Long Beach, CA: A Lot
How can a local arts organization engage and involve residents in reshaping vacant spaces into community driven arts venues?
Seeing beyond what most would consider a mere eyesore, the Arts Council for Long Beach, CA, felt that the vacant lots throughout their city had the potential to be more than just forgotten spaces. The Arts Council's A LOT project activated these areas with color, creativity, and community. It aimed to create a dialogue between local residents and artists about what each community wanted to see in their neighborhood. Working together with artists, neighborhood groups, and other non- profit organizations, they created original art experiences that enhanced the accessibility and livability of areas surrounding each A LOT site.
Long Beach (population 461,500) is the second largest city in LA County and the most diverse city of its size in the nation. 41% of residents are Latino; 29% Caucasian; 13% African-American; 13% Asian; 2% Pacific Islander or Native American; and 2% have multiple ethnic heritages. Even with diverse residents, the city retains a small town feel. The Long Beach community is divided into a variety of neighborhoods, all which offer a distinct personality and a micro-local environment. As a resident, one would know exactly what the vibe is on Retro Row, a lively street near the beach packed with vintage shops, compared to Bixby Knolls, an area with a strong small business community that hosts arts events monthly.
Long Beach is a diverse city with residents from all corners of the globe who speak a wide array of languages including English, Spanish, and Khmer. Its neighborhoods reflect that ethnic diversity, especially the Cambodia Town, Downtown, and Uptown neighborhoods. Even with the diversity of its residents, Long Beach is sharply divided along geographic and economic borders. While 19% percent of all residents live below the official poverty level, 68% of the 81,000 students in the Long Beach Unified School District are classified as low-income, indicating a much higher level of poverty among families. The poverty level of the general population increases significantly in north, central, and west Long Beach, where the majority of the low-income population lives. 40% of Long Beach lies in designated redevelopment areas due to negative economic conditions and physical blight.
While Long Beach boasts world-class artists and art organizations, not many public spaces exist for the community to participate in the arts, and there are little to no opportunities for families to walk down the street and experience or engage in art unexpectedly. At the same time, underutilized, vacant spaces can be found throughout Long Beach. Many communities with vacant lots are plagued by higher crime, lower graduation rates, and a lack of community engagement. To fill these various needs and give the public a forum to mingle and experience the arts, Arts Council of Long Beach created the A LOT program.
A LOT, a community based multi-genre art experience, took vacant city lots and transformed them, the local community, and nearby businesses into places for neighbors to connect with art in non-traditional ways. The program sought to build up neighborhoods, local businesses, and the visibility of local artists to increase livability and vibrancy throughout Long Beach. A LOT created a way for communities to interact with local artists to create a dialogue about their Long Beach experience. By creating dialogue between local residents and artists about what each community wanted to see in their neighborhood, the Arts Council of Long Beach hoped residents would begin to actively shape the personality of their communities and reimagine what these ‘vacant spaces’ could become. Additionally, the project wanted to provide new venues and ways for organizations to entertain patrons through art. By activating these spaces with color, creativity, and community, the goal was that A LOT would enhance the accessibility of art in Long Beach.
For A LOT to be an event truly focused on the community, it was crucial that Arts Council Long Beach partner with a wide variety of diverse arts groups, neighborhood associations, and local businesses. In total, A LOT partnered with over 60 artists and arts organizations, 4 community organizations, 2 government entities, 1 university, 4 religious organizations, 8 commercial organizations, and multiple media organizations to make these inclusive, diverse events happen. The Arts Council worked with artists to foster an atmosphere where each artist could have the opportunity to showcase their work best- whether it be dance, music, theatre, visual arts, or sound design. The artists were tasked with making the work community centric and in doing so many worked with local nonprofits or community organizations throughout the process of their creation. One artist opened up a studio blocks from an A LOT site and became part of the community’s cultural fabric. She gave out art supplies, sketched local residents, and allowed her space to serve as a meeting area. The diversity of partners, in backgrounds and responsibilities, was necessary to create an event that reached deep into the Long Beach community.
Each of the five A LOT sites had different, distinct needs. There was no ‘one-size fits all’ approach. Events at each site were representative of each neighborhood and varied based on the area’s character and vibrancy. There were a total of 17 A LOT days. The biggest challenge A LOT faced was creating a cohesive program schedule and marketing brand that would accurately explain the program and its various events to the community. Since there were over 60 artists from incredibly different genres, it was important to educate the community on what each experience would be; a Hmong dance troupe and an African American opera are totally different experiences. Across all events, however, the commitment of all participating parties to the local community was a consistent priority. Performances were done in three languages (English, Spanish, and Khmer) in order to create a welcoming environment for as many different groups of the community as possible. Beyond the use of diverse languages, the food, scheduling, and community booths also were programmed for each specific community.
