MEET Sarah: pop-up community builder
Sometimes we come across a project that is so fun and heart warming, we really want to see it replicated everywhere. Well, that is how The FEED feels about the Build a Better Block project. In case you missed it, this past July, in the blazing heat, 18 year old Sarah decided she was tired of witnessing problems in Atlanta and wanted to take action. She gathered food trucks, art groups and bike enthusiasts to showcase what the revitalization of a blighted Atlanta block could look like. It was an awesome idea and a great window into what citizens could and should be doing to move our city forward. We sat down with Sarah to see how it came together.
Tell us a little about your project:
Better Block is a community revitalization project and urban design exhibit that began in Oak Cliff, Texas. The project demonstrates how temporary streetscape improvements, bicycle accessibility, pop up businesses, local art and street life can improve vitality, create connections and generate a thriving community of commerce and interaction. Chosen areas are outfitted with pop up businesses, street furniture and greenery in order to create an environment that feels permanent and inviting.
How did you get started with this idea?
I actually first heard about the Build a Better Block projects on NPR last summer. It sparked my interest because I had just signed up to participate in an initiative at my high school called the Supporting Community Sustainability Initiative (SCSI for short), in which we studied the role of public spaces, art and mass transit in communities. At first, my only thought was that it would be a good discussion topic in one of our SCSI meetings, I had no real intentions of taking action.
In the fall, our SCSI student cohort met with the founder of Flux Projects, Louis Corrigan. When speaking about Flux Projects and the arts publications that he is associated with, he noted that his aim was to create a critical dialogue about the dynamics of cities and public spaces. He spoke about the charming qualities of public art, in particular the interactive and accessible nature of it. I thought back to the piece I had heard about Better Block, and figured out that the Better Block Events were essentially giant public installation art exhibits. I decided that just as Atlanta benefits from the art that Flux Projects helps bring into our communities, Atlanta could benefit from a Build a Better Block installation or two. I had also attended some of the Living Walls lectures last fall, in which one of the speakers spoke about how art allows you to think creatively to address a direct need. So I thought, Atlanta has some neighborhoods that really deserve to be noticed and rejuvenated, why not use my creativity to address that need by way of a Better Block event? At University in the fall, I will be studying Sustainable Development, and I hope to one day go into Urban Design, so this project just made sense for me to carry out, even if only for a learning experience.
I started out by reaching out to WonderRoot and Flux Projects, who both responded with great enthusiasm about the event. Anne Dennington at Flux Projects essentially mentored me through most of the process. Between some of the staff members at WonderRoot, Anne Dennington and myself, we chose the location for the event. Our conclusion was that in many cities, the neighborhoods surrounding professional sports stadiums offer a variety of things to do before and after the games; unfortunately, Turner Field lacks this quality. In an effort to illustrate how the area around Turner Field could benefit from more businesses and amenities, we chose the vacant buildings on Georgia Avenue adjacent to the field. Our additional thoughts were that this neighborhood, Grant Park, is in dire need of some basic necessities, like a proper grocery store and a wider variety of restaurants.
What was your biggest challenge?
Our biggest challenge was working with the venue; since the buildings are not currently being used or shown for leasing, we could not use the interiors of the buildings for the event. In previous Better Block projects in other states, businesses have been able to set up shop inside vacant buildings, which helped to evoke a more permanent feel, whereas we were restricted to tents outdoors, resulting in more of a festival environment. Regardless, we had some really awesome organizations and businesses come out for the day. We had The Good Food Truck, King of Pops, Atlanta Institute of Stitches and Crafts, Sopo East Atlanta Bike Co-op, WonderRoot’s Index Art Gallery and BeMe Boutique.
What impact do you hope to have on our community?
My hope for Build a Better Block Atlanta was just to plant a seed of an idea. I wanted the neighborhood, as well as anyone from around Atlanta, to see that improvements can be made to our communities, so that we can actually have places to meet up and interact and become a real community. I would be thrilled if some neighborhood in Atlanta banded together and put together their own Better Block event. After all, no one knows better what the neighborhood needs than the neighborhood itself. One of the main reasons Better Block Projects have been so successful in the past in other cities is because it allows the community to see and experience what the block would look like if it were thriving with business and energy. Most people are not familiar with urban design terms like walkability and placemaking, so instead of just showing planning diagrams and images to the community, Better Block allows them to fully understand what that space could feel like, and give feedback in real time. Then, if the neighborhood feels strongly enough about making the changes permanent, then they are more than capable of creating lasting change for the community.
What are some of the biggest issues facing Atlanta?
I think Atlanta lacks a real sense of identity and pride for our communities. It’s so much more enjoyable to live in an inviting community with neighborhood destinations at which you can meet people and participate in cultural activities and events; but these sorts of neighborhoods are few and far between in Atlanta. Another related issue is that of public transportation; there are so many unique areas of Atlanta that lots of Atlantans never even know about because they don’t have convenient ways to venture beyond their niches. That’s why I can’t wait for the BeltLine to be completed! I think people will be able to get around a lot easier to some of the best cultural destinations Atlanta has to offer.
What are some of your favorite organizations and things around town?
I was so grateful to have gotten to work with Anne Dennington at Flux Projects because I really admire what she and Louis Corrigan do. I love happening upon the latest Flux Project installations, they’re just like little gems hidden throughout the city waiting to be discovered and appreciated. I’m also an avid Scoutmob user; it’s my favorite way to branch out and try something new, and a great excuse to journey to parts of Atlanta that I’ve never been to. Not to mention the happenings page is chalk full of fun things to do!
Where can interested readers find you?
Interested readers can find me on Facebook (feel free to send me a message and friend request me, Sarah Al-Khayyal), or can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or chances are they can find me wandering around at the DeKalb Farmers Market pretty much every other day…