Empty Storefronts? Artists to the Rescue

Allan Appel Photo Alan Neider is lighting nine vacant storefronts on Orange Street near Center with these delicate biomorphic lamps fashioned from found and recycled wire and bulbs. He’s part of a new wave of artists coming to the Ninth Square with a plan, and a short-term challenge.

As of Aug. 31, the storefronts they illuminate will be vacant no longer. Neider and the arts groups to which he belongs, plus three other arts entrepreneurs with a focus on the green, the reusable and the local, are moving into 71 Orange St.

They’re moving in—and lighting up the street—as part of Project Storefronts, a partnership between the city Department of Cultural Affairs and economic development unit, which ponied up a grant of $30,000

Alexis Zanghi is also moving in, part of the leading edge of what the city hopes will be a new hive of creative people and organizations wanting to make art and do well for themselves and the city.

Thanks to the pilot program’s implementing grant, they move in rent-free, have three months or so to make a go of it, and receive help with initial signage and paint.

Zanghi and the other participants were selected from a field of 50 by Margaret Bodell, project manager for the Department of Cultural Affairs.

Bodell said the city is tapping into the national “creative economy” trend of stimulating the municipal economy through transforming empty storefront into “pop up” temporary new uses.

Zanghi was putting finishing touches the other day on her “curated bookstore,” called Detritus. It’s going to sell chapbooks, artists books, all kinds of zines, especially handmade and the ephemeral; Detritus will also screen films and have readings.

That pallet she’s putting up is her shelving. She said the store is “furnished entirely from salvaged materials.”

A third occupant of Project Storefronts is Ken Janke and his nonprofit, The Grove. They’ll occupy one of the larger spaces where artists or individuals with small organizations such as David Henry (putting in lights) can network.

At this incubator, Janke (at bottom of photo) said, networking involves more than exchanging business cards. He cited Toronto’s Centre for Innovation as a model for the Elm City.

Henry’s group is called Ten Thousand Homes. He said it promotes community development through orphan care in sub-Saharan Africa.

When the paint dries, he’ll be sitting at a large table with 16 to 20 spaces among other like minded entrepreneurial problem-solving artists, recyclers, and creator.

“We’re there to support and help incubate social mission ideas through the arts and otherwise,” he said.

Bodell said at least three nights a week Upcycle Arts will be organizing a smaller group, Elm City Handmade,  to share how they work and what they charge.

“Though we love art and artists, this is about how my business is doing,” she said.

“We’re going to say: Your crochet hook costs five dollars, the wool costs $15, your time is worth between $12 and 15. Now how much should the booties sell for?”

As she showed a reporter around the build-out in progress that was smelling of new paint and alive with the tapping of hammers, she added, “Too long artisans and creative people and social change agents suffered without business education.”

“For every dollar invested in the arts, it returns eight,” Janke added. “When the city gets behind artists [and social entrepreneurs], the investment is great.”

The selected artists and organizations have 90 days of rent-free time allowed thus far by the grant and the landlord, Residences at Ninth Square, to see if their businesses take off.

If the landlord rents the space, Project Storefronts may have to go elsewhere. Or if the artist’s enterprise is not moving forward, then some or all can be asked to go and others more promising take their place.

All competitive in a quiet creative kind of way, yet also professional.  Each applicant was required to submit business plans.

Zanghi’s was 20 pages along, complete with samples from her inventory.

“We have a lot of art. Now we need business,” said Bodell, who herself operated arguably the first “pop up” store in New Haven, right on the same site, beginning in 1984 to 1990. She said she had to vacate when the Ninth Square rental complex went up.

She said she’d been looking for storefronts for at least six months. When the United Way moved out about a year ago, she went into action only in July when details were worked out between the landlord, Nine Squares Residences, and the city.

She got all the furniture for the space from Yale Recycling, Benjamin Moore contributed the paint, and the artist and entrepreneurs much sweat equity, as was required.

Although Aug. 31 is the ribbon cutting date, the hive will be humming well before. On Aug. 24 Open Studios will hold an event at Project Storefronts.

On Aug. 27 at 7 p.m. Alexis Zanghi and her Detritus will be having its opening.

