BeCville

Interview by Thomas Hendricks
Issue 52 • June 2017 • Charlottesville

What would you do with $5,000 to improve your neighborhood? That’s what this public arts program is asking the residents of a historically neglected community.

While the changes may seem small—a couple benches here, a few trees there—the impact that BeCville is having is anything but. A nonprofit founded by Matthew Slaats, BeCville is a civic arts initiative that puts government funds in the hands of the people. After years in the making, the organization is setting a precedent for community engaged art and helping to define the legacy of Charlottesville’s Strategic Investment Area (SIA), the city’s most rapidly changing neighborhood.

Their approach is all about using the arts and participatory budgeting to make a concentrated mark on the urban environment. Far from the traditional model where monuments get erected with little input from citizens, BeCville is helping locals respond to the needs of the neighborhood with their own solutions. With over 400 ideas from residents of the SIA, the final 16 proposals take a broad interpretation of “art” and include everything from games painted on pavement, to historical augmented reality simulations, to multicultural murals, to mini-libraries in “share sheds,” and even benches made from harvested neighborhood trees.

On June 10, residents of Charlottesville’s SIA will cast votes to decide which three projects will receive a share of $15,000 in city funds. Outlined by city planners, SIA encompasses parts of the Belmont, Ridge Street, and Fifeville neighborhoods. Bordered roughly by Elliot Avenue, Ridge Street, Avon Street, and the railroad tracks, the SIA includes about 3,000 residents in humble homes and two public housing projects. While that may seem like a somewhat arbitrary geographic area, Slaats noted that it’s also the last part of the city to receive any significant capital investment.

As in many cities, urban development can be a delicate subject in Charlottesville. Even mentioning the topic summons the ghosts of Vinegar Hill—a historically black neighborhood that was leveled in the 1960s to make way for redevelopment. That regrettable action left roughly 500 neighborhood residents without housing and erased the community’s history in the process.

Matthew Slaats

For Slaats and crew, BeCville and the SIA is an opportunity to do it right. As city planners meticulously calculate the future of Charlottesville, BeCville instead provides a more immediate approach to urban improvement. Navigating the fine line between investment and gentrification, the key issue for Slaats is how to “use this funding to invest in the people and use the ideas of the people who are living there now.”

The intent is to help residents become more involved in the master planning process of their neighborhood while also informing city officials about the people, skills, assets, and stories that reside there. A lot is set to happen in the coming years, with plans in place to revamp public housing sites, build more mixed use spaces, and create a long, linear park by daylighting an underground creek. In immediate terms, BeCville is a way to “get a snapshot of this neighborhood before this big change happens.”

The neighborhood engagement process began in 2015 with an Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The funded project, called Play the City, served as a pilot program for BeCville. It used creative marketing campaigns to make SIA residents aware of the proposed changes coming to their neighborhood. Now, BeCville is picking up where Play the City left off. Where the former was focused on starting a dialogue with the residents of the SIA, BeCville is about action, pairing residents with artists and getting ideas off the ground.

A critical first step to BeCville was idea collection, asking people repeatedly and directly, “What would you do with $5,000 to improve your neighborhood?” Slaats and crew kicked off the solicitation phase in an ambitious way, constructing a 35-foot cardboard rocket in which people could deposit project ideas. Between that stunt, public meetings, and neighborhood surveys, the team collected over 400 resident-generated ideas.

The questions on the surveys were predictable, but the results were surprising. When asked “How are you creative?” residents responded less with painting, singing, or dancing, and more with sewing, gardening, and cooking. The steering committee later created a newspaper for the neighborhood, detailing the process and the ideas put forth, thus quite literally getting everyone on the same page. Next, with community ideas in hand, 16 artist responses were selected for the final round of voting. “It would’ve been a lot easier to just hire artists and go do projects,” said Slaats, but these extra steps were critical to the engagement process.

Slaats modeled BeCville after the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP), an increasingly popular approach to getting citizen involvement in the government funding process. Conceived around 30 years ago in Brazil as a method of direct democracy, PBP allows people to vote for individual spending items that they feel are important. The project has been adopted in more than 1,500 cities around the world and has taken root stateside in places like Chicago, Boston, and New York. In fact, New York City Council set aside approximately $25 million for participatory budgeting projects in 2016, tackling everything from sanitation to senior care to safety to sidewalks.

Even though BeCville’s participatory budgeting process turns the traditional power structure on its head, there’s no rebel versus empire struggle here. As Slaats explained, “We went in trying to get [the city] to approach it with an open mind.” So far that’s been happening, as city staff have been involved throughout the project, although it has been more in the realm of logistical support than content curation. With help from the local government, the final projects will be as cost-effective and sustainable as they are inventive and enjoyable.

Voting for SIA residents is open through June 2, the three projects to receive funding will be announced on June 10. To see all 16 of BeCville’s accepted project proposals, visit becville.org/becville-projects.

Photography by Tristan Williams

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