This is part three of a three-part series by Hiram students writing about community resilience and what they’re doing and learning as they explore the concept.
Authors: Molly Jukes and Jasmine Ransom
The science of how to do the technical parts of community development is well understood—how to build water infrastructure, housing units, transportation systems—but we…have forgotten about the ‘people’ part of the equation. How do we build places where people actually want to live their lives? How do we build strong social ties? The secret partially lies in the arts.
Ben Hecht, Living Cities
This Spring 3-week, Hiram College offered an intriguing new course called Building Community Resilience. This course focused on different ways to strengthen a community and improve quality of life through attention to local environmental, social, and economic systems. One of the more underappreciated ways to go about improving community resilience is through the arts. Integrating the arts into communities includes things like theater events, art shows, and designing features into cities that are both functional and aesthetically pleasing. Through a variety of example programs and projects (for example, see here, here, and here), our class explored ways to use the arts for building community and resilience. We’d like to mention a couple of projects that we found interesting and which best demonstrate the benefits of the arts in community building.
In Detroit, Michigan, community planners developed the Sugar Hill Arts District, a five year landscape arts master plan to transform an eyesore of parking lots and alleys into a beautiful natural community space where people can socialize.
Another example takes place at Mount Rainier, Maryland. Project leaders there used underutilized buildings to create an 18-month art project called Art Lives Here. This project was designed to bring people in to revitalize the community and it also created relations between local artists and businesses. The project included various community programs including open studio tour, pop up galleries, public performances, and installations.
While browsing through a variety of amazing examples of community art, we also came across this really cool project called City Centered Plaza created in a small rural town in Idaho. Its main purpose was to transform an empty public space into a vibrant civic plaza and outdoor arts venue—with help from members of its own community, of course. Other benefits of this project are that it increases community involvement, creates a new civic amenity for its residents, and attracts visitors who are passing through their small town.
We think that a project like City Centered Plaza would work really well at Hiram and be very beneficial to our community. Hiram, a little-known small town, has quite a few open spaces which could be better utilized. An outdoor plaza like this for displaying community art and holding events would be a great enhancement to Hiram’s atmosphere. And it would be really wonderful if members of the community (including students, faculty, staff, and others) were involved with its creation. A project like this would not only increase a sense of involvement and investment among community members, but also would strengthen relationships among students and faculty, and between the college and the wider community.
We’d like to talk about one aspect of the arts that Hiram already has—the College’s Theater Department. Our class had the pleasure of meeting with a 3-week theater class taught by Professor Hyde. It gave us an opportunity to learn about each other’s projects, to participate in them in meaningful ways, and we came away with insights about how local theater is an essential and valuable form of artistic expression and community building.
In this particular class, their goal was to create a shortened version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (they’ve done other plays before) and to provide communities with a handbook for putting on this scaled-down version of the play. The idea is to make it easier for local theater groups—with few actors and perhaps with little experience—to perform Shakespeare’s plays.
After going to this performance we saw just how interactive community theater could be. The actors got the audience involved in the play, first with seating which surrounded the room (see picture to the right), but also with having audience members spontaneously read out lines, make sound effects, or use create visual effects (like using long blue fabric to make ocean waves). This interactive performance was a really interesting experience, and it was great for getting community members more involved.
Apart from the performance itself, people were building community in less formal ways. Our professor organized a potluck, and so faculty, students, and friends of Hiram were breaking bread together at the TREE House before crossing the street to see the show. Others, just by being at the theater, ended up seeing old friends and making new ones. Finally, just seeing students and other community members participate in theatrical and musical events helps us to see them in a new light and appreciate talents we wouldn’t otherwise know they had.
Looking at community art projects—around the world and here at Hiram—we can see that the arts are a very important community asset. Building the arts, in all their glorious forms, into community life provides opportunities to express and enjoy creativity. As something that enhances the places we live and enriches our lives, the roles of the arts at Hiram need to be valued, protected, and supported—for the good of all of us, and our community.