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Can creativity generate business? Does creativity affect our public spaces? For answers, take a look at one coffee shop that embraces creativity’s true potential.

Before I knew my neighborhood, I met its coffeehouse.  To me, it was an oasis–a pulsating beacon of color and life calling me away from the desert of academia.  Still vibrant and vivacious as ever, Third Street Stuff & Coffee is a major part of day-to-day life in Lexington’s East End.  Not merely a thriving business, it serves as a shared community dwelling for artists, students, retirees, and children alike.  As a thread in the community tapestry, this little coffee shop has become something more than a local food spot.  It is interwoven in the cultural fabric of our neighborhood as a gathering place with creativity at its heart.

Third Street Stuff & Coffee is a hybrid–a mix of craft boutique and cozy coffeehouse–born of the heart of an artist.  Its owner, Pat Gerhard, had a swiftly growing craft business that emerged from her apartment in the 80′s and then grew into a shop in 1994.  When the time came for her business to expand further, Pat aimed for the urban core of the city and took on the huge task of reinventing a ramshackle store front near the intersection of 3rd and Limestone.  At the time, she was neighboring a dilapidated bus station and a drive thru liquor store.  Although Pat’s shop brought a new feel to this edge of town, she began to ponder how to bring more life to her space.  Inspiration stuck, and in 2004 she took a leap and expanded her space into a coffeehouse.  The place became full of life, and business blossomed.

Location has played an important role in the development of Third Street, as its known by regulars, but the unique feel and design of the space has an equally important part in its appeal.  Hendrick Floyd, one of the coffeehouse’s beloved baristas, explained, “Pat has created a visual space that makes people happy.  You can’t come into a place with this color and not feel lifted.”  From the metal walls covered in magnetic poetry to the ever-chaging kaleid0scope on the community bulletin board, Third Street is designed for interaction.  “I wanted people to be able to play,” Pat shared.  “I would love to have more walls; a wall covered in changing graffiti.  I love to see things expressed.”  The creativity of the space’s design is an element that generates both appeal and inspiration for both customers and the neighborhood at large.

Though Gerhard acknowledges her contributions to the style of space, she is quick to give credit to community members and young people who have influenced the direction of her business.  She embraces a business model that involves the changing needs and ideas of her community, so Third Street has taken on the characteristics of a shared work of art.  One major example from early on is the switch she made from disposable to reusable dishes.  As customers explained a need for a more sustainable style of kitchen, Pat began to grow in her environmental awareness and quickly got on board.  Although her business model is quite progressive, Pat simply states, “I learn so much from the people who come in here.  I do a lot of listening.  Young people are wonderful teachers.”  A space so defined by conversation and collaboration is capable of generating a great deal of connectivity within the community.

The space itself and its placement at a major crossroads are enough to bring people from the neighborhoods in droves, but something else  seems to generate a steady stream of committed customers.  I asked Hendrick if it was the caffeinated drinks, but he quickly identified an even deeper pull:  “The drink is an afterthought because it’s really about the community, the relationships you have with a person.”  Pat explained this dynamic as a simple solution to a common problem, “People need a place to meet when they’re out.  So, people meet each other here.  Connections happen because they came into a space they share.”  Third Street provides people with a place to cross paths.  “We might have 10 lawyers or 10 kids and they can all use the place.  It contains a lot of energy and is still effective,” Hendrick shares.  Age, race, profession, and socio-economic status are not a part of the equation and, as a result, each person can utilize Third Street according to their own style.

The approach Third Street Stuff & Coffee has to integrating creativity, business, and shared space is contagious.  I’m quick to agree with Hendrick when he cites that, in recent history, “It’s sort of a ground zero for the changes in this place.”  It has a style that generates relationships, and it’s situated at the heart of a neighborhood in need of fresh ideas.  Third Street is moving forward in a creative way, but it is tied to a long past.  “This place has soul,” Pat describes, “I like that it’s old and mixed up.  I do a lot of collage work and this place is like a collage.”  Spend some time people-watching in Third Street Stuff & Coffee, and you will see an incredibly wide range of people wander in the door.  They, too, bear resemblance to a collage.  Together, this quirky combination of people and place make up my creative neighborhood coffeehouse.

