Art in Empty Windows

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Walk along First Avenue North in Birmingham’s East Lake neighborhood and you’ll see a worn out sign protruding from a building. The black lettering reads “Fashion Dinettes.” It’s a reminder of a time when this strip was a bustling commercial area. And while there are still stores here, there are also plenty of empty buildings. Friday evening, several East Lake community organizations launch a new project that puts artwork in those empty spaces. As WBHM’s Andrew Yeager reports, organizers hope it will help the neighborhood bounce back from a generation of decline.

Paige Patterson, president of East Lake Merchant Group, says she can’t really remember where the idea came from, but she does know the general atmosphere. East Lake had been attracting artists in recent years. Meanwhile, the merchant group formed to capture community interest in revitalizing the neighborhood. It’s against this backdrop that the discussion began.

“We sat around the table and said it’d be really cool if we could have some art in these empty windows,” she says.

And that’s crux of the Art in Empty Windows project– artists put up their work in vacant buildings.

“So instead of having papered up windows in a depressed area that East Lake is known to be, instead of them just being papered up and ugly, we can bring some beauty,”

Jeff Willoughby, president of the East Lake Arts District is helping organize Art in Empty Windows. He says beyond simply beautifying otherwise vacant buildings, the project is intended to increase foot traffic in the neighborhood, bring people through who might not otherwise come to East Lake and ultimately attract investment.

Such “art to fight blight” plans like this one have been underway in communities from San Francisco to Detroit to Buffalo. Among the people to kick off the Birmingham effort is fabric artist Michelle Reynolds. She creates panels she calls “Quilt the Forest” — scenes of trees, turtles and snakes, inspired by the Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve, which is in East Lake.

Reynolds says hanging the pieces in an undeveloped storefront seems like an odd place for artwork.

“[But] it’s still putting art in the community. People are seeing it. They’re gonna have questions about it. They’re gonna like it or they’re not gonna like it and have the same opinions as gallery goers. It’s all the same to me.”

Friday evening, the public will get the first chance to see this fabric art though kind of a street-side gallery opening. There’s still work to be done though.

Jeff Willoughby tears down the paper covering a store window. He and a couple of volunteers are cleaning up the space to make way for the artwork. After the paper, it’s working off the tape residue.

Willoughby hopes the program expands to other properties with ongoing monthly displays. He’d love to have artists and businesses pushing to participate for now, but he has a long-term vision, too.

“We would like to see people back out on the streets after five o’clock. We’d love to see the businesses open, restaurants, shops that stay open.”

But in the midst of all this vision, there’s one big blemish. Right across the street from where Art in Empty Windows will launch is an adult theater and bookstore. Willoughby calls it “the seedy side of the street”. He believes art can combat that too.

“People will come out and see the art and make the people that want to visit the seedy side of the street, we want to make it uncomfortable.”

He says the adult business has been part of the fabric of the neighborhood for decades, but if East Lake is to turn around, they’ll need to clean up or clear out. Management for the theater and bookstore did not return a call for comment.

That’s a pretty minor concern though for organizers. Instead, Art in Empty Windows is about building on what Paige Patterson of the East Lake Merchant Group calls a perfect storm for neighborhood revitalization.

“Success to me is art in occupied windows.”

That attempted transition, empty to occupied via public art, starts Friday night.