First Stop: Springdale, Arkansas—Springdale, Arkansas, is growing. Home to the world’s second largest meat processing corporation and a national freight and shipping company, the city has seen its population double over the past 20 years, according to the U.S. Census. The larger northwest Arkansas region—headquarters of Walmart—is also growing, putting the issues of vehicular traffic, access to jobs, and displacement at the top of some people’s minds.
One of those people is Erika Wilhite, a social practice artist and founder of Artist’s Laboratory Theater, a community-based, site-specific theater company in Northwest Arkansas. Wilhite and Antony Ramos, a digital storyteller, are the creative partners behind a series of art-inspired sessions, activities, and presentations that they hope will influence details of Connect Northwest Arkansas, a 10-year transit development plan that is currently in the proposal stage. The projects are part of their work as newly named Arts, Culture, and Transportation Fellows with Transportation for America, an initiative designed to give art professionals opportunities for hands-on learning about the transportation planning and design process in their respective regions. The 11 fellows, working in four cities, will also learn how to better integrate arts and culture practices into transportation projects.
In a region where some of the cities’ bus lines don’t run on weekends, and none that operate past 7 p.m., new thinking around transit is highly anticipated. “There are people [who] are transit-dependent in all of our cities, and the current system—with all of its different levels of effectiveness and accessibility, [is] still not enough,” says Wilhite.
The demographics of Springdale, in particular, underscore the need for a new transit plan, as well as creative ways to draw the community in to participate in its design. Compared to the state as a whole, Springdale has a large, and growing Latinx population. Wilhite says that Springdale’s Spanish-speaking immigrant community experiences repeated trauma as a result of ICE raid threats in the region. “And so, is transit even a safe space? If it is, how do you get people to trust it, and if it’s not, then what are we going to do about that?” Springdale was also, as recently as the 1960s, known as a “Sundown Town,” meaning it enforced racial segregation via the often-violent restriction of African Americans from the town after daytime working hours. Wilhite wonders aloud how one starts conversations about commuting in and around the city with a person “living with that memory of how their dad was treated.” She says she is “learning a lot [about] what happens when you’ve got your white person lens on,” and notes these as just a few of the questions raised in early planning conversations had by the steering committee that she and Ramos are part of.
The steering committee is composed of representatives from community groups, organizers, and advocates who are helping to guide the pair’s work—and in turn the transit plan—by providing connections to the constituencies whose feedback is often left out of planning discussions. Wilhite says those are the people they will pull in to participate in listening sessions and story circles “to get a conversation going about what’s proposed.”
Wilhite sees their role as artists and storytellers to be not just gatherers of information from a wider range of communities, but gatherers of stories that are more nuanced than what can be gleaned from an online survey. “We get the same answer but make it more complex, which is to [not only] say that people want transit, [but that] it needs to be here, and there.”
Wilhite says their work is also responsive, and while they come to the project with an overarching goal of having influence on the transit plan, how they get there is a fluid process. They are planning to facilitate citizen ride audits, in which residents of different backgrounds and transit needs—possibly students, seniors, the disabled—ride and record in various media their transit experience over a period of time. Another planned activity is the production of a theater piece that will be performed on bus lines.
The culminating project of the fellowship is a collaboration with the Ozark Regional Transit on a two-week long redesign of the bus route, called En Route. Wilhite says the redesign will include increasing the frequency of buses, extending operating times to nights and weekends, and extending the lines. They will also work with a local arts center to create a temporary bus shelter—there are none in Springdale—in its parking lot. “Our goal is to increase ridership eventually, but [for now], get people excited, familiar, and even just aware [of the buses] maybe for the first time.”
All of this community engagement work will be documented and shared. “This is [Antony Ramos’s] part, so he will be documenting our process, but also interviewing people, [and] shadowing people on the bus, [on] ride audits,” says Wilhite. “There will [also] be a social media narrative, so we’ll keep the story going, featuring riders, making profiles, and highlight[ing] businesses.”
Wilhite makes it clear that while she and Ramos are not an official part of the regional planning process, they are ready to play the role of advocate in Connect Northwest Arkansas by centering community in the future of public transportation in Springdale and the region as a whole.
“I would love it if our community engagement became a regular thing—not necessarily something that I’m a part of, [but] that what we’re doing now has legs and exists throughout this 10-year process.”
Next Stop: Nashville, Tennessee
The Nolensville Pike corridor in South Nashville is home to hundreds of businesses, many run by people of color and immigrants; several nonprofit organizations that provide social services to residents in need; food markets; and even one of the largest zoos in the country. The busy miles-long roadway also has another distinction—it’s the site of one of the most dangerous intersections in all of Nashville.
