PROVOKING A PARTY: THE 219 GALLERY
Updated: Dec 13, 2022
Perhaps the best example of the potential for grassroots artistic interventions to change the dynamic of a Trenton neighborhood is the 219 Gallery which ran from 2011-20141 and was a hub for artistic activity and monthly art openings that activated an entire block. The events organized through that space continue to resonate and provide examples of the routes that a community can take in the wake of public art intervention, including; 1. the creation of a nominal art’s district that includes the spaces created by artists themselves, 2. the buying up of the activated property by real estate developers and, 3. the purchase of property by residents attempting to keep the dream of community engagement, ownership and positive change through the arts alive. In this post, I’ll be comparing the collected events emanating from this unique space and time to research completed by Maya Stovall in Detroit2 and by Willie Jamal Wright and Cameron “Khalfani” Herman in Houston’s Third Ward3, two locations that share Trenton’s situation as an post-industrial American urban-center struggling with a lack of commercial activity and vitality beyond business hours, but are further along on the timeline of shifting neighborhood demographics and gentrification (a constant concern in changing urban centers).
Both Stovall and Wright/Herman focus on performance based intervention as way to engage residents of the neighborhoods most effected by lack of resources, and most susceptible to “urban renewal” led by outside sources. Stovall’s Liquor Store Theater Project challenges the concept of the “helicopter” researcher who drops in for a day or two and becomes an “expert” on an area and it’s “plight.” By first engaging on the street though dance performance and opening a more comfortable dialogue about the neighborhood where the performance takes place, thereby removing herself from the position of dominance held by the typical researcher. Stovall notes that “After viewing a dance performance, people are more apt to dialogue”, really exemplifying art’s ability to break down barriers between researchers/ethnographers and the population they wish to interview and learn from, a novel approach to combining public art and research in the social sciences. Wright and Herman also look at performance as an intervention to perceived populations and a challenge to developers imagination regarding the existing neighborhood space in Houston’s Third Ward (da Tré). They review the work of two black artist collectives MF Problem and the Black Guys who use temporary performance venues in shared public/private spaces (dj events, 24 hour parties) around the Third Ward that, rather than set out to “stop” gentrification, instead focus on the alternative geographies of da Tré that do not fit city and developer notions of neighborhood development. These notions lean toward preserving long-term residents views of public and private space over the new spaces created by urban renewal projects. The performative interventions by Stovall, MF Problem, and the Black Guys all tell the story of cities in transition and challenge the idea of community, sharing that story with existing residents, developers and potential neighborhood newcomers and shedding light on the value of community participation and creative place-making as an antithesis to community relocation through gentrification.
Returning to Trenton and the impact/lessons of the 219 Gallery, we can draw comparisons to the concept of “art as introduction to dialogue” that The Liquor Store Project touts, as well as the creation of new spaces and conscription of residents into art performances and shared publics created by the interventions of MF Problem and the Black Guys. While the heart of the 219 Gallery was a monthly small group or solo art show, the true intervention was created at the opening parties and block-party style events that embraced the neighborhood and encouraged the artistic endeavors of each person who passed through. At the time, I enjoyed it for what it was, an opportunity for a talented group of people to do what they pleased with a forgotten and underutilized gallery space, now looking at this time through the eyes of an anthropologist, I can see it more as the social experiment it truly was. After a loose partnership was formed with the Trenton Downtown Association, a meager but manageable budget was established for the monthly gallery shows. The creative energy soon leaked out the doors of the gallery, leading to the transformation of an overgrown adjacent lot filled with old tires into a community garden and outdoor performance space. The changes did not end there as gallery organizers began the yearly Windows of Soul and Storm the Gates projects that covered the surrounding area with artwork covering boarded windows and shuttered businesses. These events drew established artists from the surrounding areas, a core of local and regional graffiti artists, as well as local aspiring artists and neighborhood children. The events focused on collecting ready to hang art and creating live participatory art projects for the residents that ranged from drip painting to learning spray can techniques. Events were never without musical performances that would turn to impromptu street dance parties and jam sessions around the fire pit installed in the garden. These events not only created a new community comprised of the artists and residents, but helped build relationships among the existing neighbors, some who may not have had the opportunity (or felt comfortable) to gather previously. This artistic crossover also opened dialog with residents who would often cite the events as rekindling the spark of their own artistic or musical history and lead to them sharing their memories of the neighborhood past and their dreams for its future.
So, where does something with the creative energy and grassroots placemaking initiative like the 219 Gallery end up? Inevitably, the stress of running the events, a constant struggle for funding, and what turned out to be merely the guise of support for artistic freedom (see: The Political Theater of Support for the Arts), led to the gallery being shuttered “for repairs” over five years ago. As I stated earlier, the activities that took place continue to resonate, multiple local non-profits that partnered with those responsible for the creativity the space provided continue to use images from events in their annual reports and grant proposals. There was an attempt to rebrand the area as an arts district, without the buy-in or creative energy of the members of the grassroots movement, the plan for which languishes in between public and private oversight with no organization taking ownership. Developers bought up the properties around the gallery in the hope that they could build off this desired creative district in downtown Trenton, but other than knocking down a few buildings and turning the community garden into a lot, not much has been accomplished. Perhaps, the resonance that most aligns with the original intent of the space and connects to Stovall and Wright/Herman’s ideas of restructuring the urban landscape can be found right down the street from the 219 Gallery. The purchase and renovation of a nearby building by young black entrepreneurs aiming to continue the creative presence on the block, began hosting music events, gallery shows and book fairs. These young people continue to expand their holdings and are renovating additional spaces in the neighborhood, once again building from the ground up, rather than helicoptering in. My research going forward aims to ask more questions about how the arts can be used to improve a neighborhood in the immediate, while opening dialog and avenues of education and funding to support equitable use of public and private space that serves existing communities and encourages ownership by residents.
2. Stovall, Maya. “Liquor Store Theater: Dancing with Gentrification in post-Bankruptcy Detroit” detroitresearch.org. https://www.detroitresearch.org/liquor-store-theater/ (accessed November 2020).
3. Wright, Willie Jamaal and Cameron”Khalfani” Herman. 2018. “No ‘Blank Canvas’: Public Art and
Gentrification in Houston’s Third Ward” City & Society 30 (1) 89-116.