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Virginia Currents: Norfolk Transformation of Neighborhoods

Last week, Virginia Currents previewed the upcoming Better Block initiative in Richmond. During two days in June, community members will transform a section of North Church Hill with temporary landscaping, outdoor seating and pop-up shops. This week, we take you to Norfolk, and see how one section of downtown has changed one year after their own Better Block event. Catherine Komp has more.

Transcript:
On the outskirts of downtown Norfolk is a stretch of Granby Street where some residents saw potential in the vacant, boarded-up buildings. City Planning Commissioner Dan Neumann points out nearby features: there’s the iconic Bob’s Gun Shop and a dated Amtrak station. Within walking distance is the waterfront, the Harrison Opera House and the Chrysler Museum.

Dan Neumann: It’s a nice area that’s tucked amongst a lot of enormous resources and it’s just been underutilized for decades.

That’s changing says Neumann, a doctor who also sits on the city’s Public Art Commission. In 2012, local artists Jesse Scaccia and Hannah Serrano authored an extensive white paper on the benefits of developing an arts district. Another big push came the following year, after an event facilitated by the Texas-based organization Better Block. The group supports communities as they carry out “living charrettes,” a rapid urban planning process in which community members borrow and build to set up temporary improvements, like landscaping, outdoor seating and pop-up shops. Since the Better Block event last April, nearly all the vacant buildings in the immediate area have been sold or rented.

Charles Burnell: This will be our venue space, that corner over there will have a stage, upstairs green room . . .

The creative community center Alchemy NFK secured temporary use of a former furniture store for a pop-up shop during the Granby Street Better Block.

Careyann Weinberg: We really never technically left it after the Better Block.

Within two months, they signed a lease says Alchemy President Careyann Weinberg who’s joined by co-founder and Creative Director Charles Burnell. He helps to plan Alchemy events, which draw people ages 8 to 80.

Charles Burnell: That’s one of the biggest inspirations, is if you can do this thing, that really touches everyone regardless of race, regardless of gender, regardless of financial background, it’s real, you know it’s really real.

Right now, Alchemy has about a dozen artists in residence including screen printers, photographers, sculptors and painters. Some are using small, 10 by 10 studios built with recycled materials.

Careyann Weinberg: They’re big enough that you can work in but this is a community center and so we want everyone to step out of their space and come out and work.

Andrew Stuart: My name is Andrew Stuart. I manufacture longboard skateboards as well as pretty much anything.

21-year old Stuart and his 24 year old brother Rob used to operate XVD Longboards from a storage space. In October, they moved into Alchemy and have been sharing their knowledge of carpentry and design.

Andrew Stuart: Charlie and Careyann are doing something that my brother and I had been trying to create, we wanted to create a space for the community to come together.

Alchemy just completed a successful crowdfunding campaign, raising nearly $30,000 they’ll use to continue renovating the building. Their goal is to expand the artist studios and open a public performance  area and cafe. Since the Better Block event, they’ve also been tapped by the city to work on other placemaking initiatives, like Parking Day, when residents transform metered parking spots into public gathering spaces. They’re also helping plan urban pool parties. Weinberg says the Better Block event helped show the community how vibrant this area could be.

Weinberg: With the Better Block event, it’s not about through up barricades and stick a beer tent out, it’s about creating something that looks like it’s there all the time and when people got to experience that, they were like, ‘Wow, I really want this to be like that.’ And seeing all buildings that sat vacant forever, have stuff in them and cool stuff, that people wanted to buy things at and go to, and it’s their friends that are running them and they want to support (them), it just turned on the light for a bunch of people that said this really could happen and we need it to happen.

Less than a block away, is the former Sutton Manufacturing Building recently purchased by the Hurrah Players, a 30-year old family theater group that focuses on education and outreach.

Linda Dyer: Theater skills are taught to our students as a means of teaching self-esteem, how to express yourself, just all kinds of wonderful things and the result are just some fabulous productions.

Linda Dyer, the group’s development director, takes me on a tour of the building. It still contains relics from a past industrial life, but the Hurrah Players saw what it could become.

Linda Dyer:What’s happening here in this part of the community is transformational and if we can take this wonderful old building and transform it, keep the history, keep the spirit and transform it into something new and wonderful for youth and for theater, then it’s win-win for everybody.

And it’s not just arts and cultural organizations that realized this area’s promise. Quincy Brown said this was a ghost town when he opened The Beauty Parlor by Q and Co. three years ago. The bright corner building has floor to ceiling windows, and a modern, relaxing decor.

Quincy Brown: Working with the cinder block walls and installing the types of lighting and some of the stainless steel and some of the white, does create a more serene and tranquil environment but also lending itself to be very modern and chic as well.

Brown is now expanding into the building next door.

Quincy Brown: So as you come in here to your right, is the bar area and we’re going to have an open-kitchen concept . . .

The open concept space with high ceilings and exposed brick walls will soon be The Parlor on Granby. Chef Ayunli Chavis has been perfecting the menu.

Ayunli Chavis: We have loaded waffles and we’ll be rotating special, a little more high-end exotic loaded waffles, we have paninis, signature salads.

Charcuterie boards will also be featured, as well as . . .

Quincy Brown: Coffee, coffee will be a huge, huge thing here. We partnering with Three Ships Coffee, pour over, that’s our thing.

The Parlor will also be an event space for private and public gatherings. Brown says they’d like to also pay tribute to the building’s past.

Brown: I had heard this was an art gallery from back in the day that was the stomping grounds for a lot of the locals here so we’re planning to do a tribute to that era and recapture those moments.

Brown and others say the Better Block event demonstrated the community’s energy to come together to transform this area as well as the city’s desire to support these efforts. Elected officials have since passed zoning changes to facilitate new businesses and activities in this district, and the Better Block tool has also been used in Norfolk’s historic Park Place neighborhood. The city is changing, say residents, and they’re playing a prominent role in that transformation. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.