Area Looks to Artists in Revitalization Efforts

Maddie Orton
Arts Correspondent

You know an area is up-and-coming when artists move there. And you know it’s arrived when they can’t afford stay. Valley Arts District, a 15-block stretch spanning Orange and West Orange, is revitalizing the neighborhood through artists—- but is planning to keep them there.

“Over 600 people participated in a vision for the Valley neighborhood back starting late in 2001, and what happened was we really came up with eight clear goals,” says Patrick Morrissy, Founder & Executive Director of HANDS, Inc. “Those eight things included: enhancing educational achievement, beautifying the neighborhood, rehabilitating abandoned properties and increasing jobs and the tax base. We realized at some point in time,” he explains, “that the arts could be a driver for all of those eight goals.”

Morrissy is founder of the nonprofit HANDS—Housing and Neighborhood Development Services.  His efforts have helped grow the district to include galleries, a theater, artist housing, and programming like the Hat City Streets Festival.

“We made a commitment that we would create one hundred affordable arts spaces to anchor this arts district,” says Morrissy. “Those spaces remain affordable permanently, so that those folks who move in, they’re not going to get priced out.”

One tenant is Luna Stage, a professional theater company that moved to West Orange when its Montclair rent became unaffordable.

“All of the sudden there’s a new prize waiting for us at the end of the rainbow,” says Luna Stage Managing Director John Lewis. “It’s not just about doing great shows, which we’ve always done, having great artists, great directors come to the theater, it’s about being part of this sort of edgy neighborhood that’s on its way up, and helping to make a change here.”

There’s reason to believe the arts can play a significant role in bringing about that change.

“It’s all over the country,” says Lewis. “There’s long studies done by governors and mayors, but it’s right here in New Jersey. I’ve lived through the revitalization of downtown New Brunswick and also of Rahway. And it’s not that the arts did all of that, but the arts were certainly a part of that.”

The revitalization of Orange and West Orange is well underway.  Last year, Valley Arts District received an Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. These funds are for “creative placemaking”-—industry buzz words for utilizing the arts to showcase the character of, and improve the quality of life in, a city.

Richard Bryant is Executive Director of arts service and activist organization for the area, Valley Arts. “It is that drawing people to events that creates additional vibrancy because once they learn where we are and what we do as a community, they come back,” Bryant says.

HANDS is working to convert Orange’s old Berg Hat Factory into condos. And
With just one open house they’ve already taken deposits for half of the building’s planned units.

Carla Guerriero of West Orange is a future tenant of the building. “Really the arts have a way of bringing neighborhoods together and I’ve never been one who liked to live sort of in an isolated manner,” she says. “I like to be a part of a neighborhood.”

No matter how hip the area becomes though, artists know there will always be a place for them in “Hat City.”