Food has always been one of the firmest definers of place. Cheese-steak sandwiches, pit beef, and deep-dish pizza are edible shorthand for Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago. Iowa is about corn and Maine is about lobster. But food has subtler and more complex connections to place. It can be a part of rituals that hallow a location. It evokes memories that are closely tied to where it was consumed. Its presence in the urban environment, in a restaurant, food truck, or street fair, or growing in an urban garden, comforts and energizes.
Public artists are exploring and using these kinds of connections in their efforts to help revitalize neighborhoods and celebrate communities.
In the three stories that follow, food is a major ingredient in artist-led or artist-aided projects that have helped specific urban places become more vital. It’s acted as enticement, icon, and talking point. It’s helped bridge the familiar artist–public divide, since just about everybody needs and likes to eat, whether they dress in black or not. And it has helped the projects make their communities more conscious of themselves and the world around them.
Pittsburgh: The Waffle Shop and Conflict Kitchen
Many a hungry Pittsburgher has entered The Waffle Shop, in the East Liberty neighborhood, expecting to simply sit down, order waffles, and eat them—end of story. But once you’re inside, cognitive dissonance sets in. You order your food, it arrives, you dig in. But you notice that there’s a stage toward the back upon which a ragtag live talk show is going on and being videoed.
Somebody might be holding forth on Islamic terrorism or gentrification. Or there might be a discussion of the proposition that Danny Glover is really Nikola Tesla, or an interview with a child in a chimp mask, or an exposition of dolphin raising in Appalachia. If you want to join in the semistructured strangeness, waffle plate in hand, you’re encouraged to do so. It’s like you’ve wandered into a dada-tinged version of the episode of Seinfeld where Kramer rescues the set of the old Merv Griffin Show from the trash, puts it up in his living room, and interviews his visitors. The show feeds live into The Waffle Shop’s website, from which it gets turned into raucous YouTube excerpts.
Jon Rubin, the Carnegie Mellon University art professor who set up The Waffle Shop in a classroom collaboration with his students, invokes that Seinfeld episode when he explains this artist-run restaurant-cum-performance-cum-experimental-
social-documentary project, which debuted in 2008 and is still going strong. Anyone is welcome to propose and put on a talk show during the shop’s quirky hours (11pm to 3am Friday and Saturday nights, and Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 2pm). There are scheduled shows and open hours, and serious exchanges about real issues are as welcome as tongue-in-cheek rants or instant conversations between strangers who’ve just met over waffles.
“It’s very important to us that this is a sort of bait-and-switch,” says Rubin, “that we’re not presenting ourselves as an art project but as something that’s within the stream of daily life and commerce in the city.” That flickering back and forth between the facts of real life, symbolized by a real restaurant serving real food, and total imaginative and communicative freedom, is of The Waffle Shop essence since the project’s launch.
“Creating experiences that disturb what is normative in life is one of the functions of art,” Rubin says. “But the general public has a set of ideas about art that make engaging in those experiences problematic. In my mind, you just do things, just immerse people, without preparing them to have their expectations disrupted, as you do in something that’s tagged as an art event.
“As a food establishment, The Waffle Shop coaxes our customer-participants into the larger project through a gastronomical experience that is universally familiar. Going to a restaurant and sharing food creates an automatic space for sociability and conversation that bypasses our intellect, and thus often our inhibitions. The familiarity of this environment then eases the way for our customers to participate in a more unfamiliar situation, like appearing on our talk show.”
“We’re artists, so we were always asking, ‘What if we do this?’ and trying things and adding projects,” adds artist Dawn Weleski, who was one of Rubin’s students and managed the day-to-day of The Waffle Shop when it was getting off the ground. One addition to the mix created by Rubin and Weleski has been Conflict Kitchen, a takeout window in the shop that only serves food from countries whose official relationship with the United States is strained or hostile: Iran, Afghanistan, and Venezuela so far, with Cuba next.
Another add-on happened when the restaurant got use of the billboard on the roof of the building; The Waffle Shop rents it to anyone in the world who’s connected with the shop live or on the Web and wants to publish a message. (Example: “People think I’m a ghost, I don’t know, it’s really hard to tell. I’m kind of like a ghost, and I might be invisible.”)
In its loose, let’s-see-what-happens way, The Waffle Shop has managed to make a difference in its neighborhood, according to Skip Schwab, director of operations for East Liberty Development, Inc. (ELDI), a financial supporter of the project. East Liberty has struggled economically for years, trying to draw car and foot traffic from the more prosperous Shadyside neighborhood next door. It has worked to develop the area around the massive, cathedral-like East Liberty Presbyterian Church, across the street from The Waffle Shop, into an attractive urban plaza. “The Waffle Shop has brought a very diverse audience into the neighborhood—and not just the young and hip,” says Schwab. “Its presence has been a real factor in making decisions about how the neighborhood will develop—at least partly because they’ve been so good at getting publicity, including international media.” The urban plaza idea is going forward, with plans for a boutique hotel and other amenities nearby.
