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'NODhouse' challenges a divide

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 20, 2012 - When artist Ilene Berman was moving to St. Louis from Madison, Wis., in the early 1990s and looking at apartments, she kept hearing the same advice over and over.

"Don't go north of Delmar," Berman said. "Once you live here a while, you know what that refers to."

Berman said she came to understand that the phrase "north of Delmar" labels that area as an "other," making it easier for people to neglect it. In her estimation, this "other" has one specific meaning.

"For most of the people using that expression when they spoke to me, that 'otherness' was an issue of race," Berman said.

For years, the issue simmered in the back of her mind. Then, in 2009, it inspired her masters of fine arts thesis at SIUE. She focused on Grand Boulevard and called the project "NODhouse". NOD stands for "north of Delmar" and also references a nod of acknowledgment to the differences that exist on Grand before and after Delmar Boulevard.

Delmar Boulevard is where the Grand Center arts district's Victorian-era street lights end. It's also where festivals like Dancing in the Streets and First Night stop.

Although it has a website and a Facebook page,"NODhouse" is a quiet movement, its message not shouted from billboards but whispered through embroidery on 10 strategically placed white linen napkins.

The "NODhouse" installation consists of the framed napkins hanging inside businesses on Grand Boulevard north of Delmar including Veteran's Currency Exchange, Queen's Beauty Supply, Grand Market and Cellular and Justine Petersen, a nonprofit assets development organization.

Into each napkin Berman has embroidered a different point from the "NODhouse" manifesto. These include commitments to: reject the divides between black and white and rich and poor, use art to challenge the Delmar barrier and act on the belief that "art can (and should) change the world." Alongside each piece also hangs a print-out of the entire manifesto and an artist's statement.

Though the installation is not large or showy or even visible except to those who stumble upon it, its goals are big. To begin addressing the Delmar divide, Berman would like to see the activities of Grand Center -- which defines itself to the north and south as Grand between Lindell Boulevard and Delmar Boulevard and which  includes The Fox Theatre, Kranzberg Arts Center, Contemporary Art Museum and Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts -- expand north of Delmar.

"By putting my own artwork there, I am saying that this section of town should be part of the arts district," Berman said.

A Place At The Table

The original idea for "NODhouse" was centered around a large concrete table on a lot owned by the city next to a vacant house on Grand near Cook Avenue. That's where the "house" part of "NODhouse" comes from. Using concrete to create a space for coming together contradicts the material's more typical use as a barrier, Berman said. It's a technique Berman has used before, in her "To the Table" installation, exhibited a few years ago at Three Sinks Gallery.

According to Berman, the project fell through after Alderman Marlene Davis of the 19th Ward in which the house sits, withdrew her support. But Davis can't remember exactly why it didn't proceed.

"I'm not sure why she was told no," Davis wrote in a text message.

Berman's Plan B became the gold-floss embroidered napkins. After she went door-to-door looking for locations in which to place them, Grand Boulevard business owners were happy to display her work, she said. At some point, she still plans to install the concrete table piece on the property of Justine Petersen on Grand Boulevard between Bell Avenue and Cook Avenue. Right now, she and her husband are working abroad for a few months.

Justine Petersen welcomes the installation, according to communications officer Galen Gondolfi. "We were very impressed with Ilene's efforts," Gondolfi said. "They've obviously transcended her actual pieces; she's looking at community-building."

Apart from the larger goal of addressing inequality, Berman's aspirations for the project range from expanding events like First Night and Dancing in the Streets to north of Delmar to bringing better lighting in the area.

"If people came out of The Fox or Powell Hall and saw lights on there, it wouldn't look so forgotten," Berman said.Roc

Lights, Sidewalks And Signs

Further up Grand, north of Delmar, north of Bell, and almost to Cook are $200,000 worth of lights on the St. Alphonsus "Rock" Church building, installed three years ago by Grand Center, which is also paying the church's electric bill for the next 10 years.

The lights are just one of the ways Grand Center is working to help its north-of-Delmar neighbors, according to director of events Travis Howser. Six blocks of new sidewalks on both sides of Grand from Delmar to Page Boulevard is another.

Other projects include Grand Center internships for students of the Clyde C. Miller Career Academy on Grand at Bell, and a five-year plan to somehow designate Bell as an entry point for Grand Center.

"Right now, a lot of people think of getting into the district by Lindell or Washington, Howser said.

Even though they share some similar goals, Howser, who's been on the job three years, had never heard of Ilene Berman or "NODhouse" before we talked. "This is news to me," he said.

Some of Berman's ideas aren't feasible, Howser said. For example, Howser said that a Dancing in the Street stage north of Delmar would cost too much. "Sure, if money were no object, we'd do it," Howser said. "People underestimate what you need to do to plan a festival for 10,000 or 15,000 people."

Berman also said that blocking off Grand only to Delmar keeps people who live and work on the north side of the street from attending. Howser disagreed. "We draw people from at least a 40 to 50 mile radius, so if that's the train of thought, our festivals would have to be 40 to 50 miles around," Howser said.

Aroma Of Barbecue

Five blocks north of Delmar, a food truck -- not the mobile kind you might see on Washington Avenue or in Tower Grove Park but a stationary one -- stood for the better part of three months on a lot at the corner of Grand and Cass Avenue. It's part of another effort to redevelop Grand north of Delmar. The truck and an adjacent tent make up Betty-MACC barbecue, which opened in September but has been closed for about a month while resolving a permit issue with the city.

Betty-MACC owners Mark and Betty Davis are supported by a micro loan from the Center for the Acceleration of AfricanAmerican Business (CAAAB), housed inside Justine Petersen. CAAAB's Parents as Entrepreneurs program works with Clay Elementary School mothers, fathers and legal guardians.

Long-term goals include a permanent Betty-MACC restaurant at the site as well as an amphitheater for talent shows and community discussions. Students from the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University are developing blueprints for the project.

CAAAB president Eddie Davis said the program encourages financial independence for its participants and spurs growth in the area.

"These types of ideas are very creative, and of course they take time and money, but I think it's the kind of thing that could help revitalize the entire community," Davis said.

Davis said his goals are consistent with those of "NODhouse." One of Berman's framed handkerchiefs hangs in the CAAAB offices at Justine Petersen, with the words "to share the process of coming together in dialogue and relationship to create positive change in my city."

Just as he has enjoyed the scent of barbecue wafting over the area north of his office, Davis also appreciates daily the messages Berman placed on his wall.

"It serves as a reminder of our mission to us and also any clients that come in and see it," Davis said.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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