Invite The Artists

   Welcome to April and the possibility of a full month…..without snow.  Can you believe it? I’m not sure I can because although it is Spring, it feels like the winter that won’t go away. 

   I’m forcing myself to think warm spring thoughts. It does work! When I think of spring though, I also think of clean-up and specifically cleaning up downtown. I won’t continue with my litter rant from last month’s column except to say that Waterbury will be celebrating Earth Day with a city-wide cleanup on Saturday, May 14th. Groups and individuals interested in helping can go to the Sears Automotive Parking lot on Union Street at 9AM to pick up bags and gloves before embarking to the areas they intend on cleaning. We’ll be doing our part to clean up downtown Waterbury that day, and I encourage anyone interested in helping us to call my office.

   Now onto the topic of this month’s column – let’s give the artists a shot. When talking about rtists vs. blight, history tells us that communities and neighborhoods have turned themselves around when they let the artists set up shop.

   That’s right. What can we do about our vacant buildings and houses that blight our neighborhoods? Why not let the artists restore them into good livable space with studios. This has been happening in communities across America. Why not Waterbury? 

   Take Cleveland for example. Entire neighborhoods have been transformed. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “What began as a grass-roots movement, with artists gravitating to cheaper neighborhoods and making improvements, is now being embraced by city officials as a tool to revive neighborhoods reeling from vacancies and home foreclosures.”

  Here’s one way it works. Make the vacant property extremely cheap to purchase from the bank. For example, “Paducah, Ky. transformed a rundown, crime-ridden neighborhood into an arts district by offering artists from around the country a $2,500 reimbursement to buy cheap, vacant houses and fix them up. Some artists bought homes for $1 when the program launched in 2001. Since then, more than 50 artists have moved into the neighborhood, which is now dense with cafes, wine bars and art galleries.”

   In the Cleveland case, the local development corporation bought vacant properties and renovated them as artist residences. In exchange for low rents or low interest mortgages ranging between $500 – $1000 monthly, the artists play a role in designing the homes. They also have the option of purchasing the homes for an extremely cheap price and fix them up on their own. The development corporation oversees the process ensuring that the artists have the ability to make payments and have provided their proper credentials by specifying what type of art they do and what their space requirements would be. After a year of rent payments, the rent rolls over into a fixed rate mortgage towards the price of the house. The main goal here is home ownership and not gentrification.

   Having artists transform neighborhoods is nothing new. They’ve been doing it for decades. In addition to Cleveland, one only has to look at New York’s SoHo, and Williamsburg, Detroit, St. Louis, Hamilton, Ohio, Boston,  parts of Baltimore(which by the way has 5 Main Street programs), and Lowell Ma.(a town often compared with Waterbury),  to see first hand how the renaissance can occur.

   As for downtown vacancies, here’s an approach that was used in St. Louis. Artists took over vacant storefronts that were empty for a long time and turned them into studios and events space for rents of $100 a month.

   For every example mentioned above, there are hundreds of cities across the U.S. entertaining the same possibilities and making it happen.

   We have several good regional resources that can attract artists to Waterbury. The Arts & Culture Collaborative headquartered on Bank Street is one source, but there are many more galleries and studios in the area that have access to a network of artists looking for opportunity that we can target. However, why just focus on local artists, the examples I mentioned in this column were successful in attracting artists from around the country and even internationally.

   How can we make this happen in Waterbury? Who would stand in our way?  Do we dare try this?

   This will take community, municipal, and political vision. It requires neighborhood group participation, good community policing, willing and cooperative banks. It will take forward thinking building owners who understand that filling their vacancies with activity, even if for a short time at a very cheap rent, will provide some cash flow,  add value, and in the long run make their property more marketable particularly as the neighborhood and downtown begin to flourish.

   We’ll have to break through our cynical attitudes, overcome the “scorecard mentality” that too often stymies progress and growth in our community. Yes, that’s right we might actually have to think “out of the box” here.

   This is a credible approach to making a difference. So what could we possibly be waiting for? Let’s get to work. Let’s do it rather than talk it to death.

   If you agree and are interested in helping us with our downtown revitalization, please call me at 203-757-0701 ext. 302, or email me at