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Building a Community
Building a Community: A Case Study
Free-floating groups do a lot at the beginning of community building. When Mixit Studios came together in 1985 only a few people in the initial group really knew each other well, but there was a network which somehow got mobilized to search for space. On September 25, 1985 we met at a ramshackle warehouse up against the railroad tracks in a hard-to-find corner of Somerville. Inside was an operating soap factory. Used burger grease was delivered in drums, mixed with lye, formed into suitcase-sized blocks of soap, ground up into a powder, mixed with secret ingredients, packaged, and shipped out to printers as Mix-it Soap Powder.
Our group talked over the situation at one member's workshop a block away, decided to make an offer to purchase that very day, and by noon it was accepted. We quickly got up the required $10,000 deposit and were off and running.
What were the characteristics of the formative group?
- We had people from a wide range of incomes.
- We had people from their late twenties to their late fifties in the original group.
- Everyone was an artist or the spouse of an artist.
- We were united in a desire to control our spatial destiny.
- We were all creative.
- We networked to find new members, but most members were new to most other members.
- The group was only loosely formed until a building was found.
- Structure happened once money and responsiblities came into play.
- Some of the people had owned houses, renovated houses, worked as architects and developers.
- Some of the people were Somerville residents and knew the city and its arts community. Others were strangers to the scene.
- Once the group had started meeting and spending time and money, newcomers paid a price surcharge of 2% for each month that they didn't participate in the predevelopment process. This kept things equalized.
- We considered, but avoided, creating a "market-rate" class of buyers to subsidize the artist buyers. No one felt entitled.
Like all communities in America, arts groups change, people move, get divorced, take jobs elsewhere, etc. Of the seven original buyers, four are still in the building. Of the original group that saw the building that September morning, three are still in the building, in two of the seven units.
But over the years the community has remained strong, resilient and supportive. How has this happened? Here are some guesses:
- We all worked hard together to get the project going.
- We met as a group once a week to make decisions and plans. We often had beer and always had chips.
- We retained the right to pick and choose new members, so we had a responsibility to make the new members part of the team.
- We kept things light and non-political. No cliques or sub-groups ever got any traction.
- We used, and continue to use, our individual skills to the fullest extent - political, organizational, design, construction, marketing, financial. Everyone participates.
- We are pretty laissez-faire about little things. If you hang up art outside your door, or decorate wildly at obscure holidays, nobody questions your right to do so.
- We keep an active bulletin board by the front door - not classy, but very good for communication.
- We self-manage. Carry out our own trash, pay our own bills, negotiate our own co-op loans.
- We have group outdoor space on the roof and in the back-yard.
- We put the group ahead of our self-interest when it comes to real estate. As a for instance, when several members had kids and outgrew their quarters and needed additional studio space, we voted to let them build on the flat roof at no additional land cost. We could have sold them flat roof space at the going Davis Square rate of about $100 per square foot, but that would have made it impossible for them. Instead we used our live/work status to limit the new space to work-only use, but they were able to build it for $150 per SF, an affordable price. We had the right, unamerican as it seems, not to be greedy.
- We started traditions, like the spur-of-the-moment pot-luck on summer nights or during blizzards, and big nonsectarian get-togethers at Christmas time.
- People are interested in each others careers, openings, etc.
- Special facilities in the work-space area of the building let artists expand their range of media. Some of these facilities are quite wide open - like the wood shop. Others like the Print Studio are available for rent or barter.
- Members share leads on dealers, art consultants, teaching openings, etc. to a surprising degree. Neighbors get the good information. Everyone benefits when members are successful.
- Doors are often unlocked. Kids in the building can knock first and visit grown-ups other than their parents.
- When we have disagreements over building issues, and we have had many, we always seem to get over them.
- We keep petty rules to a minimum and enforce the ones we have.
All groups are different. This one just "happened" initially. That gives it a certain vitality even after all these years. There was never a deus ex machina to set it in motion or control its destiny, so what the group is, good or bad, is only of its own making.
But even when a developer is putting together a community, many of the observations listed above are still useful. A group assembled by a developer (for or not-for profit) might have wobbly legs at first, but if it is active during the development process, it will start to grow stronger. If it has some common spaces, indoors and outdoors, it will share in their use and upkeep. If it is able to control its own composition, it will benefit from the experience of interviewing new members, and will have a stake in its own destiny.
"My property value" is the phrase most destructive to arts space groups. Sure you don't want to lose money, but this is the phrase that has launched a million petty neighbor-on-neighbor wars. A good community keeps its priorities in order.