Better Block Middlesboro 2014 – Middlesboro, Kentucky

Isaac Kremer/ May 10, 2014/ preservation, tactical urbanism/ 0 comments

Half a year after our inaugural Better Block Middlesboro event in 2013, we were back at it with a second Better Block event. This time it was a new location and whole new projects across the street from where all of the activities had happened before. Here is the story of how we build a better block again.

April 2, 2014 – So with a new project delivery system already in place and now well known by all the key players, we got at it again, this time focused on advancing our strategic plan through more rapid action projects.

The Maker’s Market was funded by a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission that was administered by the Brushy Fork Institute at Berea College. With the grant we had weekly demonstrations, talks, and displays by artisans and crafters.

April 11, 2014 – The Maker’s Market kicked off with Rookwood Pottery setting up a shop downtown for one-day only. They brought their wares from Cincinnati and attracted a small but very enthusiastic crowd. With that the Maker’s Market was born. What none of us could have expected when starting the market is how from day 1 enthusiastic makers in the community stepped forward wanting to be part of the market.

Here is one of our first makers at left talking with Donna Smith, owner of the building where the market was located. With this photo something new was started that reached out for many more months.

Our logo went up on the window, making it official.

We also had a local musician turn out. The power of having a recognizable leader like Rookwood present, helped to lift up and elevate local artists and musicians. We did not achieve this same level of sophistication each passing week. It served it’s purpose though, putting the Maker’s Market on the map and establishing it as a place for artists, artisans, and crafters to come to – as well as people looking to purchase their work.

April 18 – We welcomed a new maker to be featured in week 2.

And, sure enough, people showed up. One of the highlights was a group of home-based crafters who used to operate a holiday market from the second floorback when a shoe store was the primary tenant on the ground floor. In a way this connected with a much deeper tradition in this space that also connected with a future vision.

We even got some interest from a reporter with the local paper curious about what was happening.

April 26, 2014 – We mixed up the script of the Maker’s Market, shifting to a Saturday event intstead – this time featuring musical acts. Jade Robertson appeared for the first of what ultimately would be several appearances in the years ahead. While it is getting ahead of the story, standing in the doorway of the Maker’s Market she is looking out across Cumberland Avenue to the Levitt AMP Middlesboro Pop-up Park. No one knew that yet though because only a 16 by 16 foot stage rested on a largely vacant gravel lot.

April 29, 2014 – Walked through our next project – a neglected alley – just down the block from the Maker’s Market.

May 3, 2014 – Photographer Harold Jerrell brought his works a week later. Ever gradually the Maker’s Market expanded. This was just a precursor to the Better Block event a few weeks after. We were building the army with each passing week. As people walked through the doors they were invited to participate in the Better Block a few days later.

May 6, 2014 – We hold a pre-build and bring together a core team of local volunteers who will help with implementation of the Better Block a few days later. Some cleanup is done, materials are positioned, and we talk about what will follow.

“History” marked the place on the wall where larger-scale photomurals would be hung illustrating different periods from the history of Middlesboro. Never underestimate the power of chalk sitting around, or of the ability for kids to pick up on and mimic what is happening around them. In this case Tom, age 3, and Ed, age 5, give us a reminder, perhaps, of the tendency of history to repeat itself?

Artists get into the act, reproducing a famous Rookwood Pottery motif – the Tree of Life – as if it were growing out of the alley with the roots reaching towards the main street of the town – Cumberland Avenue.

As more people show up we get to work repurposing some long boards that we find on the site. The amazing dynamic that happens when the right people are found is that all you do is point them to a pile of materials, give them the general direction, and they get to work. As was the case here.

Suspended somewhere in the middle of what is and the vision of what could be are our volunteers, putting lighting up but not quite high enough. This is a detail we’d have to iterate on and find a way to mount the lights higher up. Though these were good issues to have to figure out. In the foreground we fold and carefully figure out what to do with a large triangular sun shade.

