The Glass House Collective brings innovation to urban renewal
The neighborhoods around Glass House Collective have rumbled with vibrant activity this summer. The energy continues to build as neighbors and community partners coordinate in preparation for the creative place-making non-profit’s upcoming annual Glass Street Live block party event slated for September 24th.
A consistent team at GHC, led by director Teal Thibaud, sets the participatory tone here in a neighborhood where residents are eager to see improvements and opportunity, but are understandably skeptical of whether those processes and changes will really include their ownership and input.
GHC continues to push the envelope in exploring what artists and community members can contribute to one another when all operations spring from the inspiration of neighborhood-invested artists and depend on the motivation and drive of the community itself to execute.
Thibaud looks ahead to this year’s block party with perspective on what feels different this time around. “In the past, Glass Street Live was more about inviting people from surrounding neighborhoods to visualize what a vibrant Glass Street would look and feel like. We’ve always aimed for neighbors, residents, business owners to claim this as their event, and this year it’s happening more than ever; it feels like a celebration of a proud identity that’s been growing as people listen to each other and work together.”
GHC’s director of operations, Zachary Atchley is particularly excited to welcome renowned artist and Hixson native, Wayne White to kick off “Wayne-O-Rama,” his year of Chattanooga residency, with two of his signature giant puppets, one of Union General Sherman and one of Confederate General Bragg parading as part of the Glass Street Live party. History blending with art and social activism stirs his enthusiasm for the tiring work of solidifying partner participation and buy-in.
Since GHC’s origin in 2012, the collective (labeled such because of its reliance on interdependency by design) has rented two different, formerly defunct buildings in what was once the central commercial hub of Glass Street. Thibaud, who at first served as the communications director for GHC, has a passionate tenacity and openness to learning and collaborating that gradually earned her the friendship and respect of residents, many of whom rightly doubted GHC’s intentions in the beginning.
Creative place-making in underserved neighborhoods, many of which have a sharp racial divide, depends entirely on relationships and a willingness to imagine life perspectives differing from one’s own experience.
GHC projects are artist led and community driven, demonstrating the leading role art can play in making practical improvements, aiming for a cleaner, safer, more inviting community. When violence and unjust issues feel overwhelming on the national scale, it’s inspiring to take action by listening to and joining with our own neighbors. What follows are several examples from this summer of a community in conversation, taking action to work, play, and create together as challenging as it can often be.
For several years, the Sherman Reservation had been neglected and difficult to safely access from the business district, but cultivated GHC partnerships have renewed the accessibility of Sherman Reservation and created new trail access from Glass Street. Exciting plans are in development for a larger trail network and fitness loop, as asked for by the community. Landscape architect, Matt Whitaker, is leading the design, and Glass Street artist, Rondell Crier of Studio Everything has been commissioned to design and employ local residents to build the trail signage.
Meanwhile Sherman Reservation provided the ideal site for the popular Glass Street Juneteenth celebration held up on the battlefield grounds on June 19, for what GHC hopes will become a yearly program commemorating the final slave liberation in Texas on June 19, 1865. Then just a few weeks ago, on July 27 and 29, volunteers led area youth on two separate hiking visits into Sherman Reservation.
Leaders used the popular Design Thinking model to engage kids’ response to encountering the NPS land, including the approach, which can still feel restricted due to the gated road. GHC is still synthesizing the young visitors’ feedback to share with leaders shaping the park’s design, improvements, and programming.
GHC is committed to pairing infrastructure improvements with fostering community, so Nikki Lewis has been organizing Active Trails outings throughout the summer to engage neighborhood youth by providing safe, fun opportunities to go exploring outside. Lewis is passionate about relating with the area youth about the good surprises to be encountered out hiking on the local trails, learning about the beautiful plant life and views that attract so many visitors to Chattanooga.
“I was reluctant to get outside when I was younger too,” Lewis says, “It wasn’t something I just went off by myself to do, but when I had an opportunity to begin exploring, I realized what I’ve been missing out on, and I don’t want to see these kids miss out on what’s in their own backyard.” That’s where Glass House Collective’s recent grant from Active Trails was a perfect fit, funding hiking, camping, and historical outings for the youth of Glass Street to enjoy.
