Reflections on Creative Placemaking in Takoma Park

New Hampshire Ave: This is a Place To … was a multi-year creative placemaking project that utilized the power of artmaking and performance to bring new meaning to the relationships between individuals, communities, and the places in which they live and work. Dance Exchange’s collaboration with the City of Takoma Park invited community members to connect to New Hampshire Avenue through storytelling, dancemaking, music, visual art, and performance while transforming perceptions of self and others, fostering a deeper relationship between what was and what is, and advocating for their presence and importance in decisions made about their city.

Here are reflections from some of the artistic team, participants, and community member audiences about this project.

Ben Carver is a Washington, DC-based photographer. His portraits of residents of New Hampshire Avenue can be seen on banners in businesses and residencies along the avenue, and his documentation of the project’s various performances, workshops and community events can be found on Dance Exchange’s Facebook page.

Ben says:

New Hampshire Ave: This is a Place To… allowed me to expand my perceptions and understand a part of the world that, while geographically very close, is outside of my daily routine. Working to capture portraits of the people of New Hampshire Avenue somehow intimidated me more than some of my previous projects as a photographer because I entered the context of their lives with a weight – as someone tasked with capturing their story on film and needing to gain their trust immediately as a guest in their neighborhoods and homes. I felt some fear and hesitancy about going into a part of the city where I’ve never ventured, meeting people I wouldn’t otherwise have opportunities to photograph. I was constantly surprised by the openness and engagement I experienced from the people I met and photographed on New Hampshire Avenue. I think that moving forward I will meet such opportunities with more openness and confidence. I think we captured compelling portraits that told a story. I think the subjects of those images felt recognized, that they mattered, and that they were represented beautifully and felt good in return.

When I joined this project, I never thought I would see my work printed on canvas and displayed so prominently during a live performance—dancers moving between my images, musicians playing music that harmonized with my work, seeing audiences engage with the work. It was a feeling of transcendence made possible because other people brought their talent into alignment with my own and made the work so much more than that sum of its parts. The experience not only bonded me with other creative people but inspired me to value and seek more collaborative opportunities.

I hope that as a result of this project, New Hampshire Avenue residents will show more courage in knowing each other, and in doing so enable a dialogue that can create social change and community based action.”

Erkin Ozberk is the Senior Planner of Housing and Community Development at the City of Takoma Park. He is helping to lead the city of Takoma Park’s New Ave initiative to develop and connect the people and businesses of the city’s main artery street, New Hampshire Avenue.

Erkin says:

“It was interesting for me to see how work started by city staff, either in planning or small improvements (e.g. the “This is a Place To” chairs) functioned as kernels for the Dance Exchange’s work and furthering to define an identity on the New Ave. Working with artists helps us see our own work, and the community in which we work, through a more experiential and meaningful lens. The culminating performance event in July 2015 exceeded my expectations in the inclusiveness of participants, use of the site, breadth of artists involved, quality of performers, and resulting artwork. I am excited that many of the businesses along New Hampshire Avenue are proudly displaying pieces of art produced from the project, and I hope that they can see themselves as part of a local community with shared interests and aspirations on the New Ave.”

Fred Schultz has been a resident of Takoma Park for 30 years, and a sitting council member since 2009. He works to promote New Ave businesses, strengthening the voice of business owners, and encouraging commercial landlords to improve their properties. Fred is a Takoma Park City Council member since 2009 and has lived in Takoma with his wife for 30 years.

Fred says:

“I was thrilled by the experience of watching the dancers – professional and local residents – perform during the final performance of “New Hampshire Ave: This is a Place To…” in July 2015. They filled the large outdoor spaces with an intriguing and startling experience.

For many… creative experiences can ignite all kinds of positive ideas and dreams of what life could be about. For the neighborhood as a whole, the dance may jar people into realizing that special things can happen in a part of Takoma Park that rarely gets to see and experience this kind of creative experience.” Fred Schultz, Takoma Park City Council and participant

The city of Takoma Park is considering building a new recreational center in the future. Projects like New Hampshire Avenue: This is a Place To … can influence what that kind of space contains and how it will be used.”

Erica Bondarev Rapach of Silver Spring, MD, is on Dance Exchange’s Board of Directors and serves as Associate Executive Director at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland.

Erica says:

“I attended a dance performance at the apartment complexes on New Hampshire Avenue in Takoma Park where members of Dance Exchange performed alongside community members. Audience members were asked to participate and move too. I drive down New Hampshire Avenue fairly regularly in my routine and I cannot drive by those apartment complexes and see the grassy lawn out front without thinking of my experience at the performance. I am taken back to the artwork that was displayed on the lawn and the sense of community I felt by being part of the event. It has forever changed that patch of Takoma Park for me.”

