"Freedom Square: Crossroads for revival"
Garden, church, activist group work to make Troy block a destination point
By Kenneth C. Crowe II
TROY — The North Central block of Sixth Avenue between Glen and 101st streets is becoming an oasis in one of the city's poorest and overlooked neighborhoods.
This isn't a sudden blossoming, but a slowly evolving effort by The Sanctuary for Independent Media and other groups.
Whether it's the Collard City Growers community garden at midblock, the Missing Link AME Zion Church at the corner of 101st Street where North Central and South Lansingburgh meet or the Sanctuary itself, momentum is building to move the neighborhood ahead. Also involved is Troy Bike Rescue in the block to the south.
The development of Freedom Square at the northwest corner of 101st Street and Sixth Avenue is the marker for the transformation that started eight years ago when The Sanctuary for Independent Media opened in a Lutheran church that once housed a congregation of Lutherans and later Seventhday Adventists.
"We came here because it was affordable. We've grown and become more involved," said Steve Pierce, the Sanctuary's executive director. "Our whole thing is about arts and activism."
To assist in the development of Freedom Square, the nonprofit organization received a $50,000 Our Town Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in July for its Found Art in North Troy project. The grant was matched by $50,000 the city of Troy paid as a settlement for the Sanctuary's civil rights lawsuit against the city.
The legal action arose from a March 11, 2008 incident when the center was closed for code violations when it came forward to sponsor the controversial digital art exhibit "Virtual Jihadi" by Wafaa Bilal after Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute backed away from it.
Freedom Square and the related arts projects that will accompany it are viewed as a means of getting residents and the rest of the Capital Region to view the block and by extension, North Central, in a new way. Freedom Square is expected to be completed in the fall of 2013.
"Hopefully through the arts it will become a destination point," said Branda Miller, the Sanctuary's arts and education coordinator and a professor of media arts at RPI.
Standing at the corner of Freedom Square, Pierce and Miller, who are husband and wife, are optimistic about what can be achieved in the neighborhood that many people turned their backs on and branded as hopeless.
The four columns that will soar 30 feet into the air are a prominent sign of change. The columns once graced the city's Riverfront Park downtown along the Hudson River before they were removed to be scrapped. Pierce had other thoughts about their symbolism and they will be repurposed at Freedom Square.
"It's an example of something moving from downtown to North Central Troy," Pierce said about turning around the usual flow of city life into downtown.
Those columns evoke the concept of Found Art in North Troy, Miller said. "We're going to do it with found art objects," Miller said comparing Freedom Square to the famous Watts Towers arts center in Los Angeles and similar projects in Philadelphia.
The program in North Central, Pierce and Miller explained, gets residents of all ages involved with the community through the arts. They experience and see their surroundings in a way they may never have considered and in doing so see that there is room for growth and accomplishment.
Pierce and Miller see potential for the block as they reach out. Boarded up buildings and vacant lots are slowly becoming available through city auctions and negotiation.
They're also reaching out to get people talking to each other in the neighborhood. Plans are set for bulletin boards and establishing a wireless network for residents to tap into the Internet.
"We're going from low tech to high tech," Pierce said. Freedom Square was named carefully to show what goal the community can achieve.
"Freedom is what we need here," Miller said. "Freedom from hunger and all different wants."
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