The fine arts build better neighborhoods

Suppose your neighborhood is concerned with the quality of its environment. The park needs a face lift, the alleys are an eyesore, the airplanes make too much noise, and there's that pesty sewage proglem.

Call your alderman? Form a task force?

Bring in a dancer.

A dancer?

Bringing the arts into a community to help residents deal with neighborhood issues is the focus of "Intersection," a project of COMPAS, St. Paul's community arts agency.

Through various art forms such as dance, mime, music, and painting, the artists work with neighborhood advisory committees and help initiate events and projects to build community pride, while focusing on particular problems.

Intersection is the inspiration of Molly LaBerge, executive director of COMPAS and a longtime advocate of the arts as a community resource. It is funded by a four-year grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation of Flint, Mich. The project's philosophy is that the arts should be an everyday experience and by linking them with neighborhood concerns and issues, they can help strengthen communities.

Three St. Paul areas, chosen for their diversity in geographic and socio-economic backgrounds, currently participate in the program, now in its second year.

"We don't expect a neighborhood to change to meet our needs," explains David Thune, Intersection's program director. "We adapt to the community. In other words, if you're a teacher, you teach, but you also have to listen."

Mr. Thune, an architect by education and community organizer by avocation, feels one key to the program's success is that the artists do not merely appear on the scene and tell the community what it needs. Rather, he points out, "we knocked on a lot of doors, explained what we were all about, and tried to get a feel for the residents' concerns. In many cases we had to convince people we weren't just another government agency."

In Dayton's Bluff, a predominantly blue-collar community, the initial feelings were mixed. He says one attitude was, "We don't have a lot of time, we're working on more important issues."

"By showing that we could work together on some of those issues," Mr. Thune continued, "the project appeared practical."

For instance, the Dayton's Bluff Festival, produced cooperatively last summer by Intersection, the local community council, merchants association, and the area newspaper, drew 5,000 people. According to numerous residents, the effort was a "grand success," raising the community's spirit and self-image, which many people feel needed a boost.

As a result, block clubs are being formed and a video tape, showing the flavor and lifestyle of Dayton's Bluff, is being developed as a means of getting residents involved in community activities. Meanwhile, a muralist, enlisting the aid of high school students, is improving the aesthetics of neigborhood alleys and garages, with the idea that the alleys will look so artful no one will want to litter them.

It St. Anthony Park, a well-educated and well-organized community with its own active arts council, a pianist is utilizing local talent to help present a music series. Mime-dancer Steve Budas is showing women nonviolent protection techniques against assault; he's also giving acting lessons to students who want to audition for writer Marisha Chamberlain's play about the history of St. Anthony Park.

In St. Paul's West Side, home to the largest Hispanic population in Minnesota , brightly colored buttons are being worn by residents in a unifying gesture after a summer of severe community conflict. A painter is also doing away with what one observer calls "the macho idea of the artist as sissy".

Making the arts acceptable to everyone is the aim of Intersection, yet the results are also proving that tackling a neighborhood issue can be a creative group enterprise, bringing together people and factions who might never have met.

In short, everyone can get into the act.

Steve Budas puts it this way: "We want to show that not only are we artists human, but you as residents are artists."

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