Life of the Streets

Life of the Streets

Art History professor Karl Sandin and his students help a struggling town envision its future.

The City of Newark, located right between the Appalachian foothills to the east and Denison’s hometown of Granville to the west, struggles to recover from losing much of its industrial base decades ago. Newark’s East Side community was particularly affected. Like many Midwest urban neighborhoods, the East Side thrived through the 19th and much of the 20th century as businesses and homes flourished in a symbiotic nature. But as America’s economy shifted away from industry, most of the East Side’s factories shut down, and the once-vibrant neighborhood became a shadow of its former self.

The City of Newark and the Licking County Housing Coalition, eager to bring the neighborhood back to life, looked to Denison for help in the summer of 2006. More specifically, they sought the expertise of art history professor Karl Sandin, whose recent studies of homelessness and urban living environments had already provided valuable insight about the region. Sandin eagerly accepted the role as project coordinator of what was dubbed the East Main Street Urban Visioning Project, which would involve his close collaboration with city government officials, East Side residents, local benefactors, and the non-profit, Columbusbased Neighborhood Design Center through a series of project phases and events.

Sandin quickly recognized the opportunity for involvement by another important group: his students, who could do the research that would set up various steps in the project. In his classroom, students typically hear about ideals of urban forms and urban social processes; those being durability, equity, diversity, and sustainability. But through the visioning project, they could see and contribute to the dynamics of achieving them. Moreover, their involvement would underscore an important and growing component of Denison’s curriculum, service learning. “Through curricular service learning,” Sandin said, “we are able to integrate coursework with on-the-ground contributions to our local community.” For him, the organizing of the service learning process is a form of scholarship in itself – “public scholarship, ” or the “scholarship of engagement.”

For the next two semesters, students from two of Sandin’s classes, Culture of Survival and Cities Ancient and Modern, studied other urban revitalization projects as well as the history of the East Side. They learned about issues of homelessness and urban blight, and about the use of grid-based planning and urban design around the world, and they saw those lessons come to life in their own studies of Newark.

More fundamental to the visioning project, the students spent hours walking the neighborhood’s streets, photographing buildings and documenting their condition, mapping the area according to land use, and designing and conducting surveys. One of the surveys was a simple effort to understand who shops at the Save-A-Lot, the East Side’s primary supermarket. The students randomly asked customers where they lived, where they worked, and how often they shopped there. “We found that the Save-A-Lot was a truly regional resource,” said Sandin, with customers arriving from surrounding counties and particularly the deep rural areas farther east of Newark. The survey proved that the East Side is still a destination point, even in its diminished condition.

The visioning process took a huge leap forward in March when roughly 80 people came together in the East Side’s Salvation Army for what Sandin calls a charette (a term that traditionally refers to a meeting between architects and designers). For nearly eight hours, Sandin and more than 20 of his students, Newark city officials, professional designers, and nearly 50 Newark residents collaborated on designing a new look and a bright future for the neighborhood.

The participants, most of whom had never met before, broke into groups to discuss everything from streets and curbs to architectural themes. Each person brought his or own particular expertise to the table, whether it was the resident with a personal stake in the neighborhood, a professional designer with ideas for renovations, a city administrator familiar with grants and funding, or a Denison student with a fresh, scholarly perspective. Andrew Terlecky ‘07, a biology major and student of Cities Ancient and Modern, discovered that everyone had to work together for the charrette to work.

Terlecky said the designs developed early in the charrette sparked debate among the residents and designers until the early concepts developed into something more appropriate for the East Side. Listening to everyone talk around him, Terlecky understood that revitalizing the East Side wasn’t merely a matter of coming up with aesthetically pleasing buildings and new sidewalks.

Instead, the designs must provide comfort to the current residents. For example, clear and distinct curb cuts would encourage more pedestrian traffic. Harmony between basic streetscape elements like light posts, balconies, and signage would greatly improve the community’s image. All ideas were based on the assumption that improved safety and aesthetics will lead to higher property values, and economic success will follow as residents gain faith in their community.

For Nettie Belson ‘10, an independently-designed architectural studies major, the charette was gratifying because it was only possible after the months of tedious research that she and her classmates conducted. As her involvement in the project has extended into her sophomore year through Sandin’s Baroque Art and Architecture class, Nelson notes the many political and economic lessons she has learned. But the most important, she says, is the project’s social factor. Residents’ interest in the project varies from person to person, but seems to be growing. “And that’s what’s most critical to this whole effort,” she says, “because the end result has to be something that the community wants to see and live with, and not just what city officials or designers want to build,” she says.

Clayton and Marion Priest, who built their East Side home at Dewey and East Main 60 years ago, liked what they saw of the ambitious plans for their neighborhood during a formal presentation of the charrette’s conclusions, whose audience included Newark city officials and residents. “We’re really excited about it; we hope it happens,” said Marion.

East Side resident Candice Layne is cautiously optimistic that the plans are feasible. “I think long term, yes; they’ll do it – certain aspects of it. It’s definitely positive,” she said.

Sandin says the city may be on track to have a streetscape design approved for the East Side in less than a year and funding for some improvements secured in less than two. But, he said, it’s going to take the initiative of many parties: city administration, funding entities in Licking County (of which Newark is the county seat), private developers and interested residents.

“Both private and public investment is required,” said Sandin. The charrette and Denison’s involvement helped to create a framework for revitalizing the East Side, but the real challenge, post-charrette, is to foster cooperation between everyone involved and, of course, to afford it. “But that’s the step we’re working on now,” he said. “Our teaching and research role at Denison still opens up many specific and helpful things we can do to move this project along.”

Published November 2010