I mark time by the trees.

Spring 2011

December 17, 2011

A letter appeared in our mailbox in early fall.  “Dear Neighbor,” it began, “We are pleased to be in your neighborhood as we begin construction on a home here.  Our mission is to provide homeownership opportunities for families in need of simple, decent, affordable housing.  We accomplish this by building homes with community volunteers and with the family who will purchase the home when it is complete.”

A few days later, the volunteers and crew leaders of Lexington Habitat for Humanity began to level and prepare a small lot across the street from our house.  In a day or two, there was a foundation.  Then, the frame, roof structure, and shingles appeared.  Many helping hands brought the house into full form and, today, Thad and I had the chance to pitch in as a crew laid sod and put the finishing touches on the property.

As the rolls of sod were unfurled across the front and back yards, it was amazing to see how quickly our small crew was able to get things done.  Moe, the building coordinator, explained that this collaborative approach to home building is an essential part of Habitat for Humanity.  “My favorite part of working with Habitat is the diversity.  You get to work with people of different age groups–high schoolers to senior citizens, a variety of people in the office, and home owners from different backgrounds.”

Matt, Becky, and Wes, the last of the countless volunteers who donated hours to this project, wore smiling faces and work gloves as they finished up this morning’s task.  When asked why he would give his morning to such hard work, Matt spoke simply, “It’s a good cause.  [Habitat for Humanity] helps people find a good financial footing and brings the area up.  Plus, I get to play in the dirt!”  These willing workers, along with the good folk of Habitat, and the family of Blandi, the new homeowner, present a compelling example of what is possible when a group of people come together with a vision and a strong plan for how to accomplish that goal–something can be built from nothing.

Last weekend, we had the chance to meet Blandi and her two girls.  Our new neighbors were being presented with the keys to their house by the many coordinators who came together to facilitate the completion of this East End home.  Rachel Smith Childress, the Executive Director of Lexington Habitat for Humanity, praised Blandi’s work ethic, the young Alexandra’s maturity, and the baby Brittany’s eager smile.

Ms. Childress also shared the secret behind Habitat’s effective work:  partnerships.  As an organization, Habitat for Humanity joins Christian faith and work.  Through its projects, Habitat partners volunteers with families in need of affordable housing and brings transformation to neighborhoods in need.  The product of these partnerships–the beautiful home across the street and the the strong foundation Blandi now has for investing in her family’s future–have brought quite a gift to our neighborhood.  This holiday season, I am celebrating this story of hope, the potential of our place, and the opportunity we have been given to witness an example of positive change through collaboration.

There’s a place where you can connect with the world and your neighborhood at the same time.  It serves as a community hub for people to engage ideas and one another, gain literacy skills, and develop a love of reading.  Your local library, home to fiction, non-fiction, fantasy, and picture books, is the place to go.  The Lexington Public Library Central Branch, only a few short blocks from my home, is my local outpost for inspiration.  Wandering through its many levels of poetry, prose, films, and recordings, I never fail to find something to satisfy my craving for information.

The library is also a place I come to encounter local life happening in real time.  I have been the happy observer of excited elementary schoolers discovering just how many books they can explore in one sitting and I have wandered into lively lectures, documentary screenings, free jazz concerts, and summer reading parties simply by setting foot in the building.  The Rumpus provides an illustrated look at one day in the life of San Francisco Public Library and, in doing so, points to the role of the library as a safe haven for people from every walk of life.  Who wouldn’t want to hang out in the library?

Library lovers the world over know the local library as the place to find refuge, quench curiosity, feed the imagination, and access information.  Highlighted in a recent New York Times article, the non-profit organization Room to Read has provided 12,000 libraries throughout the developing world as a way of providing affordable learning opportunities in impoverished communities.  In doing so, they have linked thousands of kids to a better future.  The benefits of the library extend beyond cultures to fit the needs of every unique neighborhood.

