Takoma Park, MD: New Hampshire Ave: This is a Place To...
How can a dance organization better engage residents in the communities and places in which they live and work?
In Takoma Park, Maryland, New Hampshire Ave is a commercial and residential corridor that has long been hard to traverse due to its broad, busy roadways. This lack of walkability has long hindered local social interactions and connections among residents. Dance Exchange's New Hampshire Ave: This Is a Place To… attempts to remedy this by bringing area residents together along the New Hampshire Avenue corridor, giving them a space to tell their stories through dance, music, visual art, and storytelling. The project acknowledges the power of artmaking and performance to transform spaces and lives.
New Hampshire Avenue is a commercial/residential corridor that starts at the Washington DC border and extends through a densely populated section of Takoma Park, Maryland. This 1.25 mile stretch includes residential, commercial, and institutional properties serving a community diverse in age, cultural background, and economic status. An eight-lane traffic artery developed in the 1940s and 50s, the Avenue – maintained under the State Highway Administration – favors automobiles and fragments this rich community, posing obstacles to human interaction and social connection. The New Ave, a ten-year, city-led redevelopment project, is currently introducing a variety of physical enhancements and structural modifications designed to make the area’s streetscape more welcoming and pedestrian-friendly.
The population of the New Hampshire Avenue corridor reflects a broad range of cultural backgrounds and myriad countries of origin that include India, El Salvador, China, and Ethiopia. Among its businesses, the corridor hosts the oldest sari store in the US, thriving since 1979, multiple Halal butchers, and a weekly farmers market with predominantly Latino growers and customers, to cite just a few examples of its international flavor. The area’s housing mix includes single family homes, both low- and high-rise apartments and condos. Institutions represented on along the Avenue include churches, schools, recreational facilities and social services.
The area is rich and remarkably diverse, but its character is dominated not by the cultural vibrancy of its residents, but by a traffic artery that primarily serves as a pass-through for commuters. Necessary infrastructure investments and new redevelopment opportunities, designed to address this situation, have manifested fears of displacement in the community. The community needs spaces and opportunities for cohesive, intergenerational social interaction that reflect its enduring cultural elements and affirms its values and aspirations. In tandem with policy approaches and programs that address issues from mitigating potential impacts to housing affordability and small business survival, is the need to engage, document, celebrate, and share the cultures and communities in this place.
New Hampshire Ave: This Is a Place To… acknowledges the power of artmaking and performance to bring new meaning to the relationships between individuals, communities, and the places in which they live and work. The project is approaching local needs in two ways, using a traveling strategy to encompass the length of the New Hampshire Avenue corridor and a gathering strategy to draw participants together at the project’s central green space between Hampshire Tower, Takoma Overlook, and the Takoma Park Recreation Center. By contributing their individual and collective stories to the project through dance, music, visual art, and storytelling, community members have the opportunity to connect in ways that transform perceptions of self and other, foster a deeper relationship between what was and what is, and advocate for the presence and importance of community faces and stories within City- driven development initiatives.
Primary partners in the project are Dance Exchange, an internationally recognized contemporary dance company resident in Takoma Park since 1997, and the City of Takoma Park Housing and Community Development Department which connected Dance Exchange to meaningful sites and communities in the area and engaged in conversations surrounding the role of feedback and engagement in the area’s ongoing transformation. This partnership grew out of the City’s “The New Ave,” a ten-year initiative, focused on transforming the Avenue from a car-focused pass- through to a people-focused, pedestrian friendly destination. Additional partners include the City of Takoma Park Recreation Center which provided space for program activities and connections to local youth and families, as well as two high-rise residential buildings, Hampshire Tower and Takoma Overlook, which occupy adjoining properties that abut an open but under-utilized green space next to the Rec Center. Residents, community leaders, and property managers of these two buildings were the primary participants in project interviews, events, and art-making activities. Local partnering artists, engaged in an effort to broaden the expressive range of project activities, include musicians David Schulman, Don Tillery, and Mark H. Rooney; visual artists Nicole Salimbene, Fetun Amedie, and Nguyen K. Nguyen; and photographers/videographers Jori Ketten, Ben Carver, and Eli Koppel.
The early, exploratory phases of the project included preliminary workshops at area schools, senior centers and adult and teen institutes, in an effort to bring a wider circle of creative community practitioners and teen leaders into engagement with area residents. As the project advanced, events have tended to center around the Hampshire Tower/Takoma Overlook area, with pop- events in the green spaces which built familiarity and relationships with residents; family workshops at the Rec Center focused on intergenerational movement and storytelling; and public artmaking events which allowed partnering artists to engage with the people, stories, and experiences of the Ave. This process of iterative engaging and creating led to deeper relationships as well as richer practices and outcomes as the work progressed. Other project activities include a series of interviews and portrait sittings which ensured that the faces and experiences of people who live and work along the Avenue have a presence in conversations about the past, present and future of the place. To create cohesion between all project events, Dance Exchange designed and produced a group of colorful chairs inscribed with the project title which debuted at a one-day, participatory community festival in September 2014. These chairs have become not only the central image of the project but also a platform for community members to express their celebrations, challenges, needs, and goals for New Hampshire Avenue.
Programming conducted within in the scope of the Our Town project has set the stage for future activities taking place with support from ArtPlace America. These upcoming and recent project phases have brought Dance Exchange into collaboration with a range of local artists to create a series of multi-media portraits of life along New Hampshire Ave, which appeared as an installation during a site-specific intergenerational performance in July 2015. The performance, created in collaboration with New Hampshire Ave community members as well as participants in Dance Exchange’s 2015 Summer Institute, was in part a re-imagination of Liz Lerman’s landmark work, Still Crossing and brought together artists, organizers, and community leaders to explore Dance Exchange tools and practices as related to creative placemaking. The themes of intersection, journey, and legacy inherent in the revisioning of Still Crossing provided a unique, collaborative forum for city planners and residents to have deeper conversations about the celebrations, challenges, needs, and goals of a re-envisioned New Hampshire Avenue.
Among unexpected outcomes of New Hampshire Ave: This Is a Place To… has been a shift of focus toward building the capacity of city planners and local community members to cultivate and maintain more meaningful and reciprocal relationships with each other through artmaking and dialogue. Accordingly, Dance Exchange is working with the City to discover and articulate ways in which Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process (CRP), an internationally recognized method for giving and receiving feedback which originated at Dance Exchange, can inform a mid-stream urban planning process. This discovery process is leading the City to think in new ways about the role of feedback in its internal office culture as well as in its engagements with community members about the future of New Hampshire Ave. Another development has been the creation of a special communications work-study position for the 2015 Summer Institute. The intern will curate, articulate, and bring visibility to new knowledge generated in the sharing and translation of practice and theory across these organizations.
New Hampshire Avenue Initiative
Takoma Park Maryland's New Hampshire Avenue Initiative webpage
- Fetunwork Amedie, place-based painting
- Ben Carver, portrait photography & documentation
- Jori Ketten, videography and documentation
- Nguyen K. Nguyen, narrative illustration
- Nicole Salimbene, installation
- David Schulman, musician
- Don Tillary, musician
- National Endowment for the Arts
- ArtPlace America
- The Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County
- The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation
- The Dallas Morse Coors Foundation
- The Maryland State Arts Council
- The Takoma Foundation
- City of Takoma Park Housing and Community Development Department
- Takoma Park Recreation Center
- Residents of Takoma Overlook
- Residents of Hampshire Tower