Creative sparks: The value of undeveloped spaces in Charlottesville

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Squatters

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, developer Gabe Silverman, who passed away in November 2013, offered space at undeveloped properties such as warehouses to theater troupes and ravers, eventually leading to the founding of Live Arts. Photo: Jackson Smith
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, developer Gabe Silverman, who passed away in November 2013, offered space at undeveloped properties such as warehouses to theater troupes and ravers, eventually leading to the founding of Live Arts. Photo: Jackson Smith

Creative activity always flocks to the undervalued fringes. Back in the late ’90s I was a member of a small avant-garde theater troupe in town. We took our craft seriously, with rigorous physical training up to five mornings a week—in addition to the several hours spent most nights developing material, rehearsing and performing in front of audiences. The whole experience gave me a front-row seat to the relationship between redevelopment and the arts.

To do our creative work, our theater company needed space and time—places to train and perform, and access to them for sometimes up to 30 hours a week, as well as space to store our props, costumes, tools, research and everything that defined us and our history as a company. But to get off the ground we had no resources to pay for it, and we depended on the kindness of strangers. Live Arts provided a home for several of our productions, and other organizations generously supplied space for us to train and rehearse during their off hours.

We also leaned heavily on the forbearance of several real estate developers and owners of fringe, underdeveloped property downtown. Charlottesville legend Gabe Silverman opened the doors of the IX complex to us before it was redeveloped, as well as the old car dealership that is now Main Street Market, and the former gas station next door to it that is currently home to Threepenny Café. During those years we also worked and performed in the Norcross warehouse next to the train tracks on Fourth Street SE, and in the former Papercraft Printing building on Old Preston Avenue off the Downtown Mall (later home to Charlottesville Running and now Vibethink).

Today, every single one of those properties has been developed into a business or residence serving an upscale clientele. They have been taken off the table as a resource for scrappy, little creative organizations or individuals to set up shop, experiment and try to put down roots. The same is true for dozens of other properties all along Main Street and in the warehouse district south of Water Street. And, increasingly, in the light-industrial space of the Strategic Investment Area.

“But,” you may say, “these kinds of spaces always evolve. The process is wholesome. Upscaling and repurposing of old-economy remnants boosts the tax base and bolsters the economy.”

Two years ago John Rubino moved his metal sculpture studio from McIntire Plaza to IX Art Park. He pays approximately the same rent for substantially more space. Photo: Eze Amos
Two years ago John Rubino moved his metal sculpture studio from McIntire Plaza to IX Art Park. He pays approximately the same rent for substantially more space. Photo: Eze Amos

Fair enough. But the point of my theater story is to say that 20 years ago, every time that happened—when the developer was ready to develop and launch a new restaurant or shop or condo in the building we were using—we were able to move on and find another space. The fact is, downtown Charlottesville is running out of this kind of property. And when it goes, when it all gets upscaled and priced out of reach for creative pioneers, the city will lose an essential seed bed for the kind of fervent cultural scene that has been a large part of its success.

Ask Will Kerner. If anyone would know, he would. Kerner, a photographer and a producer of theater and film and music in his own right, is also one of the founders of two of the flagship cultural institutions in this town: Live Arts and the LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph.

“For years we’ve been hearing there’s no cheap studio space anymore,” Kerner told me recently. “Are those spaces decreasing in number? Are there limited possibilities for artists looking for free or inexpensive warehouse or industrial space in which to work? Clearly, yes. And, yes, most of those are concentrated south of Water Street. These spaces are just critical as incubators for artists, be it one artist or a small theater group or a larger group that’s producing a festival.”

The story of Live Arts is a powerful example of the fertility of nonredeveloped space to generate social and cultural capital. In the late ’80s, Kerner and his brother, Thane, were producing spontaneous, pop-up raves in found spaces all over downtown Charlottesville. They and their cohort would find a property owner with empty square footage on his hands, convince him to let them colonize it for a weekend, and they would cobble up an acid house dance club, complete with sound and lights. They approached Silverman about using the big, empty warehouse space at the old Michie Publishing building on Water Street that Silverman and his partner were developing into offices and shops.

Silverman said yes, and he also put the Kerners in touch with a similar group of creatives who were looking to produce theater. The music kids and the theater kids decided their work jibed in a way that made sense, and Live Arts was born. Flash forward 25 years, and what we have is a major civic arts institution unlike any other community theater in the country, building its own multimillion-dollar building, fielding hundreds of volunteers, serving thousands of audience members and channeling hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy.

Let’s be clear about the moral of this story: Live Arts happened only because there was inexpensive space available for creative work. Without that, theater and music would not have come together, and a major cultural institution in this town would never have been born.

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