Community Engagement Process

BE THE PUBLIC IN PUBLIC ART

As a first step we asked the public to help shape this public art initiative by sharing their experiences and ideas. We asked: What does East Arlington mean to you? We aimed to discover what people value most about their neighborhood, what are some of the challenges they face, and what wishes do they have for the future?  Are there problems that an art project could address, whether as local as making Mass. Avenue safer to cross or as global as fighting climate change?  Are there qualities of place that an art project could reinforce -- neighbors looking out for each other, the survival of family-owned businesses, a commitment to stewarding nature?

In addition to a public meeting, we collaborated with True Story Theater to hold two community meetings using play-back theater techniques to focus on people's stories about living and working in East Arlington. The way True Story Theater works is by inviting audience members to share an experience or observation; then actors perform a short improv piece based on these words, aimed at capturing and revealing the central truths contained in a simple story.

We also had many conversations.  We went door-to-door to talk to people in the locally-owned businesses in Capitol Square -- an eclectic mix of retail, food markets & restaurants, hair salons, insurance agencies, an art gallery and several hands-on art making spaces. We also met with some community groups and local artists.

Themes identified during our community engagement process are summarized below.

COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT FINDINGS:

Business Community key to the sense of place in East Arlington

  • Diverse small businesses along Mass Avenue corridor are a distinctive and interesting aspect of the character of the neighborhood. How can they be a resource and/or provide inspiration?
  • Specifically, there is a need to brand Capitol Square as a cultural destination
  • These small businesses struggle financially; they are vulnerable and the street improvement process had a negative impact on their businesses. How can we support them?
  • Capitol Square Business Group is active, with a goal to create an identity/brand and bring more people to their businesses. Members collaboratively organize regular, positive, themed events. Can we collaborate, to share promotion and reach audiences?
  • Some key businesses have refused to join, and this can cause issues. For example, Drum Connection has offered to have drumming circle, but they are not a member and cannot be named on Capitol Sq posters etc. How do we navigate this?

Mass Avenue Corridor

  • “I feel like we still have a highway going through town.” Traffic is still fast and dangerous. Street crossing is dangerous, especially for elderly and children; a long-time elderly resident was recently killed crossing in the Capitol Square area. Can we devise innovative strategies to address this?
  • The new traffic markings on the street are not clear to everyone – can be confusing. Could we improve street markings with stencils etc or would this add to the confusion? What is the impact on accessibility (particularly the elderly) of adding new (artistic) patterns on the street?
  • How can Mass Ave be made a safer place for ALL users (cars, bikes, pedestrians) that share the space, especially with the new bike lane. Could we include some fun messaging or DIY projects, such as cross walk flags, or giant eye lights for bicyclists (a recent Awesome Foundation grant winner)
  • Gateway with Cambridge needs to be improvedTransitions along Mass. Avenue should be marked to define transitions, sense of hierarchy and place, passive/residential vs. active/business

Arlington’s Heritage

  • Arlington is a significant – but under-recognized -- site for the American War for Independence.   Could we sponsor a social engagement work and commission an artist to work with this history in a way that repositions it to be relevant to contemporary life? Use public art to provoke questions about democracy, authority, taking a stand for what you believe in?
  • East Arlington has a rich agricultural history – farming made it a “bread basket.” A lot of food – fruit and vegetables – was grown here, ice harvested on Spy Pond. Is this a theme for a mural or other project? Could bringing a farmers market to East Arlington be part of a public art mission?
  • East Arlington has been home to waves of immigrants. Can we tell their stories, and affirm the contributions of immigrants?

Activism

  • “I love the idea of having art that also contributes to improving the community”
  • “Great to have something that engages kids and families – we are looking for things to do with our kids”
  • “Food” identified as a priority issue – making sure everyone has enough
  • Climate change important challenge “sad for the animals, scared for my daughter, frustrated with progress”
  • Gun violence a problem
  • Pay attention to people’s mental health
  • Resolution of the vandalism to Black Lives Matter sign inspiring: “restorative instead of punitive justice…people can learn and grow.”

Neighborhood Character

  • Words and phrases that recur: “diverse” “friendly” “small town feeling” “you know your neighbors” “you run into people you know, sometimes in different/unexpected contexts”
  • Combines the best of urban and suburban
  • Love the “helping hands and intercultural community”
  • Local business owner commented that it would be great to have a big East Arlington neighborhood potluck or block party so people had an “old time” celebratory occasion to get to know each other.
  • Booming family area – school enrollment projections “through the roof”
  • Gentrification – especially rising home prices – threaten to displace “old Arlingtonians” and lower income families
  • Tension between old and new Arlingtonians – “do they have the language to speak to each other?” and between new and super-new – everyone is concerned about gentrification changing the character of the neighborhood.
  • Two schools – Thompson and Hardy – highly regarded by the community. 56 languages represented in the schools.
  • Public housing development serving low-income families
  • Many new residents are international – speaking English as a second language – and highly educated; drawn to the area because of affiliations with Harvard, Tufts, and MIT
  • Even though town is wonderful, it needed a human rights commission to handle conflicts, and citizens “with a lot of courage and persistence” created one
  • “Library is the face of government in East Arlington”

Environment and Greenspace

  • So many beautiful open spaces, to walk, birdwatch
  • Stewardship of the natural environment/resources critical – Alewife brook and parkland (habitat for urban wildlife – birds and animals -- and fish), Spy Pond and parkland, wetlands
  • Running of the Alewives an important event, and alewives a potent symbol

Brainstorming

  • light sculpture or projections would be wonderful
  • Host a huge open air potluck meal
  • it would be great to have something that incorporates performance
  • use airspace or other “unused” space instead of cluttered sidewalk
  • link East Arlington and the Center in a way that supports cultural district application
  • connect all of Arlington
  • connect Arlington with the outside world
  • Have a kiosk of Arlington events, of Greater Boston events
  • Get people noticing what is around them – put small brass emblems in the sidewalks that you discover, make sidewalk tattoos – so you see something new each time you look
  • Do something to giant Capitol Square transformer box that reinforces Capitol Square identity
  • Connect with re-enactment of Dawes horseback ride through town
  • Distribute free art
  • Tiny libraries, take a book/leave a book
  • Remember disability access issues
  • Collect trash (recycleables?) and build something with it
  • What if citizens painted the cross walks with patterns
  • Good to give people a voice – everyone has a story. Give form to the invisible by allowing people to tell their stories.
  • Create intangible, ephemeral interactions that build a sense of community
  • Partner artists with homeowners, make houses into works of art
  • “Food” identified as a priority issue – making sure everyone has enough
  • Climate change important challenge “sad for the animals, scared for my daughter, frustrated with progress”
  • Gun violence a problem everywhere, including Arlington.
  • Pay attention to people’s mental health