They came from as far as Monmouth County and Brooklyn, to see first-hand what “Creative Placemaking” looks like.
Turns out it looks like … Meet Me in Morristown, Thursday’s downtown arts and business fair. And like… the twin totems that proclaim the town’s immigrant history, at the Community Garden on Early Street.
“I think it’s awesome,” said Nancy Ciabattari, after taking a tour led by nonprofit Morris Arts on Thursday.
Fifteen artists, educators, community organizers and urban planners were invited by Leonardo Vasquez, executive director of the Union-based National Consortium For Creative Placemaking.
A “creative placemaker,” Vasquez explained, “is anyone who works to make communities better through arts and culture.”
Morristown has seen several such efforts in recent years, spearheaded by Kadie Dempsey, director of creative placemaking for Morris Arts, in collaborations with the business community, town hall, developers and foundations.
Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin
Meet Me in Morristown, a series of summer fairs started on a shoestring four years ago, emphasizes the walkability of the downtown business district — a feature that has drawn successful millennials and empty-nesters to luxury condos and apartments sprouting up near the historic Morristown Green.
These newcomers are looking to spend their money on “experiences,” said Jennifer Wehring, executive director of the Morristown Partnership.
“Meet Me in Morristown got them thinking about what’s here in Morristown,” she said.
Smart redevelopment of the former Epstein’s department store was a key driver of the downtown renaissance, Wehring told the visitors. Now, appreciation is growing for the value of a thriving cultural scene.
“We can do more visible things in the community because the community is ready for it, and expects it,” Dempsey said.
Events have included pop-up parklets, Halloween pumpkin illuminations, and Music Beyond Borders lunchtime concerts on the Green.
The town government introduced a “Percent for Art” program that requires re-developers to spend up to $100,000 creating public art projects.
That program helped underwrite the $120,000 totem project completed last November.
But can any of this be replicated in a suburban state with few downtowns?
“I think it could happen in a lot of places that have wide sidewalks with a lot of stores,” said Vasquez.
Sam Smouha, a young urban planner and consultant from Brooklyn, said he was impressed by what he saw on the tour.
“There’s generally good urban design with walkable spaces, nice storefronts, plazas, and a centralized park. I love the new totems in front of the big community garden,” Smouha said.
At the same time, he cautions that without more affordable housing, “the newer, more expensive apartments will likely change the socioeconomic compositions of the neighborhoods” around them.
And it might take a another tour to sway Kisha Ciabbatari, a former sportswriter who came from Basking Ridge with her sister Nancy on Thursday.
“I have to see more evidence that there’s an organic arts community here,” Kisha Ciabbatari said. But the totems were a hit.
“I thought they were beautiful,” she said.