Art & Culture

COMMENTARY: Community Placemaking at the 400 Block

Artists and community members gather to create an outdoor classroom on the 400 Block
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What is Community Placemaking?
Community Placemaking is a community-based reclamation of a shared public space. It’s simple really: you drive by a place over and over again on your way home from work or the store you see that empty space and you’re not sure who owns it, but goodness it looks so drab. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could put in a bench, maybe some flowers, perhaps invite people from the neighborhood? So you go home and you talk to your neighbor who is mowing the lawn, the both of you agree that the space could be real nice, she mentions it’s owned by the city. Suddenly, you stop.

Often times when we hear that a space is owned by a government entity we stop our imagined world and go to a dark place. "Well, that’s the city’s responsibility" or "No wonder nothing’s happening," rabble rabble rabble. Perhaps this is true, but something else is true: that unused space may be owned by the city, but it belongs to the public.

When Creating a Community Space, Collaboration is Key
It’s important to remember when creating a community space that the process should be inclusive. It must include the ideas of as many people in the community both from those who are willing to do the boots-on-the-ground work and those who are willing to support through social media or donations. Through the process of collaboration, community members can find strengths and weaknesses in their ideas. They can work through logistical problems and they can be a strong collaborative voice when naysayers try and dissuade the project.

Why is Public Space So Important?
Right now, the 400 Block has the potential to change. It can move in two directions: it can be the foundation for new office buildings and overpriced apartments/condos or it can remain a grassy square in the middle of town where groups can gather. Rob Campbell thinks the 400 Block is important to the city and says “it’s the closest thing we have to a town square other than Target,” to which I laughed, “it’s funny, but it’s also true and nobody’s trying to sell us stuff here.”

By claiming the 400 Block as our (people who love Hollister) own, we can work to highlight the diverse, dynamic, and low-cost public events which will ultimately draw crowds into downtown Hollister. By facilitating public space, the city and county can encourage a different kind of development: one that doesn’t require new infrastructure, but pulls the public into the city by allowing the public to decide what it is that they want.

400 Block Public Space Prototype
In fewer than five days, a new, bright and inviting public space was created. There is a chalkboard which was prepped and painted by Joel Esqueda and myself and mounted on the wall with the help of E Clampus Vitas members Ron and George Bonvie. Casey Jahsman of constructed a beautiful picnic table with a built in planter and chalk holder. Sergio and Stephanie Sanchez donated the flowers for the bench and muralist Phillip Ray Orabuena decided to invite artists to paint while we put the finishing touches to the outdoor classroom at the 400 Block. There is a temporary lending library which will be soon be replaced and stocked with books from the Friends of the San Benito County Free Library.

I admit that this space was my idea, but it was not completed by myself alone. It began when I found out that the 400 Block might be gone soon. It started with me, sure, but it continues with you.

So please, stop by the 400 Block and use the chalkboard. Bring your children to do their homework. Water the flowers if they look thirsty. Use the chalkboard for poetry or pictures and help to create and change your downtown Hollister.

If you want more information about the development at the 400 Block, please join the Facebook group: Save the 400 Block in Hollister or attend the next Hollister City Council meeting on Feb. 15 at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall at 375 Fifth St. in downtown Hollister. Sign a speaker card and talk about how you feel about the 400 Block and public spaces.


Rachelle Escamilla

Rachelle Escamilla is the host of "Out of Our Minds" on KKUP, author of "Imaginary Animal" and a columnist for Mission Village Voice.