Earlier this year, an Observer article on The Secret Life of Libraries expressed the truth that “The libraries’ most powerful asset is the conversation they provide – between books and readers, between children and parents, between individuals and the collective world. Take them away and those voices turn inwards or vanish.”  As you wander the stacks of your favorite library, remember that libraries change lives.  Take a moment to express your appreciation–one phantom in Scotland has been doing this with a show of elaborate book sculptures.  My community wouldn’t be the same without the libraries and staff of The Lexington Public Library, so here’s to you!

Photo by Geoff Maddock

When you turn a green space into a growing space, people are able to witness transformation with their own eyes.  An empty lot in the urban landscape is able to display its potential in the bright reds of tomatoes, the crispness of lettuce, and the full flavor of sweet peas.  Gardens along rooftops have been growing in New York City for decades.  Other urban farms stand in Milwaukee and Chicago.  In Lexington, London Ferrell Community Garden is the place where the lush fruit of summer is on display in the midst of the streetscape.  Sandwiched between a fire station and The Episcopal Burying Grounds on 3rd Street, it is helping people to imagine new possibilities.

Word about the London Ferrell Garden has spread near and far, but it is best loved by the neighbors who live, work, and play nearby.  When Thad and I first heard about this urban agriculture project, we lived in a neighboring county.  Now, we are a block away and among the many plot holders who work to maintain its growing beauty.  In an 8×8 ft. square, we have grown arugula, peas, and green tomatoes waiting to ripen.  U-pick plots stand near the garden’s entrance with a bounty of asparagus, garlic, and other garden-variety veggies.  This portion of the land is providing freshly grown produce at no cost to residents of the area.

Garden Installation Photo by Geoff Maddock

Since its installation in 2008, LFCG has provided both nourishment and agricultural education in an area where there is limited access to fresh food.  Ryan Koch & Becca Self of Seedleaf are working to coordinate these efforts and as they grow vegetables, they are also working toward nourishing communities.  Seedleaf “nourishes communities by growing, cooking, sharing, and recycling food so that we can increase the amount, affordability, nutritional value, and sustainability of food available to people at risk of hunger in central Kentucky.”

Although LFCG is under the leadership of Seedleaf, it is the volunteers who lend a hand that make the garden a thriving success.  In coming to a community garden, people are often seeking more than a beautiful hangout and fresh veggies.  In the sharing of work, knowledge, experience, and resources, the gardeners are gaining friendships and a place to belong.  One gardener comes every week to enjoy the work she remembers her mother doing.  Others arrive on bicycles to learn more about sustainable agriculture or teach someone about tomato varieties.  Parents push strollers into the garden as they prepare to spend a morning raising vegetables and children side by side.  Community grows in this garden alongside the beans and sweet potatoes.

The fact that a garden can meet both physical and emotional needs is a unique quality–a testimony to the powerful effect that the environment has on us all.  This garden is having an impact on the physical environment as it stands in response to the lack of access neighborhood residents have to fresh produce and nutritious alternatives to convenience store foods.  Yet urban agriculture is also a viable way to reinvent the emotional environment of a place as community members finds room for reconciliation, regrowth, and personal renewal in the natural surroundings.

Seasons change and the garden continues to play an amazing role in the neighborhood as it contributes its simple gifts.  As a community space, the soil, air, water, and plants create a gathering spot where folks can learn and grow together.  By the end of the growing season, many pounds of produce will be harvested and the garden beds will be put to rest, but the sense of community that has be growing out of the garden will continue to flourish.

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To some, a sidewalk is a thoroughfare.  To others, it is a blank canvas.  It’s all a matter of perspective.  As C.S. Lewis once stated, “What you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing; it also depends on what kind of a person you are.”  Are you the kind of person who expects art in low-lying places?  Until a simple act of community art brought sidewalks and storm drains to my attention, I was not.

