Transcript – Episode 53

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Jessica Allan: And it was a matter of sort of cultivating and identifying what that culture and those artists were doing in Easthampton, and sort of supporting them, and lifting them, and bringing them sort of to the top of the local economy, and making people aware that this is happening.

Anita Walker: Hi. I’m Anita Walker, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Jessica Allan. She is the City Planner for the City of Easthampton. And thank you for joining us.

Jessica Allan: Thanks for having me.

Anita Walker: Now, our listeners know that probably most of our guests are cultural leaders. What in the world do we have a city planner on this program for? What does city planning have to do with arts and culture? It has a lot to do.

Jessica Allan: It has a lot, and I kind of like to describe myself not as a planner, but as a place-maker. And I think that arts and planning really kind of go hand in hand, when we’re talking about creating places and creating communities. And I think what’s kind of unusual for our city is that we have an arts coordinator that’s actually housed in the Planning Department. So we work very closely together, and collaborate on a lot of different projects together, to revitalize our downtown and to sort of highlight arts and culture in Easthampton, which there’s a lot of. So…

Anita Walker: So, Easthampton has one of our more than 40 state-designated Cultural Districts, the Cottage Street Cultural District. But I want to circle back immediately to something you just said. You have an arts-and-culture city staff person in the City Planning Department.

Jessica Allan: That’s right.

Anita Walker: How did that come to be?

Jessica Allan: Well, thanks to MCC, really. One of the first Adams Grants– and this was before my time, with my predecessor. And there was a staff person in the Planning Department who was an artist herself. The Adams Grant became on their radar screen. They applied for money. And one of the first projects that they had done was to do an inventory of artists in Easthampton. And I remember talking to the city planner when he was– when they were doing that, and he was just blown away by what– that hidden economy that was in Easthampton, that was there, that people knew was there, but I don’t think they understood the breadth of how many artists were working in the mills, in their studios. And so I think, with that first project, it kind of kept arts and planning together in that same department, but also really sort of elevated it to realize that this is an economic development issue, as well, and this is an economy that we need to sort of bring up to the surface a little bit. So I think that’s how they kind of ended up together.

Anita Walker: Something tells me, if you put all those artist entrepreneurs under one roof, and called it a company, any city would be thrilled to attract that kind of a workforce.

Jessica Allan: Yeah. And what I think is kind of interesting now is that Easthampton is an old mill town. They have their roots in the mills. We have a lot of mill infrastructure. We have these newer manufacturing companies that are coming in, that, to me, I feel like are kind of bringing the creativity and the manufacturing together. They’re making these very interesting products there. It’s like taking it to a whole different level, in terms of a creative economy, in my mind. And I think it’s kind of neat for Easthampton to have this history in the mills, and to have this economy of artists that’s been there for a couple of good decades now, kind of blending together. And there’s a new, sort of small manufacturing subset happening in the mills. I mean, there’s a company that makes– my understanding, I was told there’s a company that makes high-end wrapping paper from this really interesting manufacturing process, using recycled materials. And then they sell them to high-end retail stores in New York City. So it’s– there’s things happening in Easthampton, and they’re kind of hidden in the mills, but they have a bigger regional economy tied to them, so–

Anita Walker: And you can’t really separate design from anything anymore.

Jessica Allan: You can’t. You can’t.

Anita Walker: Whether it’s a street or wrapping paper or a product or a ballpoint pen, design is embedded in everything.

Jessica Allan: Absolutely.

Anita Walker: One of the things that hit me, that you just said, though, thinking about putting together the arts and city planning, putting together the artist entrepreneurs with other types of innovators and entrepreneurs, and mill buildings, one of my favorite things about the Cottage Street Cultural District is that virtually any retail operation that you walk into is an imaginative blend of two things you wouldn’t expect to see together in one place. So, for example, the musical instrument/guitar store is also a bar.

Jessica Allan: That’s right. And they just expanded. They have just doubled in size because they’re so popular, so they’re expanding their… their breadth on the street, so–

Anita Walker: And the movie theater is also fine dining. Or is it still kind of a–?

