St. Louis is often described as a city of neighborhoods, each with its own identity, story and sense of pride. Those distinct identities are rooted in many aspects — from the architecture, to the food and, yes, the arts.

There are ample reports and studies around the arts as powerful community development tools. St. Louis is no exception to this ripple effect. Take Freedom Arts and Education Center (a past A&E PNC Program grantee) as an example.

Founded in 2012, FAEC began as a program of a youth ministry in Brentwood. Twice a week, Andrew Gibson would pick up students living in and around the historic Lewis Place neighborhood in northwest St. Louis City and bring them to the St. Louis County suburb for tutoring and art activities.

In summer 2015, the church was going to discontinue the program, but Gibson decided to keep it going, bouncing between temporary locations until Apostles Church reached out offering Gibson just the space he needed in Lewis Place.

“The message was setting in that we’re going to pick you up where you live and take you to a place where good stuff happens,” said Gibson. “Instead, we wanted to say that we’re all in this together and building a sense of community where they live and go to school.”

Since officially opening the new space in January 2017, Gibson says there has been a shift in how the students see FAEC.

“Before, we would just go and do tutoring, make art, play basketball and leave. Here, they see the problems being connected. They see this is our neighborhood, this is our community and we’re not leaving.”

He adds that the students are embracing their neighborhood in a different way.

“They are using their creativity to solve problems they see,” Gibson noted.

Last winter, FAEC served as an ad hoc homeless shelter. Afterward, the students decided to build a colorful outdoor coatrack outside FAEC and fill it with clothes, blankets and toiletries for those who need them.

They have since created a bench for the bus stop and have ideas for creating bus shelters in their neighborhood.

“The message is better now. They know good stuff can happen here and it does,” said Gibson.

Not far away in Old North St. Louis (ONSL) is Central Print (an A&E grantee). Since July 2014, the nonprofit has become a fixture in the historic neighborhood, offering open studio time, programs and classes in letterpress printmaking at its facility in the heart of the revitalizing area best known as home to Crown Candy.

“Community members often just stop in to say hello,” said Marie Oberkirsch, Central Print executive director.

“The boys will stop by after school. Some of them think my office is their office,” she added with a chuckle.

Central Print also offers the Summer Print Studio, a free family-friendly printmaking activity funded by an A&E PNC Program Grant, at the ONSL Farmers Market.

Oberkirsch says the magical part of Central Print is when she sees neighbors of all ages who come in to use the equipment and studio space end up helping each other.

“Everyone becomes a teacher,” said Oberkirsch. “Studio participants become friends and give each other rides or eat lunch together.”

Just over the river, the Granite City Art and Design District (G-CADD) began in 2015 as an extension of Fort Gondo, the gallery on Cherokee Street that closed last year after a 15-year run.

“We started G-CADD as a new sense of discovery. It was quintessentially the land of opportunity with nine vacant storefronts,” remembered Galen Gandolfi, G-CADD project manager.

The experiment began as a concerted effort between Fort Gondo, Inc. and several other entities, including the economic development office and local leadership.

In the three years since opening, G-CADD has evolved to offer a variety of programs from artistic collaborations and free exhibitions to sustainability and rain water projects that are attracting residents from Granite City and beyond.

“When our alderman attended the first opening, he said he hadn’t witnessed as many cars parked on that street since the late 1950s,” Gandolfi said.

The team hopes to see it grow even more in the future.

“It would be nice to make this a street you don’t have to leave all day if you don’t want to,” said Marianne Laury, G-CADD curator and director of programs.

Since G-CADD’s early success, they have seen the two remaining vacant properties on the block purchased and redeveloped by local residents.

Across the St. Louis region are neighborhoods where arts organizations are serving as vital gathering spaces that create connections among residents, starting a ripple effect of positive change for us all.

For more about the ripple effect the arts create by supporting a vibrant community, click here. Make a gift to A&E to start your ripple effect today.

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