Matthew Slaats, executive director, The Bridge Progressive Arts Institute, at November 5, 2014 community meeting

A project aimed at creative community engagement in Charlottesville is entering its second year.

Play the City, funded by a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, remains focused on arts programming designed to engage residents who live in a 330-acre area around the Ix warehouse complex and Friendship Court that is slated for redevelopment.

The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative is one of the nonprofits helping the city of Charlottesville craft a future for the so-called Strategic Investment Area that is both by and for the residents themselves.

“We named our project ‘Play the City,’” Matthew Slaats, The Bridge PAI’s executive director, said. “We want people to have fun and express their creativity in different way. … We want to help people think of the city as a place where exciting, creative ideas could be shown [and] that all residents get to be part of this dialogue.”

Play the City uses the arts to get the conversation started. Events in the first year, like a hip hop graphic design workshop and several talent shows, provided venues for residents to showcase their skills and share ideas.

Peter Krebs, a Belmont resident, activist and artist, said he sees the arts as an important way to engage the community.

“Art surprises people,” Krebs said. “It takes them out of the usual planning framework and allows them to say what they really think without the risk of being too ambitious.”

Slaats described the work during the first year of the grant as taking a “scattershot approach,” focused on finding and supporting existing cultural assets and activities in the neighborhood. Building individual relationships with the citizens is vital to the continued work of Play the City, he said.

“Community engagement is a long-term commitment,” Slaats said. “It’s about building relationships. What that’s meant is a lot of one-on-one engagement, talking to people on the street and knocking on doors.”

Slaats said he hopes these deeper relationships, built and nurtured over time, will begin to bear fruit. The upcoming year will be focused on several specific projects that will place decision-making directly in the hands of the residents, he said.

One of the proposed initiatives is a participatory budgeting process where residents will decide which projects in their neighborhood the city should plan, fund and build. The hands-on process has been done successfully in other cities like Seattle and New York, where organizers reported better turnout rates to participatory budgeting events than on traditional election days.

“We’ll do community engagement to collect ideas, anything from fixing up a playground to creating an urban garden,” Slaats said. “We’ll find the ideas with the most strength and go back to the people that proposed them, working together to create a proposal and budget for the project. In the process, people are learning what it takes to write a proposal and put a budget together. The important thing is that the idea is derived from the neighborhood residents.”

The Bridge plans to pair grant funds with private and public money to support the projects identified by the participatory budgeting process. The goal is to give away $15,000 in the first year, with the initial round serving as a pilot for similar processes in the future.

Measuring the success of a multifaceted program like Play the City can pose a challenge.

“They are trying to do something extremely ambitious,” Krebs said. “Yes, they are doing what they said they’d do. But are they making an impact? It’s harder to measure. They’re using creativity to reach into social questions and proposing innovative solutions.”

Slaats said he hopes that the relationships built with residents, paired with The Bridge’s unique approach to community engagement, will magnify the efforts of Play the City and encourage citizens to stay involved in creating the Charlottesville of tomorrow.

“The arts is a way of making people aware of the issues in the community,” Slaats said. “Art is a method of bringing people together, thinking through the tough questions, and making smart decisions about the future.”

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