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Residents see art as an equalizer in redevelopment around Ix project
Bufano sculpture of a cat with a mouse on its back, Valencia Gardens
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Credit: Flickr photo by Dinah Sanders
Bufano sculpture of a cat with a mouse at Valencia Gardens
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Brian Wheeler | Sunday, November 09, 2014 at 4:45 p.m.

Charlottesville’s redevelopment plan for the 330 acres around the Ix warehouse complex, Friendship Court and several public-housing sites took an artistic turn at a recent community meeting.

The conversation starter? A group of animal sculptures strategically placed in 1945 in the courtyard of Valencia Gardens, a San Francisco public-housing project.

While some local government officials sat in the audience at the Bridge Progressive Arts Institute in Belmont, it wasn’t “their meeting.”

Many of the more than 30 participants had their own ideas about where to take the city’s so-called Strategic Investment Area next with art as their inspiration.

“You guys are really hitting the nail on the head on this, which is the community engagement piece,” said Brandon Collins, a former City Council candidate who works with the Public Housing Association of Residents. “This is creating something organically from the bottom up that reflects the desires of the community and reflects the culture of the community.”

“I think that’s extremely important, but extremely hard work,” Collins added.

The story of artist Beniamino Bufano’s sculptures was told by Amy Howard, executive director of the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond. She said public housing has a long relationship with public art.

“There are many housing projects around the country, most built before 1945 that included installations of murals, sculptures and other arts projects, and most of that art was created under the Federal Art Project coming out of the Depression.”

Howard is the author of “More Than Shelter: Activism and Community in San Francisco Public Housing.” She said the architects of this particular public housing project sought to support community connections.

“Forgoing fencing or a perimeter wall around Valencia Gardens, the architects allowed the courtyards to open directly onto the busy sidewalk of Valencia Street, as a way to connect public-housing tenants to those in the Mission District,” Howard said.

“Our art must become as democratic as science and
the children in the playgrounds of our cities.”
    Beniamino Bufano

“Within each of the three courtyards, whimsical sculptures of animals by Beniamino Bufano, an internationally acclaimed artist, were installed,” Howard said.

Bufano intended for his sculptures to go in a San Francisco aquatic park. However, the animals ended up in a warehouse after World War II with other Federal Art Project works.

“The head of the housing authority decided that Valencia Gardens would be a great place to put these sculptures because it would bring the ‘public’ into public housing,” Howard said. “Bufano wasn’t very happy about this. He said not enough people are going to see this.”

The sculptures remained and Howard said that over six decades they became a “critical community cohesive.” The residents formed bonds around the art as both fought for survival even when the housing authority turned its back on the project and art critics sought to relocate the works.

Charlottesville native Sarad Davenport directs the City of Promise project, which works with youth in public housing. Davenport’s own family was relocated from Vinegar Hill to the Westhaven public-housing project when African-American neighborhoods were razed in the name of 1960s-era urban renewal.

“There are not enough art programs for kids, particularly for those in poverty,” Davenport said. “We need to really invest in art because this is the way that they can express themselves and disclose their true humanity.”

“Our kids, the kids in the housing communities and throughout Charlottesville, are just phenomenal and they just need a shot,” Davenport added. “If they are given the opportunity to use that language through art, I think this whole community would see them quite differently. Hopefully, that would contribute to the conversation about housing, so that we would see people as equals.”

The Bridge PAI will be holding conversations like this with support from a grant by the National Endowment for the Arts to the city of Charlottesville. The $50,000 award will support arts programming designed to engage residents living in the Strategic Investment Area, which is slated for redevelopment.

“It takes one person to change a life,” said Friendship Court resident Toni Eubanks. “It takes these types of meetings to happen for people to start to know their resources.”

Eubanks called for a consistent effort to have more community meetings.

“We are all here tonight … because we all have these concerns, we want to think of solutions, but the one thing that doesn’t happen is consistency,” Eubanks said. “Once they see this is serious, they are going to say, ‘Maybe I should listen, maybe I should just go check that out.’”

“I am so impressed by Charlottesville,” Howard said at the end of the evening. “We don’t have conversations that are as civil and sophisticated and that look for common ground in the same way.”

“From someone who sits in these meetings in Richmond all the time and wants to see everybody get a chance to thrive and live a vibrant light, you guys seem light-years ahead in the way you are holding your discussion and the way you connect,” Howard added.

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