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Garden State Topic: What the Arts Can Do to Help Rebuild the Jersey Shore

After a disaster, the arts can help restore a sense of community -- and of wholeness -- to devastated towns and cities.

“Maybe everything that dies someday comes back,” Bruce Springsteen sings in “Atlantic City.” His adopted town of Asbury Park is coming back, mostly because of creative "placemaking."

It’s a set of strategies to make places better through the arts. It can do a lot to help the Shore rebuild after Sandy.

Rebuilding the Shore means more than just replacing boardwalks and houses. To make it work for the long term, leaders also need to deal with the emotional and economic issues of placemaking. If the Shore is not going to come back the same as it was, what will it be? What kind of place should it be? What should be remembered, repaired. or replaced? How do we make it prosperous again -- not just for businesses, but for as many people as possible?

We need to be creative.

The arts and creative people are probably in every community in New Jersey and have been for a long time. It’s easy to overlook the sculpture in the park, the little gallery, or the small theater because they're part of the background of so many places.

Have you noticed all the artists and people working in the arts in your community? Probably not, because despite the myth of the weird outsider, most creative professionals in small towns and suburbs blend in.

When most people think of “artsy" towns in Jersey, Belmar doesn’t always come to mind. But the Belmar Arts Council has attracted hundreds of artists since it started eight years ago. Now the Arts Council, at the request of the town, has organized one of the most interesting post-Sandy art projects: painting the barricades put up after the storm.

The artists in Belmar brightened up sad reminders of Sandy’s devastation, but there’s a lot more that the arts and artists can do to help rebuild communities.

Rebuilding works better when the people who are most affected are ready to move on. Places that have been damaged need to restore or recreate new infrastructure, both to spur other development and to show that the place is moving forward. And people will be more likely to rebuild if they believe they can get the benefits of prosperity in the community.

The arts can provide emotional support, help people express their concerns and aspirations and help people be more creative. Arts organizations and businesses can help rebuild local economies by attracting people with money and creating jobs. Boardwalks may be closed for the time being, but theaters and galleries are open.

In their own work, artists can help express what their neighbors are feeling, or aspire to. Creative people also can help others express themselves, and become more creative. Joplin, MO, was hit by deadly tornadoes in 2011. Soon after, artists worked with more than 300 residents to help them design a community mural.

“The project brought together diverse groups and helped initiate conversations about Joplin and our experiences that crossed generational, cultural, and economic boundaries,” writes Sharon Beshore, a Joplin resident “As we began work, mixed feelings regarding our recent losses were shared. As much as citizens wanted to record our history prior to the tornado, we had to acknowledge that the tragedy was now part of our story. We could move forward by putting this event in the context of our past successes and challenges.”

The mural project, she said, “brought together our community to begin healing in ways no one could have anticipated.”

Continue reading on NJSpotlight.com.

NJ Spotlight is an issue-driven news website that provides critical insight to New Jersey’s communities and businesses. It is non-partisan, independent, policy-centered and community-minded.

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