In recent years, a half dozen people have died after being struck by a vehicle at the intersection of Harding Place and Welshwood Drive, and another 16 have been injured. According to Walk Bike Nashville, a group that advocates for policies and infrastructure that support walking and biking, several other intersections along the corridor are impassable for pedestrians and bicyclists.
In 2014, several organizations, state departments, and city offices partnered to form the Envision Nolensville Pike Collaborative (ENCP), a project that utilized artist-led engagement sessions to gather feedback from the community about the challenges they faced while walking, biking, and accessing public transit. The project, funded by the Kresge Foundation and ArtPlace America, coincided with ongoing transit improvements that were intended to make bus service along the corridor faster.
In 2016, ENCP, led by Conexión Américas—an organization that supports Latino families—hosted six artist-led community meetings to document the corridor’s assets and shortcomings. The community raised concerns about the area’s lack of affordable housing, jobs, and green space. Unsurprisingly, the lack of pedestrian safety measures along the corridor was a major concern.
“People said I won’t even walk, I won’t cross the street. I will drive … just to cross the street. And of course, not everyone can [drive],” says Rochelle Carpenter, co-chair of ENCP.
The group garnered responses from about 100 residents and business owners, far more than would have attended a typical council or planning board meeting, says Carpenter. Attendees used Play-Doh and pipe cleaners to create what they wanted to see in the area, be it transportation systems or parks, and on sticky notes they wrote how Nolensville Pike made them feel. The ideas specifically relating to pedestrian safety included adding more crosswalks, pedestrian refuge islands, and separate bike lanes along the corridor.
“Art definitely helped take down that barrier that people have when they don’t know what to say in a public meeting,” Carpenter says. “It helps stimulate people’s thinking about any issue [so they can] participate more in the conversation.”
One of the most important aspects of the creative meetings was making sure they were representative of the diverse community. One session was specifically geared for Spanish speakers, another for English speakers, one for Somali-Americans, and another for Kurdish-Americans. The meetings were advertised within each group’s respective centers, says Carpenter. For instance, the organization reached out to fellow ENCP member Salahadeen Center of Nashville, the largest Muslim community center in Nashville, and advertised the sessions at the end of Friday prayer services, where more than 1,000 people attend. “We said, ‘Come on Saturday to learn more about this corridor that is your home’ . . . and we promised that it would be fun,” Carpenter says.
Those who attended the creative sessions brought food, turning the gatherings into something of a community event.
After the sessions concluded, ENCP worked with its transportation partners—Metro Nashville Public Works, the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the Metro Nashville Planning Department, and the mayor’s office—and presented the changes people wanted to see along the corridor.
The resident and business feedback resulted in change. ENCP was able to secure $1 million from the city budget to make positive changes along Nolensville Pike that included adding a traffic signal, crosswalk, and a permanent pedestrian refuge island in front of Azafrán Park, safety measures that hadn’t previously been in the area. (The recently opened park was also built in response to community feedback from the creative sessions, and is adjacent to a 28,000-square-foot community center called Casa Azafrán.)
Two other projects have been funded but haven’t been built yet—intersection improvements and crosswalks on Nolensville Pike at Thompson Lane and at McNally Drive, says Carpenter.
“I can guarantee that these specific projects … would not have happened were it not for us demonstrating the feedback that we got from people,” Carpenter says. “To have people testifying that they want these kinds of improvements on the Nolensville Pike [was important].”
ENCP has also been working with the Nashville Civic Design Center to build its own walking path, tactical urbanism style, at Elysian Fields Road leading up to Nolensville Pike. It’s another dangerous intersection where several weeks ago, a pedestrian was critically injured after being hit by a vehicle whose driver fled the scene. “It’s a key intersection, but it’s a doozy with a lot of driveways. If it was a simple fix from an engineering perspective, we would have been able to [fix] it.
“We painted blue pedestrian zones, we put up white bars, and we used adhesive tape to put down a crosswalk.” Carpenter says they’ve found that during certain hours of the day, more than double the number of people used the crosswalk than not.
There’s still more work to do and other safety issues to address on Nolensville Pike. But overall, Carpenter says, the upgrades, and the ones to come, will lead to safer streets for pedestrians. Because so many people voiced their concerns about the corridor during the creative sessions, Carpenter hopes city officials will host similar engagement meetings with local stakeholders in the future. She’d love to see officials do more than the bare minimum number of meetings required to approve a project, and instead work “to foster more participation and more creativity among people, meet people where they are, [and] do more events.”
Final Stop: Saint Paul
The Green Line Project was not without its controversies. Planning for the light rail line, which would connect the cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, had been in the works since the 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2006 that community interest in the project reached an all-time high. It was then that the public was made aware that three expected light rail stops had been removed from the plan, stops that were in neighborhoods with the largest populations of low-income people and people of color. This ignited a yearslong furor of organizing that eventually led to those stops being restored to the plan.
