Out with the alcohol, and in with the art — at least that’s the thought process behind Weinland Park’s latest community redevelopment project.
The Weinland Park Collaborative replaced a billboard Saturday that was formerly adorned with a UV Blue Vodka advertisement. It now sports a community-created mural that will host four different works over the next year, rotating every three months.
“We kept hearing complaints about the billboard, that it’s ugly, that it only advertises alcohol and that if this was Upper Arlington they wouldn’t tolerate that. And I said: ‘You know guys, we can take this back,’” said Jean Pitman, educator for youth programs at the Wexner Center for the Arts.
The Weinland Park Collaborative is a partnership of businesses, nonprofits and the city of Columbus that aims to revitalize the neighborhood. Ohio State and its nonprofit business arm, Campus Partners, are both funders, with the university contributing $7,500 for the project’s total budget of $50,600.
The billboard is more than just something to look at, said Erin Prosser, director of community development at Campus Partners.
“The primary reason for our excitement is that we’re just really excited to show off Weinland Park … The neighborhood is a very different place even than it was five years ago. People are choosing to live in Weinland Park. They have a very diverse population, it’s a very strong community with a lot of active residents,” Prosser said.
Freelance illustrator John Grosvenor, a Weinland Park resident since 2012, who helped work on the project said, “It’s not just a giant business rolling in saying, ‘We’re going to fix everything by bulldozing it and starting new.’ It’s civic, community, business and the university all brought to the table.”
A community effort
The first mural, “Above the Wires,” designed by Grosvenor, was unveiled Saturday. Residents involved with the effort took the stage to speak before the crowd of about 100 before proceeding to billboard site near the corner of North Fourth Street and East Fifth Avenue.
“For the residents, this is a huge moment of pride,” said Brandyn McElroy, president of the Weinland Park Community Civic Association. “When people leave the downtown area, they come out, and they view what we see as our community. But they pass through and pass this massive sign. We definitely use this (area) as a space, as an entrance to the community.”
Vice president for Student Life Javaune Adams-Gaston, who sits on the board of directors for Campus Partners, was also present.
“This is a collaborative with the university, which I think is really great. We’ve had some of our graduate students involved in the project, and the connectivity between our students and the residents in the neighborhood is so critical to building service — we’re a land-grant institution, that’s what we ought to be doing,” she said.
After a countdown from the crowd, the billboard was uncovered, unveiling its scene of six children on swings, some jumping off into the distance above telephone wires, with a semi-opaque “RISE” superimposed over the image.
Clear Channel Outdoor, the company that owns and leases out the billboard, did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding the project, or whether they offer discounts for arts and community projects. Their website, though, states, “Our support extends to both local and national organizations as they improve health and public safety, ensure a sustainable environment and promote arts, education and cultural diversity.”
“We spent six months to a year talking to people to get a sense of what the community wanted to see as an art project,” said Mark Lomax, club director for the R.I.S.E. Club, a collaboration between the Godman Guild Association — a settlement house that provides social services — and the Columbus Boys and Girls Club.
The two groups worked together on the piece by using the Guild’s space and jobs and internships program, and the Boys and Girls Club’s academic and healthy lifestyles programs, said Lomax, who also holds a bachelor of music, masters in music composition, and doctorate of music arts in composition from OSU.
For the members of the Weinland Park Collaborative, this project was about the community — specifically the kids.
“I hired a group of nine artists to spend time at the kids at the R.I.S.E. every Wednesday night for about three months. Every Wednesday night we would show up and work on stuff with the kids — paintings, posters, talked about some of the ideas, and really got a sense of what the kids were thinking about. They needed to educate us about the neighborhood. They’re the experts, we aren’t.” Pitman said.
Omarthan Clarke, a graduate student in arts policy and administration who was previously an art teacher in the South Bronx, was an intern with the project.
“I was introduced to it as an opportunity to work with some of the local youth to help sort of rebrand their neighborhood … to really highlight the assets there,” Clarke said. “At the end of the day, it boils down to ownership. Instead of (the billboard) promoting something that’s potentially an issue in the neighborhood, they see their thoughts, their ideas, exalted, and sending a message of validation of identity, of who they are and what they’re about.”
OSU and Weinland Park: A history of investment
Though the billboard is Campus Partners’ most recent project in Weinland Park, it’s not the first venture in the neighborhood.
“It’s so close to the university, just to the southeast of campus, and a neighborhood that has suffered greatly with the decline of urban neighborhoods in the ‘70s and ‘80s, one that’s suffered through poverty issues and crime,” Prosser said. “Campus Partners started in earnest with the South Campus Gateway, and our relationship with the neighborhood in that general area. Additionally, there were some opportunities that presented themselves to help stabilize the neighborhood early on.”
Despite its close proximity to the affluent Short North, Weinland Park had a 62.3 percent rate of poverty in 2010, a rate that rose more than 10 percent from 2000. OSU’s involvement with the neighborhood coincides with the university’s growing focus on community engagement, which OSU President Michael Drake announced as one of his three main focuses in an Investiture speech.
“Just blocks away from here, we have children that don’t know where they are getting their next meal. This is unacceptable,” Drake said. “We must bring to bear the overwhelming energy and talents of our faculty, staff and students to address this issue. We must work with our community and state partners, refining our collective strategies to elevate all members of our society.”
Campus Partners’ 2012 Annual Report, the most recent one available, cites “$68 million in public investments ‘leveraged’ by Campus Partners in Weinland Park.”
Leveraging, Prossner said, describes how its investment in the neighborhood spurred more investors toward the neighborhood, which cascaded into a combined effort of $68 million.
The report also detailed 20 homes renovated or constructed with Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds from the City of Columbus, and 40 new homes built with Low-Income Housing Tax Credits that year.