Norwalk, CT

Contact Name
Jackie Lightfield
Project Dates
May/June 2014
Workshop Leader
Creative Communities Exchange (CCX) 2015
Tags
Event, Technology
We had a crazy idea. What if we put shipping containers in Freese Park? And then invited artists, writers, poets, singers, musicians, architects, entrepreneurs, makers, and builders to create a village? All sorts of wonderful things happened as a result of hauling four twenty-foot shipping containers, placing them in a neglected park and transforming them into a vibrant village. We will tell the story of how a dash of creativity, a splash of innovation and a lot of perspiration can make a place come alive and discuss the logistics of how to make a village happen anywhere.
Project Goals
What were the specific goals of this creative economy project? Describe the community development challenge or opportunity that your project was designed to address:
With the support of the State of Connecticut Department of Economic Development, Norwalk 2.0 has programmed art exhibits and community projects in Norwalk’s two downtowns. The consistent goal has been to improve the neighborhood, generate support for economic development and bring people back to our once beautiful historic downtown.

Our challenge was to honor the past while building a culture that embraced creativity and change. For the Freese Park Artist Village to work, we needed to bring people to the downtown revive foot traffic, increase visitor numbers, and create a sense of excitement about the potential of the downtown as a creative community.
If the goals change over time, please describe how:
As we worked with our partners and reached out to neighborhood artists and creatives, we empowered people in place to make a difference in their community. Part of our challenge was that the site itself, due to construction by the CT DOT and a redevelopment project that was seeking to take over public space, we needed to shift our project into a tighter area.
Who was involved in this project and what did they do? (be sure to include the partners from outside of the creative sector and how local voices were included):
For the Freese Park Artist Village, we worked in partnership with the City of Norwalk, Department of Public Works, Department of Recreation, Parks and Culture, Norwalk Redevelopment Agency, Norwalk Public Library, Norwalk Preservation Trust and Norwalk Historical Society in efforts to leverage the interests and activities of the organizations in the area.

We also worked with local businesses to develop tangible economic partnerships. Melissa Slattery and Susan Wallerstein organized a series of custom walks to WPA murals at City Hall. They capped off each evening stroll with a delightful vintage cocktail paired to the art subject.


The city of Norwalk stakeholders were integral as we located our project on city land, that for many years had been neglected. We were challenged by weeds, trash, poison ivy and of course the CT DOT construction adjacent to the park.

The area businesses, in particular, the restaurants were active participants throughout the project, either by hosting meetings and workshops or in participation in our sip and stroll activities that encouraged walking tours in the area matched to themed vintage cocktails.
How does this project relate to a larger community development strategy?
The degree of vacant storefronts and the downtrodden streetscape has affected the perception that Norwalk has a vibrant downtown. For 4 years, Norwalk 2.0 has undertaken everything from street cleanups to pop-up art exhibits that serve as community gathering events focused on improving the community. The Freese Park Artist Village was designed for repeat visits to explore the area.
What projects or places, if any, inspired your approach to this creative economy project?
We were inspired by the Dekalb Market in Brooklyn and how they used shipping containers to create a place.
Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
The Artist Village started with the installation of four shipping containers in the park, located in the heart of our historic downtown. The reason for why this project was created starts with the story of the ubiquitous shipping container. Did you know that at every port in the US, thousands of containers are stockpiled in yards simply because the number of shipping containers coming to us is too overwhelming cost wise to ship back. The economics of shipping mean that it is too expensive to ship back empty containers.

The containers then were a metaphor. We have a beautiful historic downtown, yet many storefronts are vacant, because the we’ve chosen to buy things from big chains that import goods cheaply. We’ve forgotten how to enjoy a place where people can meet and see things created by people who live here.

Each container installation created an experience that touched on themes of Norwalk’s cultural heritage and made use of the shipping container in innovative ways. We were thrilled to stage the project in Freese Park, and enjoyed the amazing installations. And just possibly re reintroduced Freese Park to a new set of people.

Because this wasn't a typical art exhibit, where people came to view things, people found they could come to create things. We modeled our village on historical villages, that were gathering places for people to trade, to talk, to explore. We created a gathering space for the community so people connected with each other, learned new skills and made their ideas come alive, whether it was hands-on 3D printing, or reading poetry, or drawing on the Black Box walls. We encouraged repurposed objects to be used in the Secret Arts Society installation which symbolized the innovation of of building on the past that has been so much a part of the American story.

