Rooftop of the Abandoned

October 30, 2012

The campus of the old Andrew J. Bell Middle School sprawls over two blocks of the Tremé neighborhood in New Orleans, with six buildings including an ornately detailed Gothic-style main building. This school was once a centerpiece of its community, though it has sat empty since Hurricane Katrina, its roof in tatters, its legacy on hold. To passersby, it looks like another sad representative of the blight epidemic around New Orleans. But Joe Butler sees something different in the bones of the Bell Campus buildings.

“Large windows, big rooms, great light, big communal spaces, these are all things that help buildings become more community-centric in their design and in their practicality,” says Butler. “It’s important that, one, we preserve these physical buildings, but even more importantly we preserve the spirit and the culture and the tradition of education and community that these buildings anchor.”

Butler is the local manager for a nonprofit setting out to do just that at the Bell School campus. His group is called Artspace, and it’s a national leader in real estate development for the arts, building and managing affordable apartments and venues for artists and arts organizations. In New Orleans, Artspace has a plan to turn the empty Bell School campus into a new, multi-faceted arts facility in the heart of its historic neighborhood, one with more than 70 studio apartments for artists to live and work and space for arts organizations, performance venues and community programs.

“We don’t have any buildings that aren’t regularly programmed with community activities. Art walks, art crawls, art classes, we do community programming in our common rooms,” he says. “The whole ethos of Artspace, beyond artists, is to really celebrate the cultural value of our neighborhoods and individuals.”

While the plan is tailored to the Bell School campus and the Tremé neighborhood, it shares an aim of Artspace projects across the country: how to create an enduring home for artists and culture bearers in areas that they have, through their work, made more attractive, more marketable, and ultimately, more expensive.

“I think it’s fair to say artists influence how neighborhoods have developed and influence the real estate market but very rarely have been in control of the real estate they’ve been influencing,” says Butler. “Artspace is a very unique model and I think it gives us an opportunity to fuse things which are often thought of as opposite. Because what Artspace does is, we’re a fusion of the whimsical reality of arts, but in context of what it takes to do real estate.”

The plan, and its financing, are coming together as Artspace builds partnerships with local arts groups and community leaders. Butler expects construction to begin in 2013. The hope is that this work will bring an important community asset back to life and, in a neighborhood seeing tremendous changes, to provide an anchor for the arts and the culture that has for so long been part of its identity.

“They require artistic infrastructure and buildings and spaces and affordability,” Butler says. “And our objective is to really be attentive to what the Tremé community needs and perform that role as yet one more piece to help that community remain strong.”

Written by Ian McNulty for the Community IMPACT Series and produced by WWNO in partnership with the Greater New Orleans Foundation. To learn more about Artspace, click here.

Image courtesy of Sashay Grunge,