Jessica Allan: Yeah, it’s no longer there, unfortunately. And so that’s one of the challenges we’re having right now, is the district is shifting, and… and I think my sense of other cultural districts across the state is, there is always a major cultural institution that’s part of it; it’s a museum or something. Our cultural institution is 1 Cottage Street, where we have hundreds of artists located in one building. But after that, it’s just retail. And so these are small businesses. They’re not necessarily always making it. They’re going out of business. The Felting store, where you bought something fabulous– I can’t remember if it was a hat or a necklace, but you bought something fabulous there, I remember. They expanded so much, they moved out of Cottage Street, and now they’re in the mills. And so the mills is– you know, we don’t have a lot of land left in Easthampton, and so when a business outgrows their space in a small retail place, like Cottage Street, they’re looking to the mills. And we’re starting to look at the mills as maybe being a second cultural district, at some point in the near future, because we’ve put a lot of public investment into the Pleasant Street Mills area. And those buildings are growing and filling, and have a lot of entrepreneurs and breweries, and all sorts of fabulous things happening in them. And so, yeah, so that’s a challenge that’s happening on the street right now, is we’re having some turnover. We’re not sure where we’re headed. We don’t know– you know, what are the tools that we want to put in place to preserve this district? Has it outlived itself, you know? That’s another question that’s coming up. We know that the real-estate industry really utilizes it in their marketing of properties around that street, and that’s where we’re seeing the greatest use of the Cultural District designation. But we have turnover, but we’ve got some cool stuff happening. The tattoo place moved down the street.

Anita Walker: Now, just to pause: The tattoo place is, internationally, a destination for tattoos.

Jessica Allan: That’s right.

Anita Walker: If you are into tattoos.

Jessica Allan: They have a sister store in Italy. So…

<both laugh>

Jessica Allan: And they do a lot of conventions. And so they are now under a lease agreement at the Majestic Theater, where the Felting store was. And they have now moved into that space, and they’re going to start turning that into a more publicly accessible spot, where you can use the stage, and sort of bring it back to a little bit of its old glory; so, keeping the tattoo, but also sort of expanding that space. So…

Anita Walker: So, there’s always churn. I mean, in retail, there’s always great ambitions that some play out, and some don’t pan out, and every business has a lifespan. And so that’s okay. And sometimes things shine bright at the beginning, and then peter out fairly quickly. Do you sort of have an idea in your plan about what the mix is, that you want on Cottage Street? And do you also think about prohibitions on chains, and that kind of thing? How does that all play into what’s happening?

Jessica Allan: So, my vision of downtowns, from– and maybe this is more of a planning perspective– but, obviously, we know that Internet sales are changing the retail and how it’s working right now. And in my opinion, I think downtowns need to start going towards experience, not necessarily going and purchasing something. Because we haven’t–

Anita Walker: Well, that’s like the beer and the guitars.

Jessica Allan: Right. Exactly.

Anita Walker: That’s an experience.

Jessica Allan: You’re going there for an experience. You’re going to a tattoo to get a tat– I mean, even that’s an experience, in its own way. We now have this fantastic butcheria. It’s an Italian butcheria. You can go in there. You can talk to the butcher. You can select meats. I mean, this is a new entity, and they’re starting to create a Little Italy down at the end, so– because there’s an Italian restaurant right next door. They’ve painted the fire hydrant in Italian colors now. So, I mean, I think it’s like that experience is what is going to– what I think is going to make a good mix for the district. And we now have the boardwalk, which people go, they get an ice cream, they go down there, they hang out. We have public art on the boardwalk that is interactive and is engaging. So I think if we keep trying to recruit businesses that have that sort of model, and cultivate them, and patron them, and spend our money there, then those are the businesses that will thrive. Those that are just selling knickknacks and trinkets, I just think are going to have a hard time. So…

Anita Walker: And how does programming on that street interact with the experiential shop?

Jessica Allan: So, Art Walk is a second Saturday of every month. We very much program and work with the businesses on that street, to have activities going on during Art Walk. We just recently made the decision– Easthampton Arts Plus made the decision to start funding two performers at every Art Walk, to make sure that at least there’s some activity happening on the street. And she’s working specifically with one business to host that musician, or that performer, every Art Walk. So I think, again, having a reason to go down, and having that experience, will keep feet on the street, and will keep people entering these stores and spending their money there. So…

Anita Walker: Now that you are in a planning department that also has the cultural, or the arts voice, sort of embedded in there, can you imagine not having that integrated approach?