A juried panel will review submissions from a Call for Ideas. The theme of the village will be an educational environment inspiring creation, learning, and mingling and touch on intergenerational and cultural themes. After the concept solicitation, the selected projects will be installed with the purpose

If the project steps changed over time, please describe how:
We found that having an open call for artists without detailed rules was making ti difficult for artists to nail down ideas. Once we refined rules and scope of what they could do, the ideas solidified. We also experimented by having the Artist Village "event" times only at night. We discovered that weekend afternoons there was great demand for experiencing the village as well. The shipping containers were intriguing enough during the daytimes, when no artist villagers were present for people to explore.
Obstacles
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
Weather always presents a challenge and we did have delays getting the ground dry for the container installation and lost two nights due to heavy rain storms. The shipping containers themselves were watertight, so the Village opened but few visitors. Because of the "build it as you go" format, there was much confusion about when events or activities were taking place.

The grade of the park was also an issue. We had a 9% grade on one location which meant we were challenged to make the container ADA accessible as well as just accessible and comfortable for people. We ended up repurposing wood used as part of a tree festival demonstration to shore up the container and added ramps.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
We posted event times on our web site, however we found that we really needed an on-site schedule of events and locations. We plan on incorporating that feedback into our next project.

We relied on our landscape architect to solve the logistics of container placement and dealing with the grade. Having that expertise from the neighborhood was essential.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
1. Understand the weight of shipping containers. and the soil and slope of the site selected.
2. On site signage explaining the project and what events were planned and schedules needs to be well defined and evident.
3. LED lights are really awesome.
Project Impact
How has this project strategically connected arts and cultural activities to social, economic, and cultural issues in your community? What is different in your community as a result of this project?
Making the link between the arts and the economic development has been Norwalk 2.0’s innovative model of social entrepreneurship for while. Our projects always touch on how we can introduce cultural history to new generations in innovative ways.

One of the things we accomplished was having a permanent repository of self-guided walking tours highlighted by our Fence Art installations. Not only could someone randomly discover the area, but that the tours, were available on discovernorwalk.com.

All these activities brought people walking around downtown, and introduced them to some of the local restaurants.

Norwalk 2.0 has always envisioned—making Norwalk cool by creating fun engaging stuff that helps bring people together in public places.

While the the Freese Park Artist Village installation was temporary, the community-building lasted long after the village was dismantled.

Events fostered by the Norwalk Arts Commission headed by Susan Wallerstein, and the Norwalk Preservation Trust headed by Tod Bryant continued along the WPA theme.

The work of these organizations shows the evolution of partnerships that were forged as part of a shared goal of making Norwalk’s downtown more engaging.

The project also was supported by the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency and the City of Norwalk who provided extra technical assistance in the form of cleaning up the park and the downtown streetscape.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
We viewed the project as a pilot and were unsure of how it would be received. The demand for it to come back the following year is a key indicator of its success. That demand came from not just the participants but also the City and attendees. We were awarded another grant by the DECD Office of the Arts to purchase shipping containers to repeat the project in other areas.
How did you measure this success or progress?
The lack of community space in Norwalk was temporarily created. We are actively working on a sustainable community space yet also being flexible to move it when needed. We see this as a key indicator of success.
Please describe any unexpected impacts:
Part performance, part interactive, part visual –the artist village represented a playful way to invite people to take another look at the downtown Norwalk area, and become inspired again. Symbolically, the use of shipping containers as a temporary exhibit acted as a metaphor about the era of consumerism built on shipping goods manufactured in other countries for sale here.

The transformation of making Freese Park took shape over many weeks along the Norwalk River presents a more eclectic ambience attracting green, organic and holistic health related businesses.

With national retailers contracting the number of stores, the emphasis on smaller regional growth can only be achieved by developing the seeds of economic sustainability based on unique, hand-crafted, artisanal boutique concepts that thrive in economic eco-systems of like stores and restaurants.

Norwalk 2.0 has led the way in how to approach economic challenges through a thoughtful mix of leveraging technology, arts, culture and history to tell the story of how to make a downtown relevant again, but how to be inspired by the past and preserve elements of historic areas while addressing the economic sustainability of the present.

The work we do sometimes gets lost in the muck and mire of everyday events. It’s good to recap and rethink what we are doing as Norwalk 2.0, but also as Norwalk the City.

For much of the past few decades the downtown has been poised to emerge as something better, newer, different –just as soon as redevelopment happened.

Of course we took a different view of things, and said, “Why Wait?” or something like that, –starting a revolution or two along the way and pinning great hopes on our charismatic efforts to reshape the shape of things to come.

Creating temporary art, creative placemaking and events and workshops are all part of the toolkit we use to activate, engage and empower. But this year we took a long term view on how we tell the story of what we are doing and why we are doing it.

Part of our continuing work is to influence the policies that have rendered downtown in a perpetual state of limbo. We think we can be successful in attracting urban pioneers to build thier businesses in downtown without waiting for redevelopment to execute projects.

Much of tis work happens behind the scenes and as part of official roles with the City, serving on task force groups. But some of it is basic advocacy, and we will continue those efforts in the upcoming years.
CCX Workshop Handout