Often partners like Outdoor Chattanooga and the YMCA provide support or food, and some older kids camped for the first time at the end of April out at Chickamauga Battlefield. As prep and orientation, GHC hosted a Fake Out Campout experience, which many little kids gathered for, making it easier to wait until they turn eight and can camp with the big kids.
The regular forays into nature have given kids more exposure to what could be fun about exploring the trails around their city, so that whenever Lewis has announced trips or activities throughout this summer, there’s already crucial groundwork of trust and positive association. “They know me,” she says, “they’re in it for the ride with me. These kids could walk off and refuse to participate, but they trust me enough and allow themselves to be encompassed by childlike wonder.”
Ryan Keller was one of the volunteers responsible for taking the kids up to Lookout Mountain’s Point Park May 14, by way of CARTA public transportation. He recently moved to a neighborhood and enjoys working with the neighborhood kids as part of the GHC community. Keller also noted the challenging barriers facing the type of outing they undertook, and stressed the importance of the adults modeling healthy teamwork and care.
Although Lookout Mountain has always been visible for the kids, it was their first time on top. The Incline Railway was a hair-raising adventure for many of them, but they bravely faced their fears, and wound up enjoying the windy views.
Taking CARTA across town to Point Park, both on the first outing, in mid-May, and the most recent repeat trip in mid-July gives the kids a new sense of mobility and access to wider Chattanooga.
In early June, the local Habitat for Humanity’s home repairs division: Neighborhood Revitalization Program, partnered with GHC to conduct a day of volunteering called the Beautification Blitz. Weather caused a few delays, but overall, the event was a success, in that several new homeowners were registered for the help Habitat can provide with major repairs and improvements.
As for the former Glass House building, it was purchased by Michele Peterson, who has turned the space into ArchWay, an initiative geared toward community empowerment in business and marketing skills. To kick off operations, area kids were invited to participate in a branding workshop and contest to create a name and logo design for the building. The winning submissions received Target gift cards and gained experience with team evaluations led by Thibaud, Crier, and visiting consultant, Strat Parrott.
Peterson has stressed her gratitude to be partnering with the GHC team who has cultivated relationships with the local kids, piquing their interest in what’s stirring along Glass Street. Most recently, she sponsored a rafting outing on the Ocoee River, where kids wanting to participate in ArchWay programs could bond and discuss potential strategies to name and market a signature donut from Koch’s Bakery.
Right next door to GHC, the Magic Markers crew showcased one of their recent projects last Friday evening, August 5 to an enthusiastic audience of family, friends, and curious community members. The kids formed a panel afterward to explain how they wrote, filmed, and edited the original music video, which is a heartfelt plea to restore peace and innocence to their neighborhood.
Many spoke about how much they enjoyed collaborating with peers in the Mark Making organization’s summer film work readiness program. The friendships forged during Magic Markers between local East Chattanooga kids and other participants from areas like Ooltewah and Red Clay served to broaden their vision for the future.
Another nearby work readiness initiative gave local kids a chance to practice carpentry skills building stools designed by Glass Street artist Zachary Reynolds of Woodwise. The team of eight young men worked with Andrew Mollenkof at Hope for the City, measuring, sawing palette wood, and assembling the stools, which Reynolds will market to local businesses.
Woodwise has been a regular partner with Crier at Studio Everything on Glass Street, another partner providing open creative studio access twice a week as a healthy, creative after school option, and during the summer, a way to beat the heat and learn valuable skills at the same time. A huge part of the draw for the kids is just getting to hang around Crier, who manages to challenge ambitious kids without scaring away those who are completely new to the woodshop environment.
If you haven’t been out to visit Glass Street before, there are plenty of reasons to plug into what GHC has been cultivating and facilitating lately. To stay connected, visit: www.glasshousecollective.org, where you can subscribe to the GHC newsletter and connect to their various social media postings.