Chelsea Schneider, Innovations Content Manager, Aim
A favorite pastime of Brooklynn Shively and Teryn Stanley is taking photos in unique settings. But all too often their hobby meant the friends and high school students from Angola would need to travel to bigger cities as they searched for the perfect background.
“We started discussing how cool it would be to have something in our downtown area like that,” Shively said. “We just felt like it would liven it up and create more foot traffic in our area – and more social media influence from our little city.”
The teens took their idea to Angola Mayor Richard Hickman and city leaders. The result: the northeastern Indiana community now boasts an artistic space called Imagine Alley.
A series of murals and hanging plants invite community members into the space, where they can sit at tables and chairs to strike up a conversation or relax. The alley, which cuts through two brick buildings, serves as a major walkway to enter the downtown’s public square. Going beyond its utilitarian purpose, the former passthrough is a downtown destination in itself.
“Art is a mirror of who we are as a culture, who we are individually. Being able to see ourselves in that way gives emotional ties to where we live and to each other,” said Maria Davis, downtown services coordinator for Angola. “Art is a way to bring people together of all walks of life. It has a positive effect in inclusion and diversity – and I think that’s a message to talk about now.”
The alley’s design allows for the easy interchange of artwork, with the pieces displayed on frames built into the space. Several community members have featured paintings, including a local artist who decorated one of the alley’s old wooden doorways and a local nonprofit, which serves individuals with economic, physical and developmental challenges, whose clients created a mural.
The arts is a focal point of Angola’s long-term vision to strengthen its downtown. Another motivator to activate the alley was Angola’s participation in a regional conference of the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs, which included a placemaking workshop in the city’s downtown. That eye-opening experience meant when the two Angola students approached the city with their idea for art, planning staff knew just the right place for it.
“We thought, we got a public space that’s not being utilized and needs tender, loving care. That helped us proceed from there,” said Vivian Likes, the city’s director of economic development and planning.
“Imagine” was placed on the alley’s name for the vision the community embraced to deliver the final product.
Since Imagine Alley’s opening, it’s acted as a community gathering point for a local guitarist to play music and a grandma to bring her grandson to show where his imagination can take him. Even a wedding has been held in the alley, with the bride and groom excited their venue wasn’t just an office in the nearby county courthouse.
“Imagine Alley allows people in our community to become involved in our community and express themselves in a way they couldn’t do verbally but in some way artistically, they can,” Angola Mayor Richard Hickman said. “It kind of helps bring them into the fold of the community.”
Project organizers received a grant through Arts United in Fort Wayne to help make the project a reality. The grant required crowdfunding, and ultimately nearly $5,600 was raised for the project. Additionally, a group from Trine University, which is located in Angola, manufactured the furniture for the alley.
Among other art projects underway in the community, Angola is partnering with Decatur to feature sculptures on the city’s square and a major travel corridor. Decatur, a community just south of Fort Wayne, is known for its popular Sculpture Tour, which brings numerous pieces of public art to the city each year. To coincide with the sculptures, an adult education program in Angola is offering artistic welding courses.
Angola also has launched an Arts Council and is planning a birdhouse project where area residents and businesses will compete on who can decorate the best roost.
The city has made these strides by believing in a culture of “yes” versus a culture of “no.”
“Basically, OK, we hear what you are saying,” Davis said. “Let’s figure it out amongst all of the things that have to be done and all of the ordinances that exist. Is there a way to be able to think outside of the box to be able to do that? The mayor is an awesome leader and allows us to work on these projects in order to make the community better.”
The alley also provided an immersive experience into local government for the two students. The teens learned, “you can’t just go up and paint on a wall,” Stanley said.
“There were a lot more steps to it,” Stanley said. “But we really appreciate the support of the community. We came in with this idea, and the city grabbed onto it.”