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Creative Districts

A look into the Gem Block and 30th Street areas

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Public art can come to define a city. Chicago's bean-shaped Cloud Gate, Los Angeles' Urban Light, even Boise's colorful River Sculpture.

Through an artist's lens, the city itself is a canvas. So the City of Boise has tapped creative types to help plan what that canvas will look like.

"I think they're individuals who have chosen to focus on what's meaningful," said Karen Bubb, public arts manager at the Boise City Department of Arts and History. "For artists, the translation of meaning into a physical form is their currency."

Public artists distill a city's culture and past into corporeal form. For Boise's Ward Hooper, a section of the city dubbed the Gem Block is a chance to tell its story.

"When I travel, I define a city, first off, by the skyline and buildings," he said. "But when you're walking around, you define it by the people and the visual aesthetic of the street."

Comprised of a stretch of high-rises on Main Street between 10th and 11th streets, the Gem Block is one of the gateways into the city. The Alaska Center, the Averyl (Tiner) Building and the stately Gem Noble stand shoulder to shoulder on Main Street, a stretch historians felt needed recognition.

Hooper's concept for the area includes two installations to flank Main Street. Three metal posts with street lamps would rise from low sandstone walls. Each would feature three-sided, rotating panels, and early mock-ups include color from local history and plant life.

Prior to finalizing the designs, Hooper met with the block's residents and building owners to gather their input. According to Bubb, that process allowed citizens a hand in the project.

"We represent a government agency," said Bubb. "We have a certain amount of authority of what goes in the streets. But we can also engage citizens; it becomes a bit more of a grassroots project."

Not to mention, she said, artists helping to define the city grows a creative community.

"When I was young, I felt like Boise wasn't a creative place," said Bubb. "But now we are fostering a community where artists want to live, where young people feel like they can stay and contribute to the conversation."

In 2010, the city divined a similar path for the Linen District, an amorphous area in Boise's west downtown. Architectural designer and artist Dwaine Carver was commissioned to craft a "cultural arts plan" for the area.

According to Carver, the plan is a living document, a tool which allows the city to get a sense of what's possible for public arts in that area. Potential projects--like temporary street furniture or large wall murals--were based on the Linen District's character.

"For me, the Linen District has the potential for being an organic place," said Carver. "We don't really know what it is yet. I think that's the good thing about it."

Carver's plan calls specifically for temporary installations--the Modern Hotel and Bar's annual Modern Art event is organized in that spirit, he said.

But Carver cautioned that his plan should remain purely a guide.

"It could become too top-down, too deterministic," said Carver. "We all know the double-edged sword of the patron; it's that old saying--the death of many a painter has been the commissioned work."

Another cultural arts plan is taking shape in one of Boise's historic neighborhoods.

West of the Linen District is an area often loosely referred to as "the 30th Street area." It is dominated by a residential neighborhood with borders that reach State Street and the Boise River, including the new Boise River Recreation Park. Planners there have taken a similar approach to the arts.

"What's different about the 30th Street project and the Gem Block project is the former is so residential," said Bubb.

Architect and artist Stephanie Inman was contracted to devise the plan for the 30th Street area, which resembled Carver's work in the Linen District.

"She spent a year going to neighborhood meetings, meeting with individuals, walking the neighborhood," said Bubb.

As Inman flipped through the 40-plus pages of a packet she produced, she paused to tap a finger on a picture, a bright Art Deco poster from the Works Progress Administration.

"It's historically been a working-class area," said Inman. "Perhaps the art there could reflect that and retain the area's voice."

Strong anchors in the neighborhood include a dual-language program at Whittier Elementary School, a large refugee population and a rich food scene, including annual Russian and Greek food festivals.

Inman identified a list of principles that defined the neighborhood's character, and included glossy photos of projects in other cities that could speak to those characteristics. Aquatic life and recycled art and even architectural quirks are part of what defines the neighborhood's eclectic image.

"We want the opportunity for that neighborhood to have a voice. What is that indigenous voice? And in going through change, what would they like to see? What tone would they like it to retain?" asked Bubb. "If art happened, where would they like it to be?"

Whether it's through decorative benches, bike racks or installations, the city sees this as a chance for artists to highlight the 30th Street area's characteristics

"I see it as an opportunity to create a model we could replicate in other neighborhoods," said Bubb. "By having artists help create these plans, it's a method of having citizens help craft their own neighborhoods."

Big change is on the horizon for the neighborhood. Plans for a new road to carry cars from State Street to Fairview Avenue would be dubbed Whitewater Park Boulevard.

"We've imagined that street as a porous ribbon through the community," said Inman.

And that ribbon, as the cultural plan shows, unfurls new opportunities for public art.

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