The Austin Chronicle

Thinking thinkEAST

By Robert Faires, April 3, 2015, 6:19pm, All Over Creation

Nine months ago, Fusebox Festival embarked on an unprecedented challenge: leading an 18-month planning process for the 24-acre site that once housed a fuel tank farm in East Austin. With no previous experience doing anything like this, how has the arts organization engaged the community in designing the development called thinkEAST?

Well, to begin with, it had help: landowners Robert Summers and Richard deVarga, who had approached Fusebox about helping plan the development because artists and creative industries going to be central to thinkEAST's mix of affordable housing, live/work spaces for artists, studios, community spaces, parkland, and retail; the city's Cultural Arts Division; entrepreneur Fred Schmidt; and architectural planning firm TBG Partners. With their aid and support, Fusebox secured a $400,000 grant from creative placemaking consortium ArtPlace America to fund the year-and-a-half-long process.

That said, once the process began in July of 2015, Fusebox was very much running the show – meaning that Artistic Director Ron Berry, Managing Director Brad Carlin, and scholar-in-residence Carra Martinez were meeting with lots of people, spending lots of time explaining what thinkEAST was about, and gathering lots of ideas about what would best serve the community. And it was Fusebox's idea to take whatever it learned during the first half of the process and incorporate it into the organization's annual interdisciplinary festival for 2015 in the form of a pop-up village on the actual thinkEAST site. A conversation with Berry and Martinez provided a sense of what to expect from this "Living Charrette," as the village is called, when it pops up April 9-12. But beyond that, the two shared their thoughts about how they approached this task for which they had no experience, what made them well-suited for the job, what they'd been doing, and what they'd learned.

I began by asking them about a community meeting they had hosted for artists in February. (Meetings for residents of the Govalle and Johnston Terrace neighborhoods had been held during the fall.)

Austin Chronicle: So I was at the first artists community meeting. I was sorry to miss the second one. How was it?

Ron Berry: We were primarily looking at two questions. We were thinking about the space itself, the site itself, the 24 acres, and how can we start thinking about the mixture of uses and things on-site –

Carra Martinez: – and building community on-site.

RB: – building community on site. And the other question was: How do we build connections between the site and the neighborhood, and how are these two things connected? There was a lot of ideas, a lot of energy around that. And there will be several more community-wide meetings following the Living Charrette, there will be several more community-wide meetings following the Living Charrette, but there have also been several people at those meetings that have contacted us individually and been like, “Hey, how can I get involved?” and so we’re folding some of those people into the Living Charrette and continuing to try and keep people involved as best we can.

CM: We probably have about four individual meetings that come out of those, where people are like, “Let’s meet and talk about this one particular thing.” Sometimes it’s health care, sometimes it’s financial planning. All different kinds of things come out of those meetings in ways that are unexpected. And always a great resource.

RB: After the Living Charrette, which is basically this big engagement and information-gathering platform, I think there are going to be more specific, tangible ways for these various community members to get involved. We’ve done a series of these meetings, both small and large, getting ideas and input, and for me the next phase is identifying people from the community that want to be more involved and then really letting them drive pieces of this, so that we’re not in this constant dynamic of people giving input and then we’re the ones driving it.

CM: Part of the conscious thing we did in building this process, was to try to think: What are the power dynamics at play usually in this structure? Which is, we’re gonna come in and be authority figures and tell you how you should think to fit our model. One of the things we explicitly did was shift from large-meeting structures to small-meeting structures. So we go to a lot of neighborhood association meetings. We do a lot of one-on-one meetings. And that gives people who have systematically been shut out of city processes and city planning – often poor people, often people of color – a more comfortable space to be heard in. A lot of great work has been done actually in coffee meetings.

RB: Yeah, and it’s definitely a learning process. We’ve never done anything like this. We certainly haven’t wanted to present ourselves – we don’t think of ourselves as experts. What we’re trying to do is create a space where people that have more knowledge about these different things can step into [it]. And speaking to Carra’s point, I really like finding ways to connect with people about this in a very personal way, an intimate way. That’s how we built our festival. That’s how we think abut our festival, honestly. Even though it happens all over the city, we wanted to create these tangible, personable relationships between the art, the artist, and the public. And we feel the same way about this.

