Creative Strategies for Activating Vacant Spaces

August 7, 2018

By: Anna L. Roeder, Artist with Kalamazoo Land Bank

My interest in bringing art and music into vacant spaces began just after graduating college in Louisville, Kentucky. I was making visual art and playing in a band, and was looking for a venue that might go beyond the confines of the bar scene. There was a vacant warehouse space located right down the street from my apartment. It had been utilized in the past for events, but at this time it was dank and dusty inside. With owner permission, I organized a series of interactive art and music events there called “Enchantments”. These were one night happenings that brought together installations, sculptures, projector art, performance art and live music to transform the space into a unique atmosphere. Those who participated were transported into a world which blurred the lines between performers and the audience, and offered the opportunity to create something new. Hence my greatest passion was born.  

A few years later I relocated to Kalamazoo, Michigan and was astounded to find a posting for a position that called for organizing art events to activate underutilized spaces! This turned into my dream job as a LISC Americorps project coordinator with the Kalamazoo County Land Bank from 2016-2017. The Kalamazoo County Land Bank was founded in 2010 as a quasi-governmental agency that manages an inventory of tax-foreclosed, distressed, and underutilized properties. The agency employs a variety of creative strategies to get them back to active use, back on the tax rolls, and ultimately to transform properties back into neighborhood assets. They have led a number of visionary projects that have sparked revitalization and community development efforts in Kalamazoo.  

As we are working in the neighborhoods where many call home, input from community members is a large priority when planning transformational projects. We do this through inviting participation in design charrettes and engagement events. This input helps to guide the planning process, and ensures successful projects through implementation of resident suggestions into the final product.  


Creating Joy and Community Connection
For this post, I am focusing on those programs and projects that have directly employed arts and culture to create a sense of joy and community connection to spaces. The arts have played a key role in the revitalization of the Washington Square commercial corridor in Kalamazoo’s largest and most diverse Edison neighborhood. The Kalamazoo County Land Bank took ownership of two mixed use multi-unit buildings here in late 2013. Efforts began to create something new in Washington Square through the combination of renovation and community engagement. 

The Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo’s Art Hop events are a beloved tradition in Kalamazoo, held on the first Friday of the month at venues across the city. The Land Bank has partnered with the Arts Council to bring this community event into vacant spaces in Washington Square. Over the past several years hundreds of people have gotten to know this block in a different way, as artists, performers and food vendors featured their work. Some examples of these activities include; African drum & dance, Zumba, hula-hooping, performances by Taiko drummers, mariachi bands, and various other musical styles. This activation has brought residents into vacant spaces to highlight the potential for something great to happen there and to restore hope and confidence in the block.  

These events also worked towards ultimately attracting and retaining stable tenants into the spaces. Bellydance Kalamazoo, Tremolo Music Store, Jersey Giant Subs, Community Credit Promise Credit Union, Kzoo Nutrition, and Pho on the Block are all established successful businesses now located in the once long vacant corridor. These are businesses that enrich the community and stay engaged in ongoing events.   

These years of persistent and sustained work in Washington Square, by the Land Bank and partnering organizations, built trust among neighborhood residents. This laid the groundwork for the LISC Americorps position that I entered into which called for the creation of arts focused community events in the Edison neighborhood. As I was doing initial research, I came across the inspiring Ted Talk by French street artist JR as he introduced the Inside Out Project. His invitation to communities across the world to participate really struck me and resonated with the goal of uniting neighborhood residents through art. Following input sessions with the Edison Neighborhood Association, it became clear that there was great enthusiasm and support for making this a reality. I was then introduced to the striking portrait photography of Edison's own Fran Dwight and the "We are Edison" project began. 


Huge Portraits of Local Residents
Portraits of 110 Edison residents were captured during 3 different photo shoots; at the Washington Square Senior Co-Op Apartments, during the “Dia del Niños” celebration at the Hispanic American Council, and inside of a vacant storefront during an Art Hop event in Washington Square. These portraits were then printed in large scale format and installed in highly visible public spaces. This simultaneously added beauty to the neighborhood, and represented the diverse array of individuals living there. 
The process of taking and installing these portraits created a lot of positive energy in the community. It featured individuals from all different walks of life, side by side. People exuded a sense of pride in seeing their larger than life image displayed in a prominent public place. This engaged and united individuals, families and organizations, living and working together in Edison.  

I am so grateful to have had this opportunity to deepen my experiences with creative placemaking through working with the Kalamazoo County Land Bank. I have learned so much through the project I managed, and through exposure to the agency’s work integrating arts and culture. The Land Bank has been pioneering approaches to activating vacant spaces for the past 8 years, and continues to do so. I joined the team as a full time staff member in 2017, and I look forward to being a part of this continued work which results in an increasingly vibrant Kalamazoo.  

See more of Anna's work on her website.