Which is all to the good, of course, but Rubin emphasizes that his project isn’t goal-oriented in a community-development way. The Waffle Shop project, like most of the shows on the talk-show set, is an improvisation. “We really are making it up as we go along,” he says. “It’s a way of pointing out that, really, all institutions—political, cultural, economic, gastronomic—are making it up as they go along. In fact, we got the very idea of serving waffles from the proprietor of the bar and club next door, who lent us his waffle iron. That improvisational mode is how an artist approaches reality, and I, for one, am really interested in that destabilization.”
Omaha: Stored Potential
For 20 years, a huge grain elevator stood empty and unused near downtown Omaha. The widening of nearby Interstate 80 had cost it a silo and an on- and off-ramp, so it was abandoned, to become a gigantic white elephant, too expensive to tear down. The 76,000 drivers who passed it daily, if they took note of it at all, probably shrugged it off as a symbol of the mysterious forces of boom and bust in the agricultural economy.
But a young landscape architect who grew up on a farm not far away has happy memories of the elevator in its prime. “I’ve always loved it,” says Anne Trumble, “because it’s where I would go to take grain with my dad when I was little. I would sit in the truck and look up at it. I’ve thought about it all my life.”
Trumble also thought a lot about the natural and cultural landscape of her home region, and in between finishing her MLA at the University of British Columbia and taking a job with a New York firm, she stopped off in Omaha to launch a nonprofit, Emerging Terrain (ET), in order to, in her words, “see if I could make a difference to the landscape I’m most connected to.”
For the first five years of Emerging Terrain’s existence, Trumble periodically returned home to brainstorm with her board about how to carry out the nonprofit’s founding mission of, as she puts it, “engaging the public in the factors that shape the built environment.” (She still bounces biregionally between teaching at Columbia University and running ET.)
The first project she suggested to her colleagues was an architectural competition to redesign the big derelict grain elevator by the highway. Potential funders shied away. Massive sums would be needed, and the redesign, they argued, would mainly benefit the elevator’s owners, a rock-climbing club that had established climbing routes on the building’s exterior.
“I’d come to every board meeting with some new scheme for the elevator, and they’d give me the thumbs-down,” Trumble laughs. “And then one day I was playing around with a picture of the elevator in Photoshop and I started putting images on top of it.”
The architectural competition turned into a competition for artist images related to food and agriculture to adorn the exterior of the structure, and the Stored Potential: Land Use, Agriculture, and Food project was born. Emerging Terrain was deluged with 500 replies from all over the world. Thirteen designs were chosen to be rendered onto 20-by-80-foot woven polymesh panels to be attached to silos. Jeremy Reading of Seattle created an ear-of-corn-shaped bar code; Austin, Texas–based M. Brady Clark depicted a gargantuan slice of bacon; and Speak Up for Small Farms by New Yorker Castro Watson was made up of 535 green hexagons, one for each U.S. congressperson, in a pattern that looks like a cross between an aerial view of a green landscape and a honeycomb. Each hexagon contains the phrase “Speak up for small farms,” and Watson plans to send one section to each member of Congress after the banner comes down.
But the visual-art part was only half of Stored Potential. “I’d always dreamed of hosting a meal at a huge dinner table,” says Trumble, and so she planned a gala community dinner for October 2010, to be served at a table running the entire 800-foot width of the elevator atop the old rail line. A plan to use a caterer fell through because Trumble and friends wanted everything to be locally sourced, and “the caterer insisted on kiwi fruit and things like that.”
Instead, ten chefs from Omaha’s burgeoning restaurant scene designed a six-course banquet that was not only locavore, it was Great-Plains-mythic: roasted heirloom squash, bison pot roast, smoked bison bacon. “Except for the sugar, salt, pepper, and olive oil,” says Trumble, “everything came from within fifty miles of the city.” Five hundred ticket buyers from the community sat down to a meal designed to get them thinking about the relationship between large-scale industrial agriculture and the intimacies of eating and nourishment.
In May, Trumble and company will hang more banners, fruits of their second competition, whose theme is transportation. But food won’t be forgotten—organizers are planning a mobile feast with an artist-designed food cart.
As for the banner-bedecked elevator, it’s been transformed from eyesore to icon. It’s appeared in a number of local corporate videos, says Trumble, as many in Omaha have come to see it as a new civic symbol. Todd Simon, who runs Omaha Steaks, a funder of the project, believes that Stored Potential “shows that you can take relics of our Midwestern agricultural culture and transform them into meaningful icons for the present.”
