You know those times when you just can’t catch a break? When no matter how hard you try, or how exhausted you feel, you just can’t seem to get caught up and every day there seems to be a new “problem” to overcome. For many people in our community, difficult times can also mean the inability to make important home repairs and necessary updates, leaving homeowners feeling overwhelmed and allowing property values to plummet. Here in Rowan County, groups of incredibly generous volunteers have been coming together for more than ten years to help make life a little easier, and homes a little prettier, just in the nick of time.
In 2006, the Neighborhood Leaders Alliance, a subcommittee of the Community Appearance Commission, began discussing ways to encourage neighbors to help one another and to improve their communities. This discussion inspired the CAC to develop a unique, community led initiative that has continued to grow and evolve into what is now affectionately known as BlockWork.
How Does It Work?
Then in 2010 the grassroots program known as BlockWork formally emerged. This annual event brings together residents from across the county in a strategic effort to build safer and cleaner neighborhoods. Neighborhoods that demonstrate both a strong need for improvements and a strong willingness to collaborate with city staff, code enforcement, property owners, renters and BlockWork volunteers are invited to submit applications. These applications are reviewed by an impartial selection committee in conjunction with city staff. After making a selection, volunteer site leaders will tour the selected neighborhood along with city staff to develop a plan that will both improve the neighborhood itself and also positively impact the surrounding communities.
Since its beginning, BlockWork has organized nine successful events “including the initial event on South Shaver Street which earned a National Make a Difference Day award and a $10,000 prize” plus two mini events. Local artist, musician and owner of Top Hat Construction C.J. Peters is a regular BlockWork volunteer. “It’s like ‘do unto others,’ it makes you care about your house more when you find out that other people care about your home too,” he explained. And while Blockwork primarily focuses on projects that include landscaping, carpentry, clean up and painting, it has also begun paving a path for more public art.
Be An Original With Public Art
“The public art concept came about as I wanted very much to have public art in neighborhoods and we had no money to do so in any neighborhood and we could have artists and schools, etc. volunteer their time during Blockwork,” Barbara Perry explained. In 2012, when Blockwork tackled a section on South Fulton St, near the Chestnut Hill neighborhood, a mural was erected on the wall of what was then Cut Up & Dye hair salon. Cut Up & Dye owner Leila Faries was onboard with a mural and when students from Salisbury High School stepped up to paint it, this bold and colorful piece quickly became a beloved piece of art for local residents and visitors alike.
In addition to this gorgeous mural, students from the Art + Design Department at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College came out and erected a temporary sculptural work under the direction of instructor Peter Goff. The RCCC along with Mr. Karl Sale, also led the construction of an arbor and fence at the Chestnut Hill park.
The inclusion of public art in the BlockWork project is determined upon the selection of the neighborhood. According to the City of Salisbury’s Urban Design Planner Alyssa Nelson, “they are usually ideas by site managers that look for creative ideas to beautify the block and get artists/architects involved.”
In 2017, when a neighborhood along North Lee Street applied, the group took note of a large wall that housed a stairwell in front of one local apartment complex. Artist and Blockwork volunteer Sue McHugh helped create a mural concept that the property owner had a personal connection. Artists Carlton Jackson, a longtime member of the Community Appearance Commission, and Bailey Wingler (yes, that’s me) volunteered to execute the final design. In this instance, the artwork not only brightened up the space but also served as a sort of starting point for the development of a safe space for community gatherings. I can personally attest to the power in this type of grassroots, community developed art. While Carlton and I were painting, children and families who lived in and around the apartment complex all came out to watch and lend a hand in the various projects of the day. They were so excited to have something new and pretty in a space that they felt so connected to. It was incredibly touching and I think I can speak for Sue and Carlton when I say, we, as the artists, got more out of it than they did.
Once the paint had dried, a crew of volunteers came in to add landscaping and further beautify the space.
Public Art made its way into BlockWork once again in 2018 when students from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte jumped on board. Neighbors living along East Monroe Street and South Lee Street were eager to apply for consideration in the BlockWork project. Not only for help with their own home projects, but also for help beautifying a commercial building in their community. Students from UNCC’s College of Arts and Architecture program participated as part of their design-to-build course. The class, which included both graduate and undergraduate students held an in-house competition and ultimately selected a colorful, wood panel design with colors inspired by a Cheerwine logo.
On the day of the event, students from UNCC, Pfeiffer and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College among others, all convened to help install this unique piece. This kind of collaboration between students, citizens and neighbors instills a sense of togetherness and pride in our community. “Crosby Scholars (early college students) volunteer every year. One year the Livingstone College track team volunteered. Our Salisbury Fire Department sends a fleet of volunteers! This is a great group project and we are ALWAYS looking for volunteers with specific skills such as carpentry and masonry,” shared Sue McHugh. Students from UNC-Charlotte’s College of Art & Architecture returned again in 2019 to create a massive mural along a cinderblock wall. Funds acquired for BlockWork have allowed our community to make very necessary updates. These include razing the old gas station, putting in new curb cuts, the addition of a new bus shelter, and trees… lots of trees.
Overall, BlockWork prides itself in being a community-initiated program that invites students, organizations, community members and anyone eager to lend a hand, to visit Salisbury neighborhoods, to meet their neighbors, and to find joy in helping to lift one another up.
Make a Difference in 2020 and Beyond
This year’s BlockWork event will be held on National Make a Difference Day which takes place on October 24, 2020. A second work day will be held on Sunday, October 25, 2020. Not every block has an obvious spot fitting for art, and unfortunately that is the case this year, but you never know what the future holds. Volunteers willing to lend a hand are invited to come out, spend an hour, or two or three and have fun while meeting and embracing our community. Due to COVID-19, volunteers are asked to register in advance by Friday, October 16, 2020. Artists and creatives are highly encouraged to participate, as are local students and student groups or organizations with a creative drive. “We work with other college groups and would love to get an art thing going with RCCC or others,” Alyssa Nelson explained. “We welcome and need all the help we can get for the project, we’re also always in need of site managers.” In addition to volunteers, neighborhoods who could use a little extra elbow grease are encouraged to stay up to date on Blockwork and too submit applications for consideration. To learn more about how you can get involved with BlockWork, please visit salisburync.gov and be sure to follow along on their Facebook page @BlockWorkSalisburyNC.
All photos provided by Salisbury City staff and volunteers.