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posted by: Jeffrey Kerekes on August 23, 2010  12:20pm

Be careful.  Used pallets turned into book shelves are worth $5000 according to John DeStefano so your free rent and free pallet may turn into $5000 of personal property and a tax bill.  Thats how we do economic development DeStefano Style.

posted by: Anderson Scooper on August 23, 2010  2:04pm

This “pop-up” idea is an excellent one. And we ought to try and have every empty downtown semi-alive as an artist’s studio/gallery?

However, it’s still just a band-aid. Why New Haven doesn’t have a more progressive retail parking strategy is beyond me. Broadway is the only downtown district that has shopper-friendly parking. (75 cents per 1/2 hour.) In the rest of our downtown you can’t find a lot to pull into at reasonable rates, (Crown College is now $3/hr, and $3 per fraction of an hour thereafter.) So instead we all fight for metered parking.

And while metered parking might be good for errands, it’s anathema to a retail environment. First is the ever-looming $20 parking ticket for meter overtime. What a buzz-killer! Then is the fact that many shopping sprees are cut short by the fear of said tickets.

Where is the Town Green in all of this? You think they’d be working the NH Parking Authority over for creative solutions. And yes, I’m suggesting that retail-designated parking lots, with $1-$1.50 per hour rates,—would be the long-term solution to downtown’s numerous vacant storefronts.

posted by: Lisa on August 23, 2010  3:52pm

Fantastic - so glad to see this here! It’s a no-brainer that artists are a cheap and quick way to beautify a blighted or empty place. Let’s get some of this outside of downtown, though, to Fair Haven, the Grand Ave. bridge, etc… here’s a great article in the NYT about a similar program in NYC: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/13/nyregion/13galleries.html
And here’s one on CNN about how to go even further with the idea w/ live performances and events: http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-336145
I also love one commenter’s idea about pop-up shops! I also agree w/ his comment about parking and ticketing downtown. It really made me question my Skappo Merkato sandwich when I got a ticket. But their sandwiches are so good, it was kinda’ worth it.

posted by: Nathan Bixby on August 23, 2010  5:28pm

Way to go!

posted by: BETH ANNE on August 24, 2010  12:54pm

Awesomeness personified!

A big “what what?” to the crabapple who decided to hijack the discussion here by mentioning the tax assessor. I feel your pain, but it is UNRELATED TO THE PRESENT DISCUSSION. Thanks! I’ve read the comments section in those portions of the site that relate to the assessor…that is where I welcome your snark. Here, not so much. Let’s talk about how awesome this branch of New Haven’s gov’t is in supporting local small businesses (the engine of our economy)...and progressive, and sporting an apt awareness of the handmade revolution.

posted by: Townie on August 24, 2010  2:11pm

I don’t really see how this program is going to help the local business economy. Expecting any business to be successful in 90 days is ridiculous. This seems more like another ploy to lure the transient tourist business. True assistance should come in the form of small business loans to actual businesses that are needed downtown. For instance I need a new pair of shoes, but there aren’t any reasonable shoe shops downtown. I’m sure there are a lot of other people, like me, who do not own a car and would benefit from local merchant shops. A short bus ride downtown beats an public transportation odyssey to Milford, East or North Haven And the city would benefit from the increase in tax revenue and the citizens would benefit from potential employment opportunities. Once again the city is applying decorative band-aids in an attempt to conceal the hemorrhaging wound that is our municipal economy. Note to DeStefano, Et al., stop trying to please the yuppies and try to help the working people of the city, maybe then we’ll see some real change in regards to crime, education and the other ills that effect our city.

posted by: BETH ANNE on August 24, 2010  3:36pm

Apparently you would rather walk by empty storefronts? Because supporting new businesses that won’t sell you shoes is not worth your time?  Bah! Visit downtown Bridgeport and you can get a load of how appealing it is to walkabout a place devoid of storefronts. They are working on it, for sure, but the sadness of empty storefronts is pretty oppressive.

I don’t own a car either…but there is this magical thing called the internet where one can procure apparel without driving. I understand the complications of trying to get stuff from the store when all I have is two wheels (a bike). I don’t deny that downtown stores that offer things you need would be great…but we have to convince our fellow humans to stop taking their tax dollars to other towns. That, my friend, is no fault on any of Connecticut’s cities…that is a lifestyle choice built on cheap imported junk from abroad shipped to your big box stores. I can’t see how this is BAD for New Haven.

