December 11, 2019 | Cultivating Community: How Placemaking Helped Us Heal | By: Jenny Enslen Stubbs |
The original concept rendering for The Alleyway/Tulotoma Snail Trail. Credit: Design and Drawings by Anna Powers in partnership with Main Street Wetumpka
In 2017, newly designated Main Street Wetumpka found purpose in the Tulotoma Snail Trail, its cultivating place project utilizing art to tell the history of its community. But while the project proved a useful tool in its revitalization efforts from the start, the true test of its success came after an EF-2 tornado touched down and devastated its community.
When learning about the history of Wetumpka, a picturesque town 10 miles north of Montgomery, Alabama, one would almost believe its storied tales are a work of fiction. From asteroids blasting into bedrock, destruction of dinosaurs, and endangered river snails to French and Creek villages and Rosenwald schools, its history is undeniably a remarkable one. This unusual identity helps create both a sense and pride of place that is easily found among its residents. But decades of change in living landscapes and shifting economies led to a deteriorating downtown, making the organization of Main Street Wetumpka in 2016 an important turning point in the community’s story. When natural disaster struck and instantly altered the town’s identity, Main Street’s Tulotoma Snail Trail quickly became a symbol of hope and perseverance.
A Change of “Place”
Hurling winds of up to 135 miles per hour, the violent EF-2 tornado primarily struck Wetumpka’s western historic district, destroying beloved antebellum buildings and damaging over 30 homes and numerous businesses, many beyond repair. The City’s police department and its senior center, used for decades as the City’s community hall, were gone within seconds.
But instead of crumbling, the crisis brought about the need for reshaping, reimagining and cultivating its places. Like many communities, Wetumpkians value the unique and eclectic identity of their downtown. But how can these spaces, some of them now blank canvases, be utilized in a way that is not only relevant to the current climate, but also improves the quality of life for its diverse group of residents, some left bewildered and displaced?
Placemaking has the potential to create long-term vitality while also strengthening and bringing cohesion to an environment in desperate need of healing. Although created before the tornado, the primary objectives of the Tulotoma Snail Trail have remained the same: to educate, inspire and sustain its downtown community, leading to greater prosperity and connection.
Inspiration through Education
Every community has a story to tell. What if your town helped shape a Nobel Prize winner? Or was the birthplace of the first African American federal chief judge? Would you be inspired to dream bigger, knowing you shared the same community?
This premise helped pushed the initial concept and progress of the “snail trail.” Knowing local schools don’t have much time to devote to teaching community history, cultivating place projects can inspire and educate a generation of youth about its own history while also promoting art and local artists. With the addition of seating and more usable elements in these projects, residents become comfortable gathering together in an environment of learning and art.
Today, a venue space is being created with greenscapes, lighting and seating. It’s centered around a 90-foot historic timeline mural that includes people like George Smoot, III, a Nobel Prize winner in Physics, along with William Benson Bryant, former Senior Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. Both with Wetumpka ties; both standards of education and inspiration for all those who visit downtown.
Strength and Sustainability
If you want a downtown to be sustainable, help people become invested and intentional in community spaces. Fostering place attachment is an integral part of encouraging people to remain and help improve their communities. Placemaking allows for small communities like Wetumpka to reinvent themselves in a way that emphasizes authenticity.
In the days following the tornado, there were literally more people volunteering than could be accommodated in downtown. Within hours of the storm, over 700 volunteers had gathered. But local downtown businesses poured gratitude and love by handing out cups of coffee and hot chocolate and making sure sandwiches were handed to truckloads of volunteers helping with the clean up. The investment of love was reciprocated, and a greater appreciation for community was fostered from the experience. But besides businesses, where do these people return? They return to these cultivated places they can gather as friends in a welcome environment, purposefully made by them and for them.
Build Hope a Home
Community is empowered by a greater sense of place and identity, which has continued to be brought about by the Tulotoma Snail Trail’s implementation of art history and cultivated spaces, linking its present and future with its past. Main Street Wetumpka has witnessed a ripple effect, leading its signature, multi-pronged cultivating place project to be the change needed to catapult a community forward during the rebuilding and revitalization of its historic downtown.
When you are proud of something, you tend to take better care of it. Why would that be any different when it comes to the sentiment one feels for his or her community? Here are just a few of the benefits received after implementing our cultivating place project:
• Utilizes local resources, celebrates community talents and helps manifest sense of place and pride of place
• Builds momentum and gives hope when needed
• Encourages community buy-in
• Potential venue spaces created in the process
• Youth become more involved and invested in community’s future
• Leads to opportunity for events to garner foot traffic, fundraise and promote tourism in downtown
• Educates, encourages being active with bike racks and pedestrian-friendly spaces, building community and better quality of life
• Serves as a needed distraction from other projects that may be stalled
• Shows visible progress, establishing credibility and leading to more support and resources for other projectsAuthor Bio:
After graduating in communication studies from the University of Alabama in 2001, Jenny Enslen Stubbs spent nearly 20 years in the publishing industry, primarily as writer, editor and publisher of magazines focused on whole living and sustainability. After becoming her hometown's first Main Street director in 2016, Stubbs has continued to use her story-telling background to help cultivate and authenticate her own community's downtown experience. Stubbs and her husband Troy have four children and are involved in many community causes.