The abandoned, crumbling Paro Party Store had been a blight on Lansing’s East side for years.
“I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat to have a co-op grocery store with local foods?’” recalled Laura Delind, former Michigan State University professor and co-founder of the nearby Lansing Urban Farm Project’s Urbandale Farm. “But, wait a minute, I don’t live in this neighborhood, it’s not my call. If something is going to happen it has to happen the way that residents want it to happen.”
And so, Laura, along with Dexter Slusarski of the Lansing’s Office of Planning and Neighborhood Development, Eric Schertzing, the Ingham County Treasurer, and other partners, asked the community.
The Ingham County Treasurer’s Office painted the side of the building a crisp, clean white. With just a few dollars of chalkboard paint, a bucket of chalk, and some creativity, the group launched the “I Wish This Were A” (IWTWA) project. Inspired by Candy Chang’s “Before I Die” project in New Orleans, it was simple in design and execution.
They stenciled “I wish this were a _____” over and over again on the building’s wall facing the street, inviting the community to participate in the future of the abandoned Paro Party Store by writing in responses with chalk.
Residents responded in full force. The project went up on a sunny Saturday afternoon, and by Sunday, the board was full. Two days later, the board was full again. It was clear that the community had a vested interest in the building’s future. Urbandale, a low-income community, is a vital neighborhood with a history of civic participation, and this was no exception.
By the end of IWTWA, Laura and her collaborators had washed down the wall upwards of 8 to 10 times. Answers were as diverse as the people who wrote them, as community members called for a homeless food center, organic grocer, music venue, feminist book store, hookah café, Krispy Kreme, skating rink, and much more.
“It was public, democratic, transparent, inexpensive, and fun,” said Laura. “People really seemed to enjoy responding. The whole process involves people in a way that encourages positive action together in their own neighborhood.” At one point, when volunteers were working on the wall, one man came by and left four jugs of Gatorade and another dropped off a big bucket of chalk, just in case they would need it.
The group stopped collecting answers at the end of October, recording somewhere between 500 and 800 responses in total. Now, Laura, Eric, and other partners have decided to turn the process back over to the community. Rather than opting for a traditional neighborhood meeting, they are posting a huge banner on the side of the building with all of the responses and an invitation to all neighbors to come by on November 23, 2013 to help clean out the inside.
“If we get 10-20 people,” Laura said, “they will have invested themselves in the project, and they will be more willing to follow up as they move forward with ideas, however we finally decide to develop the space.”
The building will officially be handed over to the Ingham County Land Bank at the end of this year, and there is still more work to do before the building is brought back to use, but the project has gained momentum and widespread popularity. The local Michigan Historical Preservation Network has even promised to allocate $5,000 to fix up the roof.
IWTWA has already succeeded at inspiring community engagement – and hope that a longstanding eyesore could be transformed. While the end result remains to be seen, we look forward to sharing it.
Is there a longtime vacant property in your neighborhood? How would you answer “I wish this were a_______”? Share your responses using #IWTWA on Twitter!