Rebuilding Our Communities: Art on the Northside

IMG_0968-w800-h800

The Northside and Westside neighborhoods are Missoula’s oldest communities and have been home to many of the City’s working class families for over a century. Once thriving from the railroad and related industries the neighborhood has been hit by a series of economic hardships. Numerous factories have closed forever (some leaving a State Superfund Site in their wake) and over the decades families have left the neighborhood (and Missoula) in search of greener pastures.

It’s a story that’s being told all over America and more often than not gentrification is the common response to the problem. Communities like this find themselves losing their identity, their business, and many of their residents in the face of expensive high rises and national franchises. In some places this system has shown some success, however displaced residents still need affordable housing and national franchises often pull money out of our local economy.

Luckily for us, Missoula is more creative than your average town. Instead of throwing in the towel, a collection of locals have organized and set to work rebuilding their community with the help of art.

IMG_0966-w800-h800

In 2008 the Zootown Arts Community Center (ZACC) opened its doors on the Northside with a goal to create a place where all aspects of art, from creation to experience, could be housed in a community space. Six years later that dream has not only become a reality, but is growing and expanding at an incredible rate. Each month 700 people pass through the ZACC for summer camps, workshops, affordable studio space, gallery openings, all ages concerts, and a host of other activities.

But they aren’t content to simply provide enriching art experiences for residents. The ZACC exists with a goal to strengthen their community and create deeper connections through shared art experiences. This organization has helped to revitalize the northside neighborhood with their services.

Currently many of the ZACC’s summer art camps have a focus on beautifying the neighborhood through creating tile mosaics and public art to be permanently housed in Northside parks. These camps provide invaluable art education to the kids participating, but the impact this art has runs much deeper. The kids are learning to take pride in their neighborhood. They aren’t simply dressing up areas of the neighborhood, they are strengthening the bonds of their community, and the effect is already beginning to show positive changes.

IMG_0963-w800-h800

According to the North Missoula Community Development Corporation (NMCDC), “…there is a new breath of optimism in the historic neighborhoods.” Citing that, “For the first time in decades young potential home buyers are interested in locating in the area.” The reason they give goes beyond the relatively low cost of housing and stems from, “a sense of renewed vitality and community caring that is becoming more and more palpable.”

This “renewed vitality” comes from the efforts of organizations like the ZACC and the Clay Studio of Missoula. According to Northside native and executive director of the ZACC, Kia Lizsack, “5 years ago you would be afraid to walk down North First Street alone at night”. Today however that same street sees families coming and going from the ZACC, friendly faces getting an after work beer at the Kettlehouse, and most recently regular performances at the newly opened Stensrud Playhouse. Lizsack describes the street as beginning to feel like a “hub of activitiy”.

This Saturday the ZACC will be hosting their third annual Northside/Westside Block Party, celebrating the creative community that has weathered a number of storms and is beginning to stand tall once again.

screen print-w800-h800

“Growing up on the Northside, there was this idea that if you want a better life you have to leave Missoula. I never believed that and I’m the only one of my friends who stuck around. I believe that you can make what you want – the place you want to live – around you, and that’s what I’m trying to do with the ZACC.” – Kia Lizsak

The service the ZACC provides extends well beyond their Northside home. As Kia puts it, “The ZACC belongs to the city of Missoula”. However their location is a deliberate choice, one based on need.

“People are always asking me, ‘why don’t you move the ZACC downtown? You’ll reach more people.’ I tell them that I don’t want to be downtown. Downtown is fine. I want to be on the Northside because they need us. We’re here because when we began people didn’t want to come to this neighborhood.” – Kia Lizsak

And the need is certainly great. The demand for more art is coming quick and the ZACC has plans to expand their facility. As they move forward the organization is very keen to remain in the Northside neighborhood that has been their home for six years. In the future we can expect more workshops, more summer camps, more public art as well as increased outreach to seniors, and involvement in the schools through the Any Given Child Initiative.

We look forward to the growth of this outstanding organization. For more information on how you can support the ZACC, participate in their art workshops, or volunteer visit their website.

Check back here for the next article in this series focusing on the Clay Studio of Missoula and their role in the Westside Neighborhood.