Monday, July 29, 2013

Arts Hill? . . . Where?

One of these days I'm going to title this blog, "You're Gonna Love the Arts in Norristown," but not yet. Frankly, N-town, I'm not feeling the love from you on that subject.

We've got two professional live theaters on Dekalb St., which is at least one more than most communities our size have. We call the area Arts Hill. What's in between the theaters? I'd agree that Anna Catanese's flower arrangements can be considered works of art. The Jewelry Factory and El Paraiso both make lovely and pleasing creations. But what kind of message are we sending about Arts Hill with our vacant lots, bail bondsmen (complete with neon signs), a check-cashing place, and a methadone clinic? Granted, the latter isn't obvious  (although the people who use it sometimes are). Still, if we want to develop Arts Hill, I think these places need to be given incentives to either move to another street, or tone down the look of their storefronts, so they don't scream "Norristown is for Losers."

How else can we support our theaters?

SAFETY: Patrons want to feel safe walking to and from their cars, so those blocks need to be well-lighted and patrolled.

PARKING & SIGNS: No one on council seems to think parking is problem. They say, we have a parking garage at Lafayette. I'm willing to bet no one on council has parked in that garage to go see a show at Centre Theater. The intersection is hard to get across, the hill is steep, safety is a factor and, simply put, people object to paying for parking in Norristown. They don't think we're worth it. Honestly, we're not . . . yet. Until we change that, NO ONE is going to park in the SEPTA garage to see a show. And no one who's even slightly disabled will EVER park there to get to the theater.

The vacant lot across from the Centre could be developed with small shops wrapped around the corner,  and a lot in back that could be used for theater parking, with a safe pedestrian crosswalk across Dekalb St. On performance nights, signs could be put up to say the parking is reserved for theater patrons. The Centre could issue a parking pass with reserved tickets so it would be easy to tell who's parked illegally. While we're waiting for council to incentivize some developer into making this vision come true, can't council at least make some deal with the land owner to use the lot for theater parking? If they were willing to throw hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars at a bad apartment plan up the hill, they could do this.

As for Theater Horizon, there are more parking possibilities nearby, but signs need to show which lots theater patrons can use. Plus, at least 2 street places in front or on Penn St. should be reserved for handicapped parking. (I've got tons more to say about parking, all over town--another blog, later this week.)

MORE ARTS: If we're going to call it Arts Hill, let's make an effort to find people who'll bring more "arts" to it. A dance school/theater. A cinema for art films and other out-of-the-mainstream movies. Venues for different kinds of music, like a jazz club, or a cafe featuring ethnic or folk music. Craftspeople. An art gallery. Local art displayed in the theater lobbies. As a writer, I'd love to see a bookstore (though I'm wondering if they're already extinct), or some venue for poetry and prose readings.

Let's start by having more festivals in that area. A food festival on Main to celebrate our restaurant renaissance. Another arts festival in the fall, perhaps. A garden festival/flower show in the spring. A swap meet/flea market in that empty lot on the corner of Main and Dekalb. A history day with living history demos. Start bringing people to Arts Hill more than once a year, to give entrepreneurs a reason to open shop there.

Still, even if we do all this, there's still one major stumbling block to Norristown becoming an arts community. That's tomorrow's blog.

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