My Nguyen

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Building a better block

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build a better block qr code

All signs point to “better.”

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine sent me a Facebook invite to Meet, Greet & Imagine – Granby Street: The Better Block Project. As I do with most Facebook events, I clicked “Attending” but didn’t bother to read the description or think about it further.

This week, however, I noticed that many of my Hampton Roads friends were also “Attending”–reason enough to investigate this thing further.

What I found was that The Better Block Project is a national initiative adopted locally in Norfolk to revitalize currently-vacant properties on Granby Street from Olney Road to Addison Street with pop-up retail stores, local art galleries, public art space, cafes, food trucks, live music and more.

“Better Block provides an opportunity to envision the possibilities in an underutilized area,” City Manager Marcus D. Jones said. “It provides small business owners an opportunity to run their business and the city the data to discover ways to better serve them.”

better block project map

(Courtesy of Team Build A Better Block)

Broadly, The Better Block is an open-sourced project that other cities are invited to re-use and build upon for their own purposes. Since 2010, the Better Block approach has been used in over forty cities, including Dallas, Philadelphia and San Francisco, to illustrate how blocks can be revived and improve community culture, safety, health and economics. Following these Better Block events, these cities reported gaining a greater understanding from elected officials, leaders and citizens of the potential for permanent improvements.

better block schedule

(Courtesy of Team Build A Better Block)

The Better Block Project event spanned two days, but I was unable to attend Friday night’s festivities. When Saturday afternoon rolled around, however, I grabbed my gal pal Anne, and we headed downtown.

As we approached the “better block,” I instantly felt the positive energy and enthusiasm permeating the streets. Live music and excited chatter filled the air, complementing the smells of of Hubcap Grill’s out-of-this-world tacos. In other words, it was the best kind of sensory overload.

For a part of Granby Street that is typically desserted, the Granby Street before me was alive with a sense of community, activism and conviction. Best of all, it was full of people!

Not knowing where to start, but intent to see it all, Anne and I started at Zedd’s parking lot. With a towering bamboo installation above us, we watched as members from the Chrysler Museum did a glass-blowing demonstration right there on the lot.

Anne and My at Build a Better Block

Posing with Anne’s new succulent plant.

From there, we admired sidewalk chalk creations and graffiti art, bobbed our heads to the sounds of street musicians, browsed local vendor’s offerings and gawked over the most whimsical terrariums. Anne ended up nabbing an adorable succulent plant from Glass Gardens.

We ended up staying until the event began shutting down for the day. As we walked back to the car, Anne and I both commented how nice the afternoon had been.

What a benefit to Hampton Roads as a whole, I thought to myself, if Granby Street could sustain that kind of activity and spiritedness year round.

Moving to the Hampton Roads area a year and nine months ago, one of the things that struck me most about downtown Norfolk was how many empty storefronts there were. Certainly, there are the vibrant, more bustling parts downtown, but overwhelmingly, there seemed to be a lack of “life” there. On one of my first trips downtown, I remember walking along Granby Street with one of my best friends visiting from New York one evening, and both of us remarking at the same time that it appeared we were the only people on the block.

Given that memory, I love the idea of the Better Block Project. What’s more, as the daughter of small business owners–my parents own a laundromat back home in Charleston that endures solely from local patronage–I recognize how important it to is to support our local businesses and to rebuild the often abandoned and unfilled spaces that surround them.

I was impressed with the project’s execution and turnout and hope that it’s only one in the series of many like-minded initiatives launched and attended by big-hearted people who want to see the area thrive. I’d also like to count myself among them.

– M


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