Urban Artist Exchange reimagines a neglected city space

A once-forlorn acre near downtown Wilmington is coming alive again with bicyclists, artists, community members and, this year, fans of live music — all in an environmentally friendly setting.

The $3.4 million Urban Artist Exchange East Side Neighborhood Revitalization Project covers the block bounded by North Walnut, East 16th and East 15th streets and Clifford Brown Walk. 

The boldest component is an outdoor amphitheater with lawn seating for 700 to 800 people. 

Leading the project are Cityfest, a nonprofit known since 1980 for events like the Clifford Brown Jazz Festival and the Wilmington Art Loop, and the city of Wilmington itself.

When asked why, Tina Betz, director of the mayor’s office of cultural affairs and president of the Cityfest board of directors, responded “Why not?” She added: “For many, many years, it was closed off and not usable unless you were doing something you weren’t supposed to be doing. It was littered, abandoned, overgrown.”

No longer.

The first big move was the 2013 arrival of the Urban Bike Project, which promotes bicycling to Wilmington residents of all ages, with a special emphasis on underserved communities. In 2017, CityFest signed a lease for the stables, once used by the city police department mounted patrol. In 2018, the Urban Bike Project committed to a 30-year for its building, once a repair shop. In 2019, the stables were converted into seven unheated and un-air-conditioned artists’ studios, plus offices and space for community events. In 2021, the first artists rented a space. 

And in June, the city hopes to finish work on the amphitheater, with performances starting in July.

The project is following a green infrastructure that includes six rain gardens (with plantings providing multi-season interest) and porous paving that will help an area with a history of flooding. It’s a few hundred feet from the Brandywine. And the landscaping will “provide a respite that’s not available in the neighborhood,” Betz said.

There are other forms of respite with the Urban Bike Project. “If it can help people get riding bikes, we want to be involved,” said Laura Wilburn, the nonprofit’s executive director. That includes summer camps, school outreach and bike-repair classes.

The Urban Artist Exchange is funded by the city budget, a state loan, grants and donations.

The studio space were first used in 2019 for six-week summer youth program, said Traci Currie, the exchange’s program director. In the afternoons, youths were apprenticed to four visual artists to create works that could be exhibited. In the mornings, they attended a variety of workshops, including storytelling, yoga, financial literacy and business etiquette.

The programming has since expanded to after-school in the fall, and more topics have been added to workshops. Currie, for example, uses spoken-word performances to improve communication skills. 

A family of artists rented one space last year, and they want to return, Currie said. So does Manny Chacon, a choreographer hired for the summer youth program, who wants his own space this year. 

Betz said the city hopes Wilmington’s first big “creative placemaking” project builds on the area’s “very deep history of arts and culture,” especially the heritage of jazz great Clifford Brown (born five blocks away) and Howard High School of Technology, two blocks away. Creative placemaking aims to “spur economic development, promote enduring social change and improve the physical environment.” 

Details for performances are still being worked out. 

Restrooms in the old stables and the Urban Pike Project will be available, Betz said, and the project includes a concrete pad for porta potties and plans for more restrooms. 

Food trucks are expected, and Wilburn said the Urban Pike Project has a concession window that could be used to sell refreshments. “We look forward to fun and creative ways to partner” during events,” she said. “It can only be a good thing.”