Last Summer, two local artists, Blake Snyder Eames and Claudia Kane Michler, transformed the storm drains and street corners of Lexington into works of art with their project Made you look!  As they revamped the street scape with yawning hippos and kaleidoscopes of color, they also brought attention to the importance of keeping litter out of storm drains and watersheds.  When I come across one of their murals, I am reminded of the beauty of the underlying landscape and my part in taking care of it.  I have eyes to see the art beneath my feet, a heightened awareness of the litter that mars the street scape, and a much greater tendency to pick up trash that might float into gutters and cross into streams.  Although each mural is unique, some of the pieces are inspired by the surrounding area.  The vivid display near my corner has the reds, yellows, and greens of a nearby sculpture.  It has changed my perspective and become an important part of my neighborhood.

A recent article in the New York Times featured the work of an outsider artist in London named Ben Wilson.  His canvas, found along the city’s sidewalks, is flattened chewing gum.  His work, inspired by the requests of others, ranges from portraits and landscapes to wedding proposals and memorials.  At first motivated by a strong concern for the environment and a desire to expand art into a venue without confines, Wilson’s work has since taken on new meaning through the influence of his community.  Neighbors began to embrace Wilson and commission specific pieces.  Through their interest and care, a project once focused on urban waste became a means of connecting the people of a North London neighborhood to their environment in a personal way.

Although Mr. Wilson surprises visitors as he stretches out on the pavement to work, among his neighbors he is an artist that brings joy to everyday life.  He states, “I know a lot of the shopkeepers, road sweepers and local police. As I walk down the street, every few steps I think of a picture I have to do for someone. I have all this in my head, which makes me feel closer to the place and the people.” No longer a solitary pursuit, Wilson’s art is breathing life into the neighborhood’s imagination.

The combination of unconventional media, neighborhood stories, and interactive art creates a small change in perspective that can transform the ordinary into extraordinary.  As sidewalks become art galleries in Lexington and London, I am excited to say I now view each and every sidewalk as a blank canvas.

By Thad Salmon

“The bike shop probably said it would cost one or two hundred dollars to replace, and to that I say harumph! Let’s fix that wheel,” proclaimed Carl–and thus began my saga at Broke Spoke Community Bike Shop. That day, I arrived as a patron in need, with a number of mangled spokes on my rear wheel. After two hours of simultaneous training/repair work with Dave, I rode away on an even keel!  Less than a month later, Carl came to the rescue again when I found that my seatpost was stuck in place (and may have been so for 20 plus years). We turned my bike upside down, placed it in the vise, and voila! My seat is now fully adjustable.

Now that my bike is in good order (for the moment), I can happily return to Broke Spoke as a volunteer. With a little more time to look around, I began to appreciate the level of organization that keeps the shop from getting too chaotic. Every part of the bicycle has its place in a photo-labeled bin, and each person has a role to play. Since it was “strip/rebuild” night, I was handed an instruction sheet and a two-wheeler to dissemble. With Carl and Dave around to answer my occasional questions, I completed my first-ever complete teardown in under two hours. Nearly every piece of the donated bike will be sorted and stored for later use, when a sturdy new ride will be crafted with care. These bikes will be sold in exchange for cash or bartered shop work, known as “sweat equity.” Every volunteer earns a respectable $8/hr. in shop credit.

While the constant task of disassembly and reassembly may seem prosaic, strains of creativity are evident throughout the shop. What can’t be reused on a bike becomes material for a work of art. Unusable inner tubes become a woven floor mat,  some parts are used to make jewelry, and bike frames that don’t quite make the cut are reemployed as bike racks! If you happen to visit the shop, make sure you see the woven tube mat, as it’s pretty impressive. If something can’t be used on a bike or worked into an art piece, it will probably be recycled.