Jessica Allan: No. I can’t. I mean, it really is such a heart and soul of Easthampton, at this time. And… you know, I think it’s part of a bigger economic development strategy for the city, in my mind, where it’s a reason for people to come to the city. It’s a reason for businesses– other businesses– to come and locate in the city, because there’s things for their employees to do. There’s places to eat, there’s things to do. And so it’s– you know, it’s part of a bigger, integrated strategy. But it’s definitely– the work of ECA has put Easthampton on the map, regionally, has put us on the map in Western Mass; I even think, statewide, to some extent. So I think it’s– the programming and the events bring people to Easthampton. They see what’s going on. They’re like, “Hey, there’s a lot going on in this city. Let’s come back at another time, when there’s maybe not an event or a program going on, just to sort of check it out.” And so–

Anita Walker: When you go to your conventions of city planners…

<both laugh>

Anita Walker: I’m sure there’s an association.

Jessica Allan: It’s a nerd fest. It’s a total nerd fest.

Anita Walker: Are you seeing, though, more and more cities taking this approach, where you bring the arts and culture right into City Hall, right into the City Planning Department? And what are the barriers to that? Is it a language? Is it sort of like a school of thought, that I come out of planning, and I’m into the curbs and the roads and the new developments? Talk a little bit about the cultural barriers to that kind of integration.

Jessica Allan: So… every conference that I’ve gone to– planning conference– there’s always at least one session on arts and culture in planning. I mean, it’s really kind of a pretty mainstream topic, at this point. And place-making is often a big term that’s used a lot, and how arts sort of plays into that. I would say, though, that I think how Easthampton has sort of thrived on this is, we went with the natural curve of what was happening in Easthampton. It wasn’t like we created this arts and culture scene, when there wasn’t any– we didn’t start from zero. There was already something happening. And it was a matter of sort of cultivating and identifying what that culture and those artists were doing in Easthampton, and sort of supporting them and lifting them, and bringing them sort of to the top of the local economy, and making people aware that this is happening. So, for other communities that are looking at this as a revitalization strategy for themselves, I would say that, really, sort of take a hard look at what you have, and don’t try to invent something that’s not there, or push something that’s not there. Really, it’s like working with your hair. You’re not going to put your part in the other direction, because this just looks goofy. So– <laughs>

Anita Walker: It won’t stay.

Jessica Allan: It’s not going to stay. So, you know, it’s really sort of identifying what’s there, and cultivating that, and supporting it. And I think that’s where ECA and the city has done a fabulous job. I mean, it’s a recognized part of our local economy, and we’re doing everything that we can to not just use it as a revitalization tool, but look at it on, how are we supporting our artists in our community? What business skills are we going to try to provide them– workshops or other things– to help support their business, and to help them make money? I mean, bottom line is, that’s kind of a core value of ECA, is to make sure our artists are being able to support themselves. So–

Anita Walker: And I want to go back to sort of where you started, which was, there was an artist inventory that kind of–

Jessica Allan: Started the whole thing.

Anita Walker: — became the platform on which all of this was built. And we’ve been talking quite a bit, at the Mass Cultural Council, of how we can support more communities by starting with an artist inventory. But it’s not just counting heads.

Jessica Allan: No.

Anita Walker: There has to be a strategy of where to go afterwards. Can you talk how that was developed?

Jessica Allan: You know, I wasn’t there when the inventory was done. I don’t know how much time they spent, sort of culling people out of their studios. Maybe there are folks who really didn’t really want to be part of it. I mean, they’re busy making their art. They don’t have time for this other thing. So I suspect that there was a lot of one-on-one meetings, a lot of really focused local public participation that happened, in order to sort of make this inventory happen. It wasn’t– you know, it’s not just a census count.

Anita Walker: And not a survey.

Jessica Allan: No. It’s not just a survey. But I think having… we were lucky to have Ellen Coutine [ph?], who was an artist and worked in the Planning Department. She sort of– you know, her studio was in 1 Cottage. She’s already going to know people who are in that. So you need sort of that front person, who’s already connected into that community, to be able to sort of outreach that. And the arts coordinator in Easthampton is sort of that conduit between the artists and the city. They represent the city, but they also are kind of the constituent face for the artists in Easthampton, and sort of plays that middle ground, so they can be that communication between city and that population group in Easthampton. So–

Anita Walker: So, right now, Easthampton is sort of turning the page onto the next chapter.

Jessica Allan: We are turning the page. Yep.

Anita Walker: Very exciting.

Jessica Allan: Very exciting.

Anita Walker: So, Jessica Allan, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.

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