STCLAUDE_JULY

St. Claude Main Street, a community and economic development organization focused on St. Claude Avenue in New Orleans’ 8th and 9th Wards, was recently awarded a $275,000 grant to support and promote the burgeoning St. Claude-area arts community. Working with grant partner Civic Center, a New Orleans-based design studio, the organization aims to develop a deeper dialogue between the arts community and the local community at-large. The grant also will be used to build parkettes along St. Claude Avenue.

ArtPlace spoke with Michael T. Martin, Manager of St. Claude Main Street, to learn more about the project and how he anticipates it will increase vibrancy along St. Claude Avenue.

ARTPLACE: What is your elevator pitch when you describe your project to people?

MARTIN: An elevator pitch for this project is difficult; the complexity of the St. Claude-area communities is reflected by our plans for the grant. With that said, let me try: the grant has four components, three of which pertain directly to community development and one that directly impacts the physical streetscape. The community development components are: 1) to help the St. Claude-area arts organizations and artists build organizational and personal capacity; 2) to develop community engagement programing that will allow for a deeper dialogue between the arts community and the local community at-large; and 3) to promote the St. Claude arts community in order for our local artists prosper and more effectively reach the wider, global art world.

The fourth component of the grant is to build parkettes on St. Claude Avenue. These parkettes are based on programs in San Francisco and New York City where community organizations collaborate with property owners, the municipality, and residents to build small, public greenspaces along commercial corridors.

The underlying foundation of all components of the grant, however, is the importance of process. In order for this grant to be successful, St. Claude Main Street is working diligently to assure that the arts community and community at-large is informing programming and design. We are seeding an Arts Advisory board that will act as the formal liaison between St. Claude Main Street and the local arts community so that we can be sure our ideas are in line with the actual needs of those who the grant will serve. Additionally, we are forming working groups that will address the three main components of the community development aspect of the grant; these groups will include artists as well as the community at-large with the dual goal of responsiveness as well as inclusivity.

In terms of parkette design, we plan to employ tactical urbanism processes that will help us build resident buy-in and thus assure that the park designs will be respondent to how people actually use the space.

ARTPLACE: How do you expect to increase vibrancy in the St. Claude area?

MARTIN: Similar to my answer above, vibrancy is a complex issue, especially concerning St. Claude Avenue. The corridor was once a thriving commercial district but after years of divestment in inner-cities nationwide, paired with the devastation wrought by the 2005 levee failures in New Orleans, we have to consider the concept of vibrancy relatively. Vibrancy on St. Claude Avenue may not resemble vibrancy in New York, Austin, Minneapolis, or San Francisco; it will be indigenous and born out of the on-the-ground conditions of New Orleans.

With that said, St. Claude Main Street expects to increase vibrancy by supporting the existing infrastructure of the local arts community and helping build social, political, and economic capital for everyone in the St. Claude-area communities. Specifically, this means leveraging what is already successful and building on it: for instance, St. Claude Second Saturday, a monthly artwalk that can be best described as the gallery openings in the naturally-occurring St. Claude arts district, brings patrons out onto St. Claude Avenue to view art in large numbers. Our aim is to support those galleries and artists in ways that will allow them to have people more regularly visit their space as well as purchase work.

Additionally, by developing a deeper dialogue and relationship between the arts community and the local community at-large there exists an opportunity for individuals to work together; St. Claude Main Street will push to have those collaborations happen in public space and thus bring art outside of the white box into the open air.

While building abstract infrastructure is important at this juncture in St. Claude Avenue’s history, physical manifestations of vibrancy are also crucial to supporting the corridor’s rebirth. Our parkettes aim to do just that; by encouraging activity in public space, the parkettes will provide the proof-of-concept that St. Claude can be a pedestrian-friendly corridor. Also, by providing outdoor space for people to enjoy, we hope to spur more foot traffic on the corridor, which will, in turn, bolster business for our local merchants. We hope that the parkettes will be used for an array of activities: from leisurely reading to community meetings.

Supporting and leveraging the current infrastructure of the St. Claude-area arts community provides a solid foundation for vibrancy to grow out of. Similarly, people engaging with each other in public space is one of the most important measures of not only vibrancy but also deep community strength. Ultimately, St. Claude Main Street has a great opportunity to help develop community capacity that can be the seeds of a stronger and more vibrant St. Claude Avenue and its surrounding communities.

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