BRATTLEBORO—Does breathing new life into an old building reshape a community, or does the community reshape an old building?
With the aim of fueling the Brattleboro renaissance, the co-owners of Simply Love Life — Jacob Alan Roberts and Jessica Weston, with Dr. Samantha Eagle, owner of Biologic Integrative Health — pulled together on short notice a re-visioning community meeting for 47 Flat St., also known as the Sanel Auto Parts building.
Business owners and community members met July 3 with Denys Candy, a community builder and musician, about community engagement and re-imagining an old neighborhood. He spoke often of his experience shepherding and studying similar efforts in Pittsburgh, Pa., and abroad.
“Just because we live in proximity doesn’t mean we’re in community,” said Roberts.
Roberts said he and Weston want to relocate their businesses Equilibrium and SuperFresh! Organic Café from their Elm Street storefront to the Flat Street property now owned by Peter Johnson, of Emerson’s Furniture.
Under one roof and jammed into 3,000 square feet, Equilibrium and Superfresh! provide prepared food, local produce, work and meeting space for a variety of wellness practitioners, a boutique of handmade crafts, and a function room.
In an 18-page development proposal, Roberts and Weston outlined plans for a 16,000-square foot Creative Arts and Wellness Center.
The center would provide mixed-space for artists’ studios, workshop studios, performance space, a lounge, black box theater, cinema/lecture space, healing space, market place, an organic eatery, and a variety of programing.
According to the proposal, 47 Flat St. was constructed in 1900 by DeWitt Grocery Co. as a warehouse. It has stood vacant since Sanel Auto Parts moved out in 2012 for a new location on Putney Road.
“Simply Love Life, LLC, … aims to help transform Brattleboro, Vt., into an oasis of beauty, joy and productive energy,” Roberts and Weston said in their proposal.
“Building upon its greatest assets, we envision the historic downtown and neighborhood emerging as a clean, green, fun, attractive, and inviting destination that proactively supports vital projects and ventures working to enhance our professional sectors in sustainable development, ‘slow-food,’ holistic health, and the creative arts,” they wrote.
The Flat Street area and Whetstone Brook corridor have been identified as an arts and cultural corridor.
Roberts and Weston stress the importance of community involvement in developing 47 Flat St. That’s why they took the first step in engaging the community on such short notice last week.
On a hot recent evening, Roberts and Weston arranged a hodgepodge of chairs on the main floor of 47 Flat St. facing the large glass windows and a projector screen. Near the entrance stood tables for lemon water and gluten-, soy-, and dairy-free snacks.
The disused room felt hot and dusty. Stacks of discarded pans, furniture, and odds and ends were pushed to the back of the large main room.
Despite the heat, short notice, and being the evening before a national holiday, about 30 community members sat and stood, waiting for the meeting to start.
They may have expected a business plan, which Roberts presented.
Audience members also listened to a Tibetan singing bowl, wrote haiku, and learned that not all community development consists of pie charts or demographics.
“What positive impacts are we having with this one project?” asked Roberts in his opening comments. “We want all hands on deck and to hear everybody out.”
Thoughts on moving forward
Candy then took the floor. According to his website, he has co-designed and facilitated peace-making and community-building projects in the United States, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. Originally from Ireland, he now lives in Pennsylvania.
For the past four years, Candy said, he has collaborated with people touching on the arts in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors — think moving art exhibits and programming — to generate broad engagement in community plans.
He has served as adjunct faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh and is the former executive director of the Community Technical Assistance Center in Pittsburgh.
He and his wife, Fiona Cheong, love Brattleboro, and believe it’s “a funky, interesting sort of place,” he said.
They’re here on vacation. But as one casual conversation led to another, as they do in small towns, they ended up at 47 Flat St.
Candy said he had a revelation as a community organizer after the steel industry collapsed in Pittsburgh. Overnight, hundreds of jobs disappeared, hitting generations of steel workers.
Then, Candy said, he understood the need to salvage a community and economy from the chaos.
Candy also grew to understand the need “to include room for suffering.” It’s important for community members to “hold hands and be quiet while someone cries” for what they’ve lost, he said. This realization has influenced his work ever since.
He added that suffering included the landscape, as people are intertwined with their environment. When a community suffers, so does its surrounding landscape. If the landscape suffers, as Flat Street did after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, then the community suffers.
When people can’t connect to their environment, he said, they become tourists in their own town. The key to change is re-establishing inhabitants’ relationship to the land and the city’s landscape.
Candy pointed to Brattleboro and Pittsburgh growing up with their backs to their respective rivers, and pointed out that 47 Flat St. cannot undergo redevelopment without considering its relationship to the downtown as a whole.
Pittsburgh, with a population of 307,484, is the second-largest city in Pennsylvania and sits at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers.
A city is an organism, he explained. Each neighborhood contributes to the health of the entire organism, and a city’s health is compromised when neighborhoods are neglected, unhealthy, or ignored, he said.
“How do we move with the energy that’s there?” he said of starting the process of re-imagining a community.
Candy outlined the decline and re-emergence of the Hill District in Pittsburgh, which sits between the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers and has views of Ohio.
A principally low-income, African-American neighborhood, the Hill District suffered four decades of “disinvestment and displacement” that included racist city planning, Candy said. The city also broke the district apart by relocating about 8,000 people from the “blighted” Lower Hill area.
City Hall later cut the Hill District off from the rest of Pittsburgh with a freeway, and built a civic center where the Lower Hill neighborhood stood.
It has taken a decade, Candy said. But collaborating with the elders in the Hill District, building respect, and rebuilding broken relationships has paid off. The Hill District’s new vision is included in the city’s master plan — and projects are moving forward.
“Embrace obstacles as your path,” said Candy of addressing the big task of rebuilding a neighborhood. “Start with whoever shows up, then make space for others who should or want to be here.”
These obstacles can manifest as economic hurdles or physical isolation, he said, especially for “forgotten populations.”
“The onus is on you to bring them in [to the process],” Candy said.
See home from a new view
When working with communities, Candy says he starts with holding a walking tour (or boating tour, in the case of rivers) to help people re-experience the place they see every day. The tour helps people see their neighborhood’s reality, rather than their habitual perception of it.
Next comes re-imagining, he said. The community creates a new vision for the neighborhood. Do they want more parks? Community centers? Businesses?
Candy said that when he speaks of the land or green spaces, the conversations usually trigger a chorus of, “We need jobs!”
“Since when are they mutually exclusive?” he asked.
With the re-imagining fleshed out, the community then brings its vision to funders, planners, and landscape architects. Next is the phase of re-creating.
It’s the technical stage where designers design, planners plan, builders build, and artists make art.
Flat Street walk set for July 11
Roberts and Weston said they are negotiating the purchase or long-term lease of 47 Flat St. They would like to start rehabilitating the building by September.
Simply Love Life will hold a follow-up meeting on July 11 at 47 Flat St. from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
The meeting will include a group walk around the Flat Street area as an exercise in building a relationship with the area’s natural and built surroundings.