BeCville, a community arts project centered on the city’s Strategic Investment Area (the intersection of Ridge Street, Belmont and Fifeville), has been more than a year in the making, led by Matt Slaats, executive director of PauseLab. Slaat’s premise for BeCville, funded by an NEA Our Town Grant called Play the City, is to use art to address community needs in thoughtful ways and put the whole process in the hands of residents.
“I’ve been inspired by this thing called participatory budgeting,” says Slaats. “The idea is that a chunk of public funding is set aside from a public budget and then residents decide how that funding is spent in their neighborhood.”
The process began with a survey. “We were looking at three things,” he says. “What’s important to people about this neighborhood? How are people engaging in this neighborhood? And the final thing was creativity. So, how are you creative?” What they found was a love for the community, and a fear of gentrification and rising taxes. When it came to engagement, people responded that they were too busy or uncomfortable but also, Slaats says, “people felt like their voices weren’t going to be heard.” And he says, “The top thing that people thought was their creative outlet in the neighborhood was gardening.”
Next, the BeCville group went door-to-door with one question: How would you improve your neighborhood? The team gathered the answers and distributed them as a newspaper to the neighborhood. “We wanted to make sure they knew we heard them,” Slaats says. Finally, BeCville asked artists to submit proposals based on the community’s ideas. They received 24 proposals, narrowed it to 16 that were feasible, and then opened a two-week voting period to residents. After tallying up the votes, four winners were announced on June 10 at the Cville People’s Summit.
Janet Mitchel says when her proposed South First Garden project won she was ecstatic: “I even put my tiara on when they gave me the award.”
The next winner was the Cherry Avenue project proposed by Cathy Cassety, Gregg Early and Daniel Katz. Cassety explains, “The idea is to plant cherry trees along Cherry Avenue and Elliott to link these two neighborhoods of Fifeville and Belmont. Then when the trees bloom, to have a street festival each year to celebrate the community.”
To answer the call for better lighting, Kate Tabony and Amber Ovitt proposed Luminarea, a light installation project along Sixth Street that will incorporate words chosen by the community to illuminate the dark and slow down traffic.
And finally, the fourth winner was the Memorial to the Unknown, proposed by Edwina St. Rose of The Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery, which will honor those in the historic African-American cemetery with missing or displaced headstones. St. Rose writes in an email, “We are over the moon. We hope that when the memorial is completed, we can have a community celebration!”
And just because the winners have been announced doesn’t mean community engagement ends. “Our big hope for the projects is that as they move forward,” Slaats says, “people have ownership in the process.”