Stored Potential has also advanced the community-building function of public art in the city, according to Lyn Ziegenbein of the Peter Kiewit Foundation, which also provided funding. “Public art like this is still something of a new thrill in Omaha,” she says, “and we’re discovering that it provides a point of unification for the community—the CEO can talk about it with the janitor in the hallway.
“There’s something in it for the most sophisticated urban type of person, since it’s serious contemporary public art,” she adds, “but it’s also very evocative for people who have a background in production agriculture. It shows respect for them and for what they do in the world.”
San Diego: Art Produce
San Diego public artist, art educator, and all-around community advocate Lynn Susholtz held the grand opening of her vegetable and herb garden on a resonant day: September 11, 2010. The garden was the most recent addition to Art Produce, Susholtz’s office/studio/gallery/community art space housed in a former produce warehouse in the multiethnic North Park neighborhood. The occasion was marked by the culmination of a year-long project by fellow artist David Krimmel, whEAT hARvesT.
Here’s how Susholtz describes the event: “Community members had planted wheat in an empty lot down the street and in backyards. On grand opening day we harvested the wheat, and, flash-mob style, danced it down the street to Art Produce, where it was winnowed, milled, and made into bread and crackers by the community. The project lived in the gallery and garden for six weeks as an interactive educational experience—how much time, energy, and water does it take to make a loaf of bread?”
Krimmel’s piece, with its emphasis on food, festivity, and community effort, was not only site-specific, it was site-appropriate. Susholtz’s garden—an arrangement of earth-filled metal tubs supporting lush greenery, even fruit trees, in the building’s parking lot, plus a storm-water catchment system for irrigation—is a community space that she created to welcome, calm, inspire, teach, and literally and figuratively nourish the community.
As such, the project also fits neatly into Susholtz’s array of other activities, which include public art commissions, painting, sculpture, installation, exhibiting fellow artists in Art Produce’s gallery, and offering space in her building and garden for performances, film showings, and community gatherings. “It’s rare to find an artist like Lynn who chooses to invest all of her effort into bringing people together,” says Gail Goldman, a public art consultant and former public art director for the city of San Diego. “She introduces people to one another based on the idea of a shared arts experience. She bridges the gap between the art world and the rest of the culture as successfully as I have ever seen.”
On Thursdays, when North Park hosts its farmers’ market, you can see how easily Susholtz’s garden works to bridge the gap to which Goldman refers. The garden is set up adjacent to the market area, so, as Goldman puts it, “there’s a lot of fluidity and it’s easy for market-goers to meander over into the garden.” There they’ll find Susholtz and her collaborators offering art projects, cooking classes, and miscellaneous help for just about any creative endeavor a visitor might propose. “It’s everything from how to make salad dressing from the herbs that they pick right there in the garden to how to throw clay pots,” Susholtz says.
There’s also a food exchange in the garden once a month, during which urban agriculturalists in the neighborhood can swap produce. Susholtz works with a landscape architecture program at the New School of Architecture and Design, and with an urban agriculture program called Seeds @ City at San Diego City College. “They help maintain the garden,” says Susholtz. “They’ll bring a group over when it’s time to do a replanting or a tree trimming, or to make pineapple-guava-prickly-pear jam.”
Texas-born Susholtz moved to San Diego in 1979 and into the North Park neighborhood 20 years later. North Park had once been a flourishing, close-knit urban “small town” but was in decline for all the usual reasons—a nearby mall had sapped its commercial vitality, young families had moved away, and crime and drugs were on the upswing.
But there were beautiful Craftsman houses available, and Susholtz moved into one. She also found a boarded-up produce warehouse on University Avenue, and made it her studio and the headquarters of her art-production company, Stone Paper Scissors. Her dogged work in making Art Produce an attractive destination and gathering place, and her other community-development efforts, were important in helping the neighborhood evolve into an urban arts district with plenty of amenities (and a growing risk of gentrification, too, something to which Susholtz is adamantly opposed). Angela Landsberg of the North Park Main Street business development corporation calls Art Produce “a model for design in sustainability and for the kinds of improvements that are possible when people’s interests are put ahead of financial gain. Its aesthetic impact has really changed the fabric of the area.”
As for the garden, it was inspired by an urban plot that Susholtz visited in the nearby City Heights neighborhood when she was working on a project documenting ethnic food traditions there on video. In a tiny space between the sidewalk and a wall, a Vietnamese immigrant gardener was raising “papayas bigger than footballs,” she recalls. “I stayed for dinner with him and his daughter, and they made me this amazing meal. I was there for four hours, filming and eating, savoring his herbs. I thought, what creates community better than food?”