It’s readily apparent that Broke Spoke is more than a scrappy neighborhood repair shop–It’s a force of two-wheeled justice. Brad Flowers, a Broke Spoke board member, asserts that “the primary goal is to provide better access to better bikes for more people.” More specifically, this organization meets the needs of more reluctant riders, or “invisible cyclists,” as Brad calls them. This describes many Lexington residents, who depend on bikes for transportation to work, school, and all kinds of important places (even if they don’t particularly enjoy it). For these cyclists, an affordable solution for bike maintenance and repair is a precious resource. Remember, if you need just a bit more momentum to get on your bike regularly and keep it running smoothly, the Broke Spokers will be there with a wrench and an encouraging word!

How to get involved:

1. Visit the shop. Head to 6th and Limestone, and look behind Al’s Bar.

2. Check out Broke Spoke Community Bike Shop on Facebook, and at www.thebrokespoke.org

3. Donate a bike (or just about anything bike-related).

4. Show up for ALL of the near-monthly benefit shows. Coming up: Ben Sollee and Agape Theatre Troupe at the Kentucky Theater!

 

Neighborhood Valentine No. 7

“I grew up as a military brat on several different bases and installations. The only constant in a place where everyone you meet eventually leaves is the sense of community. People were often outside and conversations were started with neighbors during dog walks, car washing, gardening, and porch sitting. When I grew older I believed the suburban myth that there was more safety behind a privacy fence and knowing one’s neighbor became a random event rather than a joy. When I moved into our neighborhood in the East End the first thing I noticed were the porches and stoops. Sherry and Geoff live around the corner and it was not uncommon to see community happening right before my eyes on their front stoop. There are several people who feel the stoop is a welcoming respite from a long walk and they sit and talk to one another. On Ohio Street where I live it is an honor to be invited onto someone’s porch. It is where community happens and it is not uncommon for crowds of people to spend the day or the evening in laughter and deep thought with one another on the front porch. Gone are the fences that divide. Passing by one shouts a hello, smiles, and waves and in an instant…connection. People ask you questions. They speak a hardy “How y’all doin” and I know my neighbors by name. For the rest of my life I hope to live in a place with porches that facilitate true community and create friendships that last a lifetime.”

- Valentine by Tanya Torp

As February draws to a close, along with the Lovin’ the ‘hood series, I look back to see a portrait of the neighborhood captured by a collection of creative contributors.  It is a fresh composition of this place’s long-standing qualities.  We have heard from all ages, through various media.  Each voice has demonstrated a unique perspective and displayed a heartfelt affection.  Enjoy a final taste of this blend of thoughts and, remember, keep lovin’ the ‘hood!

 

Neighborhood Valentine No. 6

- A Valentine for the neighborhood by Felice, Ya’el, Maggie, & Seth

Words.  We exchange them often and, on Valentine’s Day, we search for a way to use them to express the thoughts and feelings we have about love.  Our words can come in many forms, but there is a quality to words spoken that can’t be found in written words.  Maya Angelou states, “Words mean more than what is set down on paper.  It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning.”

Here you will find a few voices simply stating what they love about this neighborhood.  As I think about this collaborative expression of love and the many valentines collected and shared here over the past two weeks, there is one thing they have in common–the cherished, yet simple, pleasures of home.  The best part is, when we share the same place as someone else, we are connected to them, too.  This Valentine’s Day, I am lovin’ this neighborhood and the way it turns strangers into neighbors.

 

Neighborhood Valentine No. 5

 

Photos & Design By Rose & David McGee

“I love the bakeries in my neighborhood. We’re a stone’s (or perhaps a scone’s…) throw from several excellent bakeries that each offer something special on the menu. I love seeing the pride the owners and employees take in selling their goods and chatting with their customers. I enjoy the occasional bakery meetup with friends to share coffee and a good danish (pastry, donut, etc). I also enjoy my solo bakery visits, too. I’ve taken to reviewing as many local Lexington bakeries as I can find, with the added goal of walking or riding my bicycle to get there. I put my reviews up on my Lexington Bakery Crawl map.”

- Valentine by Rose McGee

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