Which is atypical with a real estate development process. More often than not, you don’t feel like you actually have very much say in it at all. So for us, more than anything, this provided an exciting opportunity for us to hit pause for a moment on the giant tidal wave of development that’s happening all over Austin – and quite honestly, not even just in Austin, it’s happening all over our country, in cities all over our country. Can we imagine a different way of developing a property that’s perhaps a bit more responsible and inclusive, that at the end of the day produces a financial return on this but also produces a really profound social return as well for the neighborhood and for the people that are living and working there, is done in an environmentally sustainable way, and there’s a big cultural return. These are for us really important key aspects of this.

As far as the Living Charrette, this pop-up village that we’re creating as part of the festival, we’re really viewing that as a tool, but it’s one tool for getting input and sharing – it’s a way to share some of the ideas that have emerged thus far through this process. Pretty much everything that’s on-site as part of this pop-up village are this nags that have come up through this process.

And we think that we’re going to be able to get a lot of people out to participate in this and share their ideas and respond to what’s come thus far, but we also realize that it’s not going to reach everyone. There are some people that we haven’t reached yet . There are some people that might feel intimidated by this thing – it’s an unusual thing, so we want to make it clear that this isn’t the only way that you can participate in the imagining of this site, that we’re going to continue to meet – we’ll meet with anyone, anywhere, any place. [Laughs] We’re going to continue to work with the neighboring schools and different community organizations. There’s a whole suite of strategies and opportunities to engage people with this. This is a big one, but it’s not the only way that we’re thinking about engaging people and including people in this. That’s kind of it.

It’s been really interesting to drill a bit deeper on some of these ideas and concepts that are emerging – like the idea of public health or community health has become this whole layer on top of everything that we’re doing. Yes, there could be literally some kind of community health clinic there, but while I think there is a need for that, I don’t know that that’s going to necessarily solve all the issues around community health. We’re trying to think about community health in a much broader picture, in terms of communal space and green space for people to walk and enjoy, and space in rooms for support groups and communities to hang out together and share information together, and child care for single mothers and these sorts of things. And then all of this being surrounded by creativity and the arts and culture. [Then] the totality of these things starts to address some bigger issues around a community health.

CM: Especially the community. Like if you look at the history of the tank farm, a community that in many ways has been physically poisoned. their health has been at risk for industry and money. And part of what has kept that community alive is its own industriousness, its own spirit, its own art practice. So honoring those kinds of things as well in the site. That it should be a space about health. It was a space about taking away health before. So how do we put all those pieces to play in a holistic manner?

RB: And the health piece, there’s a lot of interest in this, but it ultimately, like all of this, really needs to be driven by the community. It would be harder if there was this big institution that came in and was like, “Here is this great public health plan for you.” Well, then it’s already cooked, you know? It’s really got to come from the community. So we’re trying to identify those people in the community that this is a priority for and let them drive this thing. Fusebox, honestly, shouldn’t be the face of that. We can’t be the face of that. We can help create a space for that, but I don’t know that we can lead that per se.

CM: I think that’s where arts comes into play, and Fusebox has an advantage. You have this group of people who are good at sitting in a room together and collaborating. That’s the way we think and make work and risk. That’s our strength.

AC: Your mode of working is to say yes. Otherwise, your art will never get anywhere. You have to say yes to the risk, you have to say yes to trying to be original, to accepting that you have something to say and a way to say it, and when you interact with other people to make this thing a reality, you have to be willing to accept their input in the same way that you want them to accept yours.

RB: I think the arts are inherently good at helping us look at things from a different perspective. I think the arts are inherently good at holding multiple viewpoints simultaneously. And these are things that are central to this process. And I think the arts are often really great at building community. So I think in many ways this is becoming our role in this. We’re not playing the role of experts –

CM: Because we are not! [Laughs]

RB: We’re not. We’re not pretending to be. But we are providing a space for multiple viewpoints and holding them equally and creating a space to look at some things differently than they are perhaps commonly looked at, and within all that trying to build a community around this. That’s an ongoing process. And there are a lot of people in the community that are really excited by this, and there are some other people that are skeptical and maybe rightfully so – I would be skeptical! – and I don’t think there’s a lot we can do for [them] other than actually do the thing and show them. But it’s like anything: It’s getting to know people. It’s relationship-building. it’s showing them that you’re trying to walk the walk.

CM: And also acknowledging what drives their skepticism. Which is money and race.

RB: And a long history of horrible practices.

CM: And naming that history, calling it what it is, looking them in the eye when you do it, and putting that on the table – that’s an important step in those meetings. And it’s often the step, when we do that, that’ll open up the conversation. Because they’re waiting to see if you’ll acknowledge what’s been done to that community.

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