The goal was to engage audiences, entrench artists in local communities, and start conversations that could catalyze change. One way A LOT measured its impact was through attendance figures. By the conclusion of the program, A LOT had served over 5,000 Long Beach residents. The impact of the project on local businesses is less clear. While A LOT supported and promoted local businesses in many ways (vendors, food sales, local nonprofit and business booths), there is no long term data around this. The biggest impact of A LOT was the response from the local communities. Especially at the North A LOT Site, the community rallied to make this once vacant lot their own. Community events like farmers markets, concerts, and bicycle outings have all originated at this empty lot throughout the A LOT process. Finally, A LOT meant an increase in opportunities for Long Beach’s local artists. The project created a place for artists to play a large role in our community and interact with Long Beach’s diverse residents. From these opportunities, artists have co- collaborated, expanded their practices, and created partnerships with community non-profits.
DIFFERENT CULTURES CAN GET TOGETHER TO SHOW WHERE WE ARE FROM AND HOW WE CAN SHARE OUR BACKGROUND WITH EACH OTHER...I COULD SEE HOW HAPPY THE PEOPLE WERE AND THE HARMONY CREATED BY THIS EVENT FROM EACH CULTURE. - A Hmong cultural arts performer
The unexpected impacts of A LOT were probably the most meaningful aspects of the project. The artists and organizers expected community excitement, but were overwhelmed by the level of support. After the program started, neighborhoods requested to be added site, artists wanted to join the project halfway through, and even community leaders proposed creating their own A LOT days. In North Long Beach, a group of church choirs produced A LOT of Gospel, a 4 hour Gospel music and liturgical dance performance. Another individual approached the Arts Council for Long Beach to create Taste of North Town, a day featuring more than a dozen locally owned restaurants to encourage community support and buying local. These events mixed in with the planned A LOT experiences enabled the project to truly reflect what the community wanted to happen in their spaces.
- Long Beach City
- Office of the Long Beach Mayor
- City of Long Beach Health and Human Sevices
- Long Beach Public Libraries
- Long Beach Special Events and Filming Department
- California State University Long Beach
- Long Beach Police Department
- People's Missionary Baptist Church
- New City Church
- Rhema Word Bible Church
- City of Worship
- Abundant New Lide
- Lakewood Church International
- Long Beach Cineamethiquw
- Digital Revolution
- Long Beach Community Action Partnership
- Long Beach Post
- Long Beach Gazettes
- Press Telegram
- Empower Uptown Project
- City Fabrick
- Angela Willcocks
- Art Exchange
- Arts and Services for Disabled
- Ballet Folklorico Maria
- Bike Odyssey
- Cambodian Fine Art Heritage Relief Foundation
- Carlos Ramirez
- Carole Frances Lung
- Cornerstone Theatre Co
- CSULB Dance Dep
- Dance Long Beach
- Danza Azteca Xipetotec
- David Hedden
- Donna Sternberg & Dancers
- Ford Theatre's JAM Sessions
- Green Long Beach
- Hmong Association of Long Beach
- Homeland Funkstylers
- Homeland Spoken Word Artists
- Homeland Street Dance Crew
- Jazz Angels
- Jocelyn Foye
- Joshua Cain Madrid
- Katina Mitchell
- Khmer Arts & Cultural Center
- Kutturan Chamoru Performers of Guam
- Lisa Desmidt
- Long Beach Opera
- Long Beach Playhouse
- Margie Darrow
- McLean Fahnestock
- Noel Madrid
- Patrick Williams
- Percussion Kings
- Pony Box Dance Theatre
- Portable Potholes
- Regina klenjoski Dance Co
- Renee Tanner
- Rotaract Long Beach
- Terry Braunstein & Cyrus Parker Janette
- Toaster Music
- Vivian Wenhuey
- West Afrikan Drum and Dance Ensemble
Early on Arts Council for Long Beach quickly realized that what was anticipated to be a moderate part of the project was a significantly large part of the project--community outreach. Plans had to be modified to explain the program and its various events to artists and audiences in order for them to understand what A LOT offered the community. This was key to ensure that A LOT would reach the largest population possible
CREATING THE PROGRAM SCHEDULE
Arts Council for Long Beach felt it was important to schedule events in a way that was cohesive and would maximize attendance. For example, Uptown scheduling was booked later on Sundays because of the large church presence in the area, and Downtown sites were programmed on Friday and Saturday nights to take advantage of the younger audiences interested in evening activities.
TYPES OF A LOT ART EXPERIENCES
A LOT art experiences ran the gamut of genres, including:
- plays about the immigrant experience,
- dance troupes performances based on interviews with local residents, and
- installations built by community members.
Art installations were kept in place for the duration of the project to draw audiences to the site, becoming marketing tools in addition to a pieces of art.
Arty Tower, a three story scaffolding covered with artist work, was the most iconic of the A LOT installtions.