Chisao Hata was a performer in this project and participant in Dance Exchange 2015 Summer Institute. She is an artist, teacher, and activist from Portland, OR, focusing on the artful process for individual expression and community engagement that addresses issues of social change. Her teaching program Healing through Movement provides a space and creative process for individuals and groups of all ages to experience themselves and others through movement, sound, spoken word, imagination and deep engagement. As an artist, her work focuses on on themes of social justice, peace, global awareness identity and diversity, creating performances and experiences of “the other.” 

Chisao says:

“I was fortunate to be a performer in the end of the project. The process, the people and the vision were the most important aspects of this project. The engagement with performers, and audience, and makers is a unique process to the Dance Exchange and was skillfully embodied and openly shared by the DX lead artists; the people who were brought together as performers and community created a deeply rich cultural and creative experience for all of us. It took a large vision to bring this project to life and fruition. I continue to be impressed and inspired by Dance Exchange’s creative process that is positive and life affirming.

Experiencing the role of trust in the fluidity of the process and creative/organizational leadership was fully engaging and continues to fuel my work with communities of color, public education of young people and my own creative work. Often in community organizing personalities can create challenges – but the environment DX created was such a positive experience. The creating and making happened in an open creative and positive environment, which supported more engagement from artists, performers, and community.  The intentionality was thoughtful, artful and embraced all differences. Collaboration was key to this project and it is my hope that new partnerships or sister projects could emerge from the connections formed during the making of New Hampshire Ave: This is a Place To …

I discovered during this project that I have a deep conviction and belief in the role of artists and social change work. Clearly the work cannot be done by anyone who uses the right language, but lacks the vision and heart.  This kind of work is intense and speaks in a language that artists can respond to and yet be inclusive of the needs of community and other individuals who are not artists. It is a complex balancing that requires thoughtful observation, clear choices and communication skills that are formed from cultural awareness and deep listening.

My hope is that New Hampshire Ave: This is a Place To … will continue to have a lasting impact on the people touched by the process and the experience. This project can and should encourage similar projects throughout the country and support artists to develop ways we can all experience our humanity and develop empathy for each other. There is a lot of work to be done.”

Amanda Newman was the Project Manager for New Hampshire Ave: This is a Place To ... and is an artist and creator currently based in Washington, DC. During Dance Exchange’s 2014-2015 season, Amanda acted as Resident Artist/Communications Coordinator/Youth Programs Facilitator. Amanda is now using her creative capacities to help drive sustainable healthcare innovation as part of a fellowship with Health for America. Whether she’s working in a studio, in a hospital, or in a boardroom, Amanda is deeply invested in the power of movement and storytelling to broaden our circles of inclusion, write and rewrite our individual and collective narratives, and allow space for complex, critical conversations.

Amanda says:

“When reflecting on this project, I started to play with the question of what it means to be deeply rooted and what it means to be passing through. I started to ask this question about the project, but also more broadly about relationships, communities, and life phases. This question drove so much of my work and discovery during the project as the Project Coordinator, and it continues to guide me as I look at my own life. Wrapped up in that single question are so many others – about permanence and change, about arrivals and departures, about holding on and letting go.

In so many ways, the life of this project was kaleidoscopic. Every time something came into focus, another shifted out of view. It was both beautiful and challenging. Because of the nature of the Ave, we were able to build incredible muscles for responsiveness and course-correction. In a really empathetic way, we worked with our partners to create a project which mirrored the change happening along the Avenue. But I regret not having more time to fully understand and dig into some of the complexities of the changes that were occurring along the Avenue. Because significant changes were taking place even as we were rehearsing for the final performance, I’m left wondering about the questions unasked and unanswered that would have made more space for a diversity of voices to make meaningful contributions to conversations about those kaleidoscopic shifts.

I remember so many moments during the project when I found myself thinking, “This is not enough. Art is not enough.” The people of New Hampshire Ave were and are facing very real, very significant challenges. But this project was attempting to honor those challenges as well as to highlight the equally real and significant celebrations and contributions of the communities along the Ave. The artists who were a part of New Hampshire Ave: This Is a Place To… were there to act as windows and mirrors. We were there to start conversations and guide journeys of witnessing and discovering.

My hopes for the Avenue are wrapped up in my memory of the final moments of Still Crossing during the performance in July 2015. Surrounded by the faces and stories of the Avenue, I joined a sea of community members in facing the Avenue for the final time, raising our fists toward the horizon in a gesture of courage, of strength, of solidarity. For me, that moment was full of questions–questions about the change we had seen and the change that was ahead. As we had the entire project, I was still asking whose voices would be heard and held in conversations about the past, present, and future of the Avenue. I had no answers to these questions. Instead, I held on to the hope that even in the midst of so much uncertainty and complexity, the residents, community leaders, and city officials of New Hampshire Ave would continue gathering, moving, and making together.”

About Alison Waldman

Alison Waldman is Dance Exchange's Marketing & Communications Manager and a D.C.-based “entrepren-artist” consultant, performer, photographer, and collaborator.