Finally, as the pre-build day wraps up we get a few of the team from both angles. Some people left, others stuck around for the whole thing. The alley transformation began to take shape, however, and it was a good pre-view of the full Better Block event still yet a few days off.

May 9, 2014 – So this was a Friday, the day before the build proper. Many of the elements were set into place, including the parklet on Cumberland Ave. Set in front of the Maker’s Market this gave a visual cue of the activities that would be happening nearby. Clustering the activations also served to draw attention to the Maker’s Market and the event as a whole. Because Cumberland Ave was a state highway we only had a temporary use permit to leave this out for a few days. Bigger interventions to this overly wide road and its unsafe high-speed traffic passing through would have to largely wait.

As work commenced our musician friend who had been at the first Maker’s Market in April, showed up again, this time to set up on the pallet chair. Note the sidewalk stencil “It’s Good to Be Here.” This was introduced during the Better Block event six months ago in 2013.

By now the Maker’s Market had started to expand, going all the way to the back of the storefront. We set it up as a refresh area for volunteers. Note the stack of pizzas. We also had the volunteers who traveled in from Lexington bring a few large boxes of donuts from one of the top bakeries. This was a way for us to introduce new product lines during the course of the Better Block event.

The Mirrors on the walls provided a sort of “whiteboard” for us to experiment with different street configurations. Again, this vision of the future is one that we tried to grasp as the quick actions commenced.

This was probably the peak planning moment – from left to right was a Board member and spouse, two state officials, a transportation engineer to the right, and a brownfield consultant on the far right. And there I was in the middle trying to capture a quick photograph of it all.

After we wrapped the planning meeting all of our subject-area experts met for a quick photo outside of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks Home. As we had planned, the following day earnest steps began to take quick actions on a rehabilitation project that would ultimately require millions of dollars and years of planning if ever to be achieved. One has to have dreams though, right?


May 10, 2014

Team working on the Elks Home to get the Carrara glass cleaned. Della Rucker, author of Local Economy Revolution from Cincinnati observes.

The first Suspended Rhododendron, riffing on the “Suspended Trees” at MassMOCA at North Adams, make their appearance to awe of onlookers. Actually, it looks as if this is a perfectly reasonable thing to do on a Saturday. Stay calm and no need to get too excited about some upside down plants.

For the hard work it is always good to have a team. Many hands make light lifting.

Giving something for the kids to do is important while parents work. This photo was taken at the parklet a block away between the Public Library and Exploration Center. This marked the six month mark the parklet had successfully been in place without incident.

Back at the Maker’s Market we have our sign-in table and plenty of orange t-shirts for anyone who wants to take a part in the Build a Better Middlesborough event.

Details continue to come together in the alley. Lights are up, photomurals are on their way up, then in the distance an impromptu photo shoot by some passersby occurs against the brick wall. The unscripted nature of these events is one of their greatest attractions. They have a power to bring people together and spread happiness in ways expected and unexpected.

Close-up of the photo shoot as it happened.

Back at the Maker’s Market we have the Kentucky Proud program of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture represented. They brought food raised by farmers in Kentucky that also fed many of our volunteers and even a few curious passersby.

The cooking station was set up on the sidewalk outside of the Maker’s Market. That gave a way to engage the public and connect them with the need and importance of local food.

As the day closed we had some final shots to show our results. The Rhododendron were indeed suspended.

The alley was transformed, with seating, lighting, and introduction of planting elements to support urban agriculture.

And the Elks Home took its first step towards some form of remediation and rehabilitation. We packed in a lot for a single day in May.

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About Isaac Kremer

A nationally recognized downtown revitalization leader, downtowns Isaac managed achieved $350 million of investment, 1,300 jobs created, and were 2X Great American Main Street Award Semifinalist and a 1X GAMSA winner in 2023. His work has been featured in Newsday, NJBIZ, ROI-NJ, TapInto, and USA Today. Isaac is a Main Street America Revitalization Professional (MSARP) with additional certifications from the National Parks Service, Project for Public Spaces, and the National Development Council.

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