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Susquehanna Life

Lifestyles: Building Community in Creative Places

By Alan Janesch

They’re not cathedrals, churches, church basements or fellowship halls. But like those institutions, creative places across the region use art, words and music, and food and drink, to build inclusive, engaged, connected communities with an almost religious fervor for the arts and culture.

Building Community in Creative Places

Second-hand bookstores, historic buildings and repurposed industrial facilities are home to burgeoning tight-knit creative communities that arise from the welcoming environments that host visitors seeking a wide array of events. Art and photo exhibits, author talks, concerts—ranging from punk rock to chamber music—poetry readings and community programs feed our collective souls. 

Katherine Faull, professor of German studies and comparative humanities at Bucknell University, Lewisburg, has written extensively about 18th-century Moravian communities. She is wary of equating an artistic or cultural experience with a religious one, but says “there’s definitely a very strong link between religious experience and art.”  

Like a cathedral, with its inspiring art and architecture, a creative place can encourage us to pause, reflect and consider the sublime, Faull says. “There is this attitude toward art that brings us to a moment of reflection,” she adds. “That’s something we forget: the importance of allowing the expressive self a place and a time to do its work.”

What’s it all about?

The National Endowment for the Arts calls it “creative placemaking”—public, private, not-for-profit and community sectors partnering to offer arts and cultural activities that strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city or region.

That’s exactly what Elaine Meder-Wilgus envisioned for her business, Webster’s Bookstore Cafe, State College — to create an inclusive space for a diverse, transient college-town population that celebrates the arts, literature, local foods and people. 

“I’ve always felt strongly that a downtown business/community gathering place has to have a strong sense of stewardship—allowing [all] people to feel included, for them to showcase whatever they bring from wherever they come from,” she says. “Having a space where that can happen without a formalized sort of manifest about what we’re doing, but just to let it spontaneously happen, that’s exciting to me.”

About 15 miles away, in Centre Hall, Penn State architecture professor James Kalsbeek runs The Workshop — two industrial buildings built by Vernon Garbrick in the 1930s and’40s to fabricate, maintain and store Garbrick’s innovative amusement park rides. Kalsbeek uses the space to store his collections, including materials from demolished or renovated structures; build stage-like spaces; collaborate with artists, photographers, filmmakers and musicians; and occasionally host invitation-only events. 

“There’s no sign out front,” he says. “And I like that.” 

As run by Kalsbeek, the son of a Presbyterian minister, The Workshop and its events combine elements of a church service, or more accurately a church basement dinner, a play, museum or gallery exhibit and a “third place,” after home and work, where people gather and interact.

Recently, The Workshop hosted a multi-media tribute to artist/weaver/photographer Harriet M. Rosenberg and served as a soundstage for The Molok, an independent film about a monster made of lost objects. Kalsbeek, who still thinks of the place as Garbrick’s workshop, sees his role as a behind-the-scenes producer/collaborator. 

“The foundation of this place is curating a collection, and then inviting other people to come in and spend time with that collection,” Kalsbeek says. “I build experimental rooms, and then they go away.” But hopefully, “you walk away with some sense of wow, that was enriching.”

In downtown Lewisburg, Sarajane Snyder describes Mondragon as a “hybrid space”—a cooperatively run, community-supported used bookstore and gathering space founded in 2009 by Charles Sackrey, a retired Bucknell economics professor who passed away last June. When Snyder came on in 2016, she asked herself, “Who are the people that I would like to meet? I’ll put books out that those people would like. And so [the books are] like my bait to get people in the store who are interested in art and creativity, the home economy, political economy and learning things that they don’t already know.” 

At Mondragon, Snyder recently launched a “gift economy” project that allows participants to give away things they don’t need and request things they do, and a “radical lending library” of books that area activists can borrow, not buy. Says Snyder: “I have been given this amazing thing, and I want it to keep going and keep moving in the direction that Charles had envisioned, which is to be a community resource and a treasure spot for people.”

In Harrisburg, several venues have brought new life to the city’s Midtown neighborhood. Launched in 2009, the Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center (H*MAC) is a 34,000-square-foot complex, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, that houses a bar/restaurant, stage and art-deco ballroom. Co-founder and former managing partner John Traynor says H*MAC grew out of a stop he and his film/TV production colleagues made in Harrisburg. They fell in love with Midtown and decided to open a multi-disciplinary community arts space. 

“I think people are desperate for community again,” Traynor says. “We are unusual in that we really embrace all demographics — [you’ll see] kids with Mohawks at the bar, sitting next to an 80-year-old man.” H*MAC was sold in May for $6 million; its new owners plan to continue renovations and upgrade the programming.

2001, Catherine Lawrence and her husband Eric Papenfuse, Harrisburg mayor since 2014,  opened the Midtown Scholars Bookstore to create a “third space” for “caffeinated conversations about all the creative ideas of the day,” says Papenfuse. Dwight Garner, book critic at The New York Times, says a visit there “is an essentially religious experience.” Like a church, says Lawrence, the bookstore is a place where you “leave with more than you came, but you also have an intellectual and emotional transformation.”

Ultimately, Bucknell’s Faull says, creative places may be a way of “secularizing the religious experience today, through craft, through memory, through communities of artists. And if it is, I’m ecstatic. It’s wonderful.”

Alan Janesch is a writer, editor and communications professional based in Lewisburg whose main interests include politics/government, higher education, the arts and entertainment, and his Austrian roots.

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