on the lot.
The young participant who "saved" the wall, John, and Carlo all show the relational quality of placemaking as "not just about the relationship of people to their places; [placemaking] also creates relationships among people in places" (Schneekloth and Shibley 2000, 133). The slow making of the project illustrates a dialogue between people in the neighborhood and a project that created a space to facilitate social interactions. It is in these performative acts that the participants reveal themselves.
Kids regularly came and asked if they could help. Eventually, people knew and expected some action would happen at its regular time on Friday afternoons. The suggestion wall, community mural, bulletin board, and seats crafted from repurposed tree trunks provided participants with an outlet for creative and productive civic work. The physical project helped people imagine what this abandoned lot could be. The weekly Friday gatherings to make art, the Point Neighborhood Association meeting, the Recycling Committee presentation and recycling games, and the community barbeque all in open, visible public space, facilitated social interactions. Not only did the local adolescents not destroy or deface the project, but trash became minimal on the lot, and in the last couple of weeks of the project, residents wrote their opinions about the future possibilities for the lot on almost all the suggestion lines provided. We gathered over ninety opinions, no small feat in a neighborhood that has low voter turnout, and is generally perceived by Salem residents and elected officials as civically disengaged.
A few months after the ReImagine A Lot project, at a neighborhood meeting, a local nonprofit looking to create a pocket park in the same neighborhood lamented the lack of participation from the community. They held meetings, as required by the grant they secured, but these meetings were in a room away from the site in question that failed to encourage the same participation that can happen in open, unsecured, visible public space. It is easier to focus on the product of the pocket park, which is bounded and predictable, than the unruly, boundless process of engagement.
In the case of the suggestion wall at the lot, it was obvious that anything could happen, anything could be written. The suggestion of "strip club" was in fact written, but within a couple of weeks, someone had crossed it out; not entirely erased, the cross hatch shows an interaction with the original, apparently offensive, inappropriate, or simply disliked suggestion. The final suggestion wall does reveal some of the community's desires that likely go beyond the bounds of the small lot. The top suggestions were:
Community Garden — 11 votes Community Center — 10 votes Community Movie Theatre — 8 votes Music Center for Children — 4 votes Fun — 4 votes Skate Park — 4 votes Teen/Youth Center — 4 votes
The reality of jobs, children, overloaded schedules, and simple awareness, often thwarts the likely good intentions of those seeking community input. The suggestion wall was successful because it was in public, and "whether an activity is performed in private or in public is by no means a matter of indifference" (Arendt 1958, 46). The public explorations of many possible solutions were necessary to understand the "real" problem (Bryson et al. 2012, 25). In the case of ReImagine A Lot, the purpose of the project was to empower people in order to determine the community's will for an abandoned site. The results show that the community desires a community garden, center, or theatre, and that participation in the physical making of the project is necessary to secure stakeholders for ongoing stewardship of a new space or structure.
While the actual material object had its own value, its primary import was in the way it engaged people to act, and provided something tangible to relate people to each other, just as "a table is located between those who sit around it" (Arendt 1958, 52). In writing down an idea alongside other ideas, participants created a community of words and possible worlds for the tiny abandoned lot. People could feel ownership by enacting their stakeholder status.
A year after ReImagine A Lot, a part of the artifact remains: the structure for the bulletin board and the posts, painted in bright colors. We deconstructed most of the structure last December to make space for emergency parking due to winter storms. Then, in the spring, we discovered that the owner paid his taxes, but still relinquishes active ownership of his property. Nevertheless, during the summer, the community used the still private lot as an organizing center for local activities, in one case, to clean up the park across the street. Last fall's extended process created a space for separate but related community actions that happened months after the project proper. Currently, weeds gain ground, and trash has returned. However, in the past month, new investment in the park across the way has motivated the Friends of Mary Jane Lee Park to request the suggestions generated at ReImagine A Lot: they are considering purchasing the parcel in order to help improve the area around the park, and want to know what the community wants on the abandoned lot. As the project documentation safeguards the expressed will of the community and the multiple stakeholders that came together, it also affirms the project as a process that can be continued, even after periods of inertia. This case study outlines placemaking as actual action with plural, concrete, and relational outcomes, as well as an ongoing, potential platform for future action. A new chapter may soon open for the lot, and all that was imagined there.
1 "The current population in the Point is 63 percent non-white, consisting of mostly Latino immigrants and second and older generations as well as newer arrivals from Haiti and African countries (Census 2010). The demographic makeup of the Point contrasts to that of the city as a whole, which is 75 percent white. A majority of the foreign born population of Salem also resides in the Point, consistent with its history as a settlement for new immigrants. A majority of Point residents emigrated from the Dominican Republic." Table 3: Country of Origin: Dominican Republic 46.22% (Vision and Action Plan, 20–21).
2 A year prior to ReImagine A Lot, Salem Public Space Project hosted a poetry reading, Share-a-Chair, in an adjacent park. Since the park lacked seating, we gifted nine brightly colored chairs used in the reading to the park. Young children quickly appropriated them for a game of musical chairs. Teenagers took the chairs to watch a basketball game underway. On the following day, we returned to the park. As we crossed the long asphalt stretch, we could see the chairs lined up next to the playground. As I reached the chairs, I noticed a little girl that had been at the reading. She told me that the older kids on the court broke one of the chairs, so she and the other young kids "rescued" the chairs to keep them safe by the playground. A few days later, I initially spotted no chairs at all as my eyes scanned the horizon of the park. Finally, I looked down and saw them in pieces all over the gray asphalt and green grass. These chairs were transformed; they embodied anger, frustration, or perhaps just teenage play. Later we learned that a couple had been saved and taken into homes.
3 From a conversation with John, whose name has been changed for this article.
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