What makes a block better? Some folks obviously know

(Note: I originally wrote this for the Hampton Roads Center for Civic Engagement)
buildabetterblock categoryI'm in awe... And, I've seen the future.
Why and how is really simple: I visited the Better Block Project and the proposed Norfolk Arts District.
I only made it down there for a couple hours. But, if you'll pardon the expression, I'm still basking in the afterglow of the experience more than a day later. There was nothing about it that wasn't impressive and inspirational. It left me hungering for more.
(Note: HRCCE Chairman Chris Bonney has provided some of his own impressions HERE)
There's tons of coverage about the Better Block Project available through the local newspaper and TV stations. Our local media really did a great job of spreading the word - even though some reports were less than accurate. For detailed descriptions and reports, I'll defer to this body of work rather than re-report what's already been reported. You can start with the comprehensive coverage from the Virginian Pilot HERE.
Seeing as how the publisher and past editor of AltDaily have been leading the charge for an arts district, you will not surprisingly find some great coverage and perspective there, starting with THIS.
All the local TV stations have also provided extensive coverage. It's available on their respective websites.
BetterBlock1As for my exploration, I parked a couple af blocks away and enjoyed the walk up to the site on a beautiful Spring day. The first thing I saw was the beckoning portal to Alchemy NFK. I didn't stop there at first because I wanted to take in the street scene. Conveniently, just as I passed that, I came across a drum circle set up on the street corner. It was the perfect first thing to encounter. Their rhythms were poetic.
BetterBlock3Next was a vacant building with artists and artisans set up on the sidewalk in front, as well as inside, along with a pop-up cafe. As I walked in, there was a blast of sound and there on a makeshift stage in back was a dude thrashing out on guitar in neo-Ramonesque style, accompanied by a partner on drums. It was loud, but left me smiling, so I guess my advanced age hasn't dulled my love for punk rock too much.
In front of this building were the food trucks - all with appreciative lines of fannish consumers.
BetterBlock4Next, I came upon the pop-up outdoor common area, where I got to watch a blacksmith who handcrafted decorative items, glass artists from the Chrysler Museum with their mobile studio putting on a fascinating display, then the quirky quasi-acoustic core duo of Longfellow Street Collective (who I've previously had the opportunity to enjoy) elucidating on life.
BetterBlock2I then crossed the street and checked out a couple of the pop-up cafes that had been created for this event. In one, I came upon a trio doing a traditional folk/mountain music thing. On this side of the street were also some of the few surviving businesses in the area, including an eclectic furniture store and a beauty salon. They embraced the project in their own ways with their own contributions.
Before going on, I should also point out that the entire site was populated with art... All kinds of art, from murals to interactive displays to creative crosswalks to declarative signs for pedestrians to toys for all ages to things I'm not sure how to describe. - all of which invited every person present - young and old - to participate and be artists themselves, as well as connecting with all the other participating artists' creativity.
(At some point here, I obviously had an A-D-D moment and forgot I had a camera.)
I then crossed back over and entered the space occupied by Alchemy NFK. Inside this space was a little bit of everything. Artists' displays, video games, a DJ, a coffee bar, a jeweler working in copper, a guy with a 3D printer (with whom I had a great conversation) giving demonstrations of how it works, a play area for kids (one of many throughout the project area), and still more.
(I want to single out Alchemy NFK, because in many ways, they epitomize what the district is all about - a communal space for artists to do their thing and afficionados to appreciate their art. They're pioneering the type of presence that will make the arts district a reality.)
There were also many things I missed out on - like improvisational comedy, street theater, other music genres, other pop-up stores and more - all part of this tasty gumbo.
And the people... The people!

What an incredible mix. The dynamic young rising hipster community was well represented (as I would have expected), as well as the new class of entrepreneurs who are revitalizing Downtown Norfolk. But what struck me the most were those my age and older, who all seemed to be walking around sporting the same silly grin as myself.
These are people - many of whom I recognized at this event - who've been around here for decades; who have almost covertly maintained a local underground creative class. The old establishment has been so dominant around here for so long that many residents may have forgotten there have been many past eruptions of artists and their art in Norfolk.
Yet here they were - obviously experiencing the same joy as myself at being able to soak in everything associated with such a creative atmosphere - artists, musicians, crafts people, and perhaps most importantly all the people who simply hunger for this level of creativity to be part of their lives locally.
Finally, as the prescribed end time of this event approached, I took one more spin around, ending up back in Alchemy NFK for one last look opportunity to soak some of it in. As I finally left and headed back to my car and my less interesting life, I exchanged greetings and pleasantries with a guy who complimented me on my t-shirt. He was standing by the door in the Alchemy NFK space, obviously just taking in the sights and sounds appreciatively. I said "Thanks" and wandered off to my parking place.
Only later did I figure out that this was Andrew Howard, one of the founders of the Better Block Project. I wish I'd recognized him then so I could at least have offered a heartfelt "thank you" and accompanying handshake.
I wanted to write about what I saw in some detail in order to try and convey just how incredibly rich an experience this was - all shoehorned into a relatively small area and timeframe. There are other cities in the country - most generally considered to be more progressive than Norfolk - where such incubators of creativity have been around for awhile and that I've been lucky enough to experience. I can't comprehend anything which could have more graphically illustrated that Norfolk hungers for this type of environment, too.
The city's establishment - particularly city council - stands at a crossroads here. The direction they should go is obvious... The path clear.
Anytime city leaders support culture, it's appreciated. We just want them to recognize that there's more to culture than that of the conventional highbrow variety, as well as the somewhat sterile, predictable events created and managed by Festevents (bless their hearts). With this event, they see before them a highly energized creative collective of your own residents who want nothing more than a little latitude and accommodation.
I'm fortunate to be acquainted with some of the people involved with this; more specifically, the proposed Norfolk Arts District. They're mostly considerably younger than myself and display a cultural energy that I recognize but haven't seen around these parts in a long time. I'm inspired and want to be part of what they're trying to accomplish.
We older proto-hipsters - the beatniks, the hippies, the punks, the new wavers, the goths, the tech nerds, the skaters, the grungers - especially all those who are mostly closeted these days - need to help bridge the gap and ensure that the folks who can decide this project's fate know beyond any doubt that the concept - to make the arts district and everything that goes with it a part of Norfolk's zeitgeist in perpetuity - enjoys much broader support than they might normally be inclined to recognize since it doesn't come from, nor is it tailored for the gentry.
I've heard some buzz in "official" circles that makes me optimistic about the future of the Norfolk Arts District. I want my obvious joy at what's taken place, as well as my hope for the future to become Norfolk's reality.
Mike Rau is a Program Fellow with, and Communications Coordinator for the Hampton Roads Center for Civic Engagement. His professional website is at http://asoundidea.com