It started with a street sign. Last spring, the First Ward Civic Council, a group of residents and supporters of the Washington Avenue corridor arts district, insisted that the city display street sign toppers that proclaimed the area a haven of the arts. The city obliged and since then you can stumble upon signs declaring this sentiment aplenty. But why stop there?
In the last week or so, surveys were sent out by Spacetaker to interested parties about their desire for the lower area of Washington Avenue to become a bona fide "cultural arts district." Said survey questioned participants' interest, use of and potential need for a more unified cultural area.
Washington Avenue is certainly an area of thriving arts and culture. From the Winter Street Studios that are home to more than 87 local artists and influential local arts organizations including Spacetaker to its sister building, Spring Street Studios, which houses 90 working artists and local magnates such as Mouth Watering Media, 002 Magazine and The Black Sheep Agency, there is a lot of art going on. And don't forget about MECA, which laid ground in the Old Sixth Ward in 1993, when it first called the Dow School building home. This is in addition to the numerous homegrown coffee shops, restaurants and other local business that have sprung up in the past few years. There is no denying somethin's been a brewin' and that the Washington Avenue cultural empire is a force to be reckoned with.
That force now has a unified goal and an agenda. A Cultural Arts Designation Letter of Intent was submitted by an all-volunteer group to the Texas Commission on the Arts requesting that the area between I-10 to the north, Buffalo Bayou to the south, I-45 to the east and Heights Boulevard to the west be deemed an official cultural arts district.
"The deadline to turn in our completed application is early June," says K.C. Scharnberg, who is the Program and Marketing director at Spacetaker, in addition to being a member of the steering committee on the project. "Between now and when we hear back from the TCA, we are primarily trying to spread the word and get feedback from the community."
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The group reasons that this area is "ethnically, economically, and culturally diverse" and that "a significant number of arts-related entities, and a large number of vacant lots and industrial sites are ripe for redevelopment." So, this is not just good for the arts, but, there is also the potential for money? Much of the Houston Arts Alliance's grants (which are largely funded by the City of Houston Hotel Occupancy Tax) are doled out on the basis of "encouragement, promotion, improvement and application of the arts to promote tourism and the convention and hotel industry," according to its website. The Washington Corridor arts initiative hopes to help with these endeavors.
According to itsFacebook page, the steering committee for the project has laid out various other art and non-art reasons for their proposal. It states it can "promote economic development by creating an identifiable area for producing, displaying, and marketing art; to stabilize and enhance area property values by encouraging revitalization of vacant properties into affordable housing and studios for artists; and to create a cultural identity in which area residents, businesses owners, and developers will take pride."
And there appears to be a growing interest. A petition in favor of the letter has been posted to online activism platform Change.org and already has over 300 signatures. In addition, the group's Facebook page boasts 156 members.
Scharnberg says it's the right time for it to happen. "We have several community leaders who live and work in the area who are just merely trying to harness the creative energy that already exists in the area," Scharnberg says. "So it's about the right people with the energy and interest that is creating the right time."