After that kerfuffle, it was time for construction of the rail to begin, which led to many other concerns, particularly for business owners, who faced two to three years’ worth of disruption.
Springboard for the Arts wasn’t involved in the planning of the light rail line, and it didn’t participate in any of the earlier fights to get the transit stops back on the schedule. But with the impending disruptive construction set to take place along the urban Saint Paul corridor, Springboard members thought, “Can we create some moments of joy and light and positivity in the face of construction?” says Jun-Li Wang, the nonprofit’s community development program director. The group had a good relationship with the mayor of Saint Paul, and it had been working with a local chapter of LISC—the Local Initiatives Support Corporation. So Springboard staff approached both and came up with an idea to bring artists to the table during the yearslong construction period.
It was then that the Irrigate program was born. With funding from ArtPlace America, Central Corridor Funders Collaborative, and the F.R. Bigelow, Knight, Good Family, Kresge, Saint Paul, McKnight, and Surdna foundations, Springboard for the Arts set up daylong placemaking workshops for artists who lived, worked, or studied in six neighborhoods adjacent to where the Green Line ran. Artists who attended the sessions could apply for $1,000 to work on a project in conjunction with a business, property owner, renter, or nonprofit that was located along the corridor. Over the course of two and a half years, 600 artists attended the workshops, according to Wang, and 220 artists pursued projects, some with fellow artists. In total, 150 arts-related projects occurred in the city in that time.
“We told artists [that they] also have passion and interest as a community member: ‘Take what you’re interested in, go out there, find a collaborator and listen to them and find out what interests both of you.’ We didn’t say it has to attract X number of people, we didn’t say you had to have an event, we didn’t say you had to advertise,” says Wang, adding that the primary idea was to have artists try a small, collaborative project. “We just wanted to see what happens when you invite artists to reach out and be part of the community.”
There were public art installations, interactive projects, and dance, music, and theater performances. Many of the projects were temporary and performance-based. For instance, there was a Vietnamese restaurant along the corridor that was struggling financially; customers hadn’t been stopping by for lunch like they had before construction began, so business was down.
One of the artists that participated in the workshop, Tyler Olsen of Dangerous Productions, approached the restaurant’s owner to see if she would let him perform a family-friendly cabaret show at the establishment. At first the owner was hesitant, but she was eventually persuaded to let Olsen perform. On the night of the show, Wang says, more than 120 new people came into the restaurant. The attendees knew the artist, and his performance company. “There were people who rarely go to the city to eat, and for sure would have never ventured in to the restaurant. They bought dinner, bought drinks, they had an amazing time,” says Wang. “This is really a clear example of how an artist can do what they normally do and just be very intentional about where they choose to do it so that it has a specific community impact.”
Artists like Olsen have continued to work in the community, and deepen their commitment to the neighborhood, says Wang.
Choreographer and Zumba instructor Dianne E’Laine created a song and dance called “Light Rail Shuffle” that explained the history of transit and the pains and trauma associated with it. She taught the dance to her Zumba class and they performed it publicly, Wang says. “That’s a story of community voice. It wasn’t about hurrying construction along, but a way to voice her community’s history. And also exercise and have fun.”
Transit officials saw the performance and invited E’Laine to perform at events like the reopening of Union Depot, a recently renovated historic railroad station. Other groups that worked with artists, or saw their projects, also started to lean more on their creative partners.
“People like the Vietnamese restaurant owner had never worked with an artist before, and they had these experiences where they say they would love to work with an artist again,” says Wang.
Some of the projects are resonating beyond their completion. For instance, one artist worked on a wayfinding project by placing signs around the neighborhood to encourage walking and biking. A sign would indicate how far a particular area was to a hot spot in the community, like the library. Wang says neighborhood residents liked the signs so much they raised money to have more designed.
While the projects were occurring, it seemed as if the negativity surrounding the rail line construction was less prominent in the news due to the positive buzz the collaborative arts projects were generating. Springboard hired a firm to perform a media analysis and found that the projects and artists stories generated 50 million positive impressions, which is amazing considering the negativity that initially permeated the project, Wang says. These projects helped change the perception of the places they were located, even if it was among members of those very communities. “They felt community with each other. They would say ‘people in my community are doing awesome things,’” And that kind of feeling makes people more likely to remember to visit and support their local businesses.
It’s important to engage the community early in any planning process, Wang says, and it’s especially important to include local artists in the process because they can reach a much larger group that can typically be reached at a public, government-led meeting.
“There are so many problems that are unsolved, and communities are having a harder time addressing [those issues]. Artists are capable of dreaming new things and new worlds and [asking] unusual questions that make the rest of us think,” says Wang. “The reality is that every single place has this untapped potential. Everybody has who they need where they are.”
As Wang says, it’s about being in community with one another.
This article appears in the Fall 2019 edition of Shelterforce magazine.