We can’t expect our cities to re-develop into the walkable meccas they once were without having conversations with our fellow humans about how and where we spend our money. Or without finding a way to communicate our needs as consumers without cars to our elected officials and economic development people. (Maybe this calls for a see-click-fix entry?)

posted by: Townie on August 25, 2010  8:05am

Why would I support a business that I have no use for? Unlike the bourgeoisie of this city (and area) I don’t have disposable income to waste on trivial accouterments, a lot of the working people in New Haven feel the same way. If the city supported practical businesses, such as shoe stores (just an example) through tax incentives and small loans then maybe the people who cannot drive a car to Milford, Et al., would patronize stores downtown, I know I would. But, it seems the city’s administration would rather use their money and efforts to attract the bourgeoisie, most of whom drive to the downtown area.
The response concerning online shopping as a remedy is laughable, a typical answer from the upper-middle class. Unfortunately there are a good number of people in this city that do not have the luxury of regular internet access or, as mentioned earlier, the income to utilize the internet for regular purchases.
I once commented on a previous post; New Haven, like a lot of New England cities, is quickly becoming nothing but a playground for the rich. This is just one more example, albeit a small one, of the plasticization of our society and the marginalization of working people.

posted by: Brarian on August 25, 2010  12:18pm

To Townie.
There is free Internet access at the New Haven Public Library.  All one needs to make most online purchases is an ATM card and an address.  As most items found on the Internet tend to be cheaper than items found in brick and mortar stores, the Internet can’t honestly be considered an exclusively “upper middle-class” shopping outlet.

posted by: Townie on August 25, 2010  2:57pm

Internet shopping is a luxury and can never be considered a serious replacement for brick and mortar shopping locations, especially for ones clothing. Using and thus expanding the global marketplace is one of the reasons why local businesses cannot survive today’s economic enivronment.
It is funny how one who is promoting local business suggests online shopping.

posted by: Snark Police on August 25, 2010  7:52pm

bah humbug! I think you can choose to live your values and make a few concessions in the name of not getting on a bus to the ‘burbs! And I think some folks love the unexpected…which seems to be what Project Storefront is supporting. The stuff you buy in brick & mortar stores is being shipped on the same trucks as the stuff you buy on the internet. And it sure doesn’t seem like you are having a problem accessing the internet, Townie.

But hey, call me a bourgeoisie who adores trivial accouterments. I am totally guilty as charged. But I can’t see anything wrong with supporting fellow artists, writers, and people trying to do new things if I can. I’ll take handmade books over mass-produced shoes purchased in a brick & mortar store any day. Hell, I ride my bike, I don’t even need shoes!

I shall quote pablo neruda and get the heck out of here:
“Let us forget with generosity those who cannot love us!”

posted by: Townie on August 26, 2010  8:13am

The point is online shopping takes business away from brick and mortar stores, especially small/family owned businesses. If one is promoting the growth of local business it seems hypocritical to turn around and suggest online shopping as a substitute to real-time shopping.
For most people shoes are a necessity, hand-made books aren’t.
It’s a unique attitude that assumes that I am choosing to live by some sort of code of values because I don’t own a car or because I don’t own a PC (I access the web from work). I, like a lot of working people, cannot afford such luxury. Therefore the need for local businesses that sell useful goods and services is real. My life would be a bit easier if I could buy shoes, groceries and other needed items downtown. Instead the city thinks it’s a better idea to give perfectly good money and retail space to artists, in the hopes of luring more yuppies to the area.
It seems there is a conscious effort to marginalize the working class, or what remains of it, in this city.

posted by: yfdubble on August 27, 2010  3:26pm

congrats to her and i hope she does find a way to get business wherever it comes from.  personally i don’t care if the patrons are “bourgeoisie” or hood boogaboo.  People of all social and economic backgrounds have supported my artwork.  But hey if you want something done sometimes you have to get off twitter and do it yourself…

I’ll be at the opening meeting my new neighbors and supporting what interesting shit there is to do on a friday besides being mobbed by a bunch of fist pumping club kids.

posted by: Clif on September 3, 2010  3:58pm

This is an INCREDIBLE idea. Kudos to those who had the ingenuity to reach out and and find it in other places and bring it back to New Haven.

Hartford just completed a similar project where it offered empty storefronts to local artists for display of creative works, but this strikes me as a natural evolution of that idea into something sustainable and longer-lasting.


As Lisa pointed out,

Vancouver’s doing it.

NYC’s doing it.

How can we bring this to our State’s other struggling main streets