The sleet had stopped, and the temperature was slowly starting to climb when a man with black boots, a black leather jacket, black jeans, and fiery red hair walked up. His name was Joel Burckhard. He watched me as I finished stringing lights in a vacant lot on Main Street in Aberdeen, South Dakota.
“That’s one kick-ass stage, man,” said Joel, lead guitarist for the Barstool Prophets. He was amazed at the transformation of the space. Just a few hours earlier, it was a vacant lot with trash. And, in just a short time, he and his band would be playing on a stage with benches.
The stage and bandshell were just some of the interventions for the Aberdeen Better Block. The project, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, brought community members together to explore and address issues in downtown Aberdeen and the community at large. Through community surveys, stakeholder meetings, and ongoing conversations over several months
Some of the issues that came up were very specific to Aberdeen. But other issues we’ve seen before in communities similar to Aberdeen, a city of roughly 28,000 people in a mostly rural part of northeastern South Dakota. One issue specific to the city was that there was a lack of parks and green space along Main Street. This, in part, contributed to the issue of a lack of activities for children. Community members also mentioned that there was a lack of things to do for young adults, and that there was a lack of vibrancy along Main Street. This has led to something that is a fairly common occurrence in communities like Aberdeen: brain drain and youth flight. One last issue raised in surveys and in conversations was that individuals felt there were artificial barriers for community projects, which led to interesting ideas never coming to fruition.
To address these issues, Better Block and community members on the Aberdeen Better Block Committee created a series of interventions.
Parklets have been used as a way of turning concrete parking spaces into small pocket parks for several years. For the Aberdeen Better Block, we worked with the community on a series of parklets based on our Wikiblock concept (an online library of street furniture designs that anyone anywhere can download for free and cut out using a CNC router). Using Aberdeen’s history of a railroad community known as “Hub-City,” we created five mini-golf holes in parklets along the block. We also brought out our trampoline parklet.
The vacant lot at the northern end of 100 Main Street was underutilized serving only as an area for animals to relieve themselves. But starting on Wednesday, volunteers began to transform the area. Community members cleaned up the lot and laid mulch down to enhance the area. We then built the Wikiblock bandshell.
The bandshell became a statement piece. Joel and his bandmates from the Barstool Prophets talked about how kick-ass it was, while Shelley Westra-Heier, the Executive Director of the Aberdeen Downtown Association, described it as a beautiful backdrop worthy of weddings. To complete the pop-up, we strung lights between the buildings over the vacant lot, created a pallet fence, built a bar, and placed custom-designed benches for seating in the space.
To help create a more vibrant and lively street, we brought out more seating and landscaping to the street. To stretch the budget, we designed a bench made out of only two 2-by-8s. Local craftsmen Tom at Eaton’s Castle was able to pre-cut all the wood for the benches. And then, during the Better Block week, our volunteers were able to assemble 40 benches in a matter of hours. We also worked with Parkview Nursery, who lent us beautiful shrubs, plants, and trees. We deployed them in groups throughout the block.
In the south end of the block, we took more than 100 feet of store frontage and placed pop-up shops and a pop-up art gallery/communal space. We had two bakeries take over a space, one that sold doughnuts and the other sold bread and muffins. We had a clothing and accessory boutique shop pop-up, and we also had Eaton’s Castle come out to sell custom-built drums, clocks, planters, and more.
A local artist, Heather Williams, was initially going to do a pop-up shop for her studio, Sticks and Stones. As the Better Block drew closer, she decided to invite her friends and colleagues to display their work as well. The end result was that more than a dozen artists displayed their work in a pop-up art gallery. Local artists brought out guitars, they shared wine, and they socialized while they welcomed customers and others curious of the space and the artwork.
What We Found
Friday night, the pop-up bandshell, live music, and beer garden worked great. The idea had been talked about in Aberdeen for years, but there were still community members and decision makers that were skeptical of it. But, sitting there under the string lights, listening to the Barstool Prophets, and enjoying a local beer from Dakota Territory Brewery, the collective response from the skeptic community members and decisions makers was, according to Lisa Chambers, our Block Captain, “Yea, we get this. Now, we need to make this permanent ASAP.” We also saw younger community members come out of the bars and clubs on Main Street and mingle in the beer garden.
The parklets were a hit with kids. Not only did the kids enjoy the trampoline parklet and the mini-golf parklets, but their parents were able to enjoy the other aspects of the block. There were parents hanging out in the pop-up art gallery chatting with local artists while their kids played mini-golf in the parklet in front of the gallery. Other parents mingled with concert goers while their kids jumped on the trampoline parklets.
The pop-up art gallery was successful in not just providing vibrancy along the block, but also providing an informal gathering place for artists in the community. One of the refrains we heard from the artists was that much of the funding and many of the projects for art in Aberdeen felt very formal. They wanted more events and projects where artists were given permission to gather in a space without going through a long approval process, much in the same way Heather helped to facilitate the pop-up gallery on Main. In other words, they would like to see more funding and support for capacity building among the artistic community in Aberdeen.
Overall, the Aberdeen Better Block showed what was possible when community members came together to address issues in the public realm in downtown and the larger community issues. Moving forward, the community has the tools and materials to address other issues. The bandshell, parklets, benches, and more can easily be deployed in other areas in the community. But, more importantly, the community has the knowledge and connections to keep the work moving forward.
Or as Lisa Anderson, our Block Captain, said, the community “learned we can do this by getting the right people to the table to make it happen. People with vision and connections. People with drive and confidence. Those people are here and the need is here, as well, in other areas of town. Better Block gave us the tools to work through the logistics and trust what can be when the right people work together.”