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If your city’s lucky you have people who are always testing the limits. Some of Norfolk’s limit testers have recently taken on the task of creating an arts district out of a run down stretch of one of downtown’s main streets. It’s a few nondescript blocks that’s home to the city’s bus station, a gay bar (recently closed), a multi-story gun shop and a handful of other businesses that typically gravitate to the commercial fringe where the rent’s cheap.
In other words, it’s drive-by territory. Once upon a time you might have shopped there. Now you just drive through it on the way to somewhere else. When there was a place across from the bus station where you could sell your blood the street life was pretty lively, if a little gamey. Now you don’t see many pedestrians. The gun shop customers park behind sturdy gates.
For just under twenty-four hours this past weekend, though, this little stretch of forgotten commerce became a hub of pop-up activity. A small cadre of out of town consultants worked with a hundred or so local volunteers to turn empty storefronts into, among other things: a beer hall, music venue, video arcade, bakery, jewelry and craft shop, art gallery, outdoor music venue, improv comedy theater, glass blowing studio, children’s play area and indoor skateboard park. Wooden pallets were painted bright colors and became platforms for outdoor dining. Impromptu art showed up on walls and the street. A food truck and the obligatory cupcake vendor fed hungry visitors.
Seen on the Street, 2013
Let me be clear. This wasn’t your typical block party or street festival. There was beer. But there were no funnel cakes, Belgian waffles, face painting or cartoonists drawing cheesy caricatures. Better Block had a decidedly young and alternative vibe. As the sign in one window said, “Art Show May Require Parental Discretion.”
A local TV station dismissed the event by saying that “dozens” had come out to see it. The newspaper claimed “hundreds.” I’m confident there were thousands. And even more impressive, it drew art school hipsters, skaters and musicians, as well as main street lawyers and corporate types, families with young children and empty nesters and singles well into their 70s and 80s.
What this crowd found was a lively array of music, art and fun. What they learned was how a little creativity and youthful enthusiasm can make even a dreary stretch of downtown into a destination.
Wes & BC’s Tower, 2013
In the sixties, we might have called Better Block a "happening." I heard one person refer to the bamboo star shown above as “Norfolk’s version of Burning Man.” That might be putting a little too much of a spin on it. But there’s no doubt that Better Block drew a crowd more interested in having its artistic limits stretched than in tasting funnel cakes. It was a place where young and old, black and white, male and female (and a few in between), insider and outré, mixed comfortably and cordially, united by creative curiosity and the prospect of what could be.
Like Burning Man, Norfolk’s Better Block was a temporary affair. It closed Saturday afternoon, a successful demonstration, indeed, of what could be. By Sunday, the street and the storefronts were once again empty and quiet, Better Block but a memory.
The Family That Swings Together, 2013