By Jeanine Strickland
The Dragon – the spirit of the place
On a rainy Sunday morning, my son and I were exploring Codornices Creek under the bridge at the end of 5th Street. My son set to work collecting sticks to build a miniature bridge across the stream. A flash of red caught my eye, and I glanced down at the shimmering surface of the water, startled to find a ferocious crayfish rearing up, standing his ground like a tiny dragon. A symphony of birdsong in the willows halted abruptly with a cry overhead. Looking up through the canopy, I saw a pair of hawks soaring majestically above.
In 2002, Codornices Creek was a straight, concrete channel covered with blackberries and clogged with trash. Today, we stand with our feet in the cool stream gravels, the architecture of the willows rising around us, the drama of the sky above us. We can feel the genius loci—the spirit of the place—and know “this is what a healthy, stable, beautiful stream feels like”. There is harmony within its interconnected parts; an inherent vitality that we feel part of.
Like daylighting a creek, Creative placemaking* is a revelatory process. We peel back the layers of our history to expose the natural and cultural resources that make a place special, and we tell that story in a way that others can understand.
Creative placemaking is about a community rediscovering and transforming an underutilized space into a place humming with life and beauty. It’s about art and design, but it’s also about planting a tree with your neighbors, watching it grow tall, and feeling proud to live in your neighborhood when you walk down the street.
The Phoenix- the power of transformation
Last year in Richmond, volunteers joined together for a terrific community-build experience at John F. Kennedy Park, the conclusion of intensive planning and community engagement. From the outset, local residents remembered how the park was once a thriving hub for community life where people of all ages could meet friends, hang out and play. They strove to revitalize the park, transforming the neglected and unsafe spaces.
At the heart of the park, a mural was created by an intergenerational class of Richmond’s Southside residents taught by artist Fred Alvarado. The images in the design represent important pieces of the neighborhood’s past, present and future through the eyes of community members. Symbols represent the experience of the first African American families; honor the important role of education in our community; remember the local flower industry run by local Japanese American families. At its core the Tree of Life represents the interconnectedness of all life. Richmond’s Southside, too, is solid and alive with deep roots and many branches. Rising from the tree is a Phoenix, a symbol of rebirth and renewal, representing victorious transformation for our future.
Creative placemaking was successful in JFK Park because it brought together the place, the people, and deep level of community engagement. The creative process built social cohesion, re-established a sense of place, and communicated the story of how resilient this community is. The mural and the park are a reminder to everyone: “this is the story of our cultural experience…this is what it feels like when my community comes together to make a change”.
*The National Endowment for the Art (NEA) describes creative placemaking as follows:
In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.
–Executive Summary from Creative Placemaking by Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa, 2010
Photo credits: Jeanine Strickland