I just want to share a little personal perspective, and to some degree, express my regrets for not having much to do with it.
I’m kind of an old guy. But I’ve always been part of what can loosely be described as the counter-culture. I’ve known many of the area’s artists, and have been involved with the arts myself – mostly associated with music – from the raging punk scene in Norfolk and V.B. in the early 80s, to the emergence of a blues scene, to being a vocal advocate for alternative radio. I’ve worked with the Cultural Alliance, local puppeteers, performance artists, theater groups, authors, and a slew of other things artistic that are hazy in the fog of memories past.
However, I’ve never, ever seen anything in Hampton Roads like NEON.
I initially became aware of the effort to establish an arts district about four years ago when I first met Hannah and Jesse – its humble progenitors – to discuss something completely unrelated. I loved the idea of an arts district and believe I offered support and encouragement, but truthfully, I think my reaction internally was “Yeah – good luck with that.”
My reasoning came from the fact that for my entire life, every time a burgeoning creative movement was spawned around here, the powers that be always seemed to take a leak on the idea, and few ever received broad support. Others simply faded away when their supporters drifted off or they sunk into states of internal dissent. I’ve joined in on many cultural efforts over the years only to have my heart broken on an existential level too many times.
What sets NEON apart from all the efforts I’ve been involved in was the fact that it’s been truly a people’s movement to it’s very core. The net result has been that its brought out the most amazing collection of creative minds I’ve ever seen assembled around here. Until they started coming out of the woodwork – recognizing (unlike myself) that there was truly something different about this effort to create an arts district, who would have guessed that Norfolk (and Hampton Roads in general) was such a bubbling cauldron of creativity?
In my own defense, I did have an inkling of the possibilities after the initial Better Block project. I even wrote this glowing review. But I was still wary because, I guess I was scared of getting my heart broken again. I now know how wrong I was, and I regret not having been more involved.
No one really knows anything about my involvement with local arts (nor should they) because, at best, I was always a bit player. Despite trying to get better my whole life, I’m a mediocre musician. Six years of art classes left me barely able to draw a straight line with a ruler. I’m a good cook, but have a very unsophisticated palette. I guess I have a little bit of game as a writer, but my assemblages of words will never win an award.
But I used to be eager to jump in and volunteer my time and labor – even if I didn’t really have any great skills or talent – just for the sake of enabling the pushing of boundaries of artistic expression.
While some people were jockeying for power and vying for attention in ways I just didn’t have it in me to engage in, a much greater number were in the trenches, putting in the grunt work to make things happen. But our society tends to recognize those who make the most noise – not those who do the actual labor needed to make a difference. So, as is often the case with worker bees, my efforts – along with those of so many others – were squandered by people who placed their own interests or emotional needs above those of the community, and those artistic efforts faded away.
I truly believe the reason NEON has come together is that everyone involved is regarded and treated the same – whether they’ve invested in the vision by developing the properties, rattled the doors at city hall to extract cooperation from the powers that be or simply shown up to tote lumber or sling paint on a dreary day to help bring a mural or other micro project to life. It’s been a totally egalitarian movement with nobody claiming credit or placing their role above that of anyone else involved.
There’s an amazing lesson to be learned from this. If you want to place it in the context of the biggest challenges facing our region, it’s not much of a stretch. For example, in my lifetime there’s never been a more prominent discussion around here than how much better we could be as a region if we could all just learn to get along and cooperate with each other. Such efforts have always been crushed by things like rampant parochialism, lust for power, and greed.
I still ponder what constituted the trigger for driving us back as a society into a state of self-interest at the expense of community. It really reemerged in the 80s and there are a plethora of theories out there addressing what changed us (and I’ve ranted and raved about them many times before). But whatever it was, we’ve strayed away from the idea of being a village – or a nation. We’ve largely become just a bunch of individuals living in proximity to each other and competing for everything.
NEON demonstrates two characteristics that going forward, I wish to hold dear. One is how much can be accomplished when a group of people puts their own interests aside to accomplish a common goal. And the other is what can happen when a group of people ignores the establishment’s preferred selfish social norms and behaviors in favor of acting with collective enlightenment.
So, at best, I’ve simply been an outside observer to the evolution of NEON, and all I can do is try and learn a lesson and hope I can share what I’ve learned by sitting on the sidelines instead of jumping into the game.
First and foremost – don’t ever deny yourself the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than your own self interests. It’s truly the bigger things – those that can’t be quantified in material terms – that make life worth living.
To all those in power who’ve never been capable of getting together to help us move forward as a greater community, I implore you to look at what’s happened with NEON as an incredible microcosm of what can sprout when you put your own self interests aside and start thinking about the community as a whole.
And to all of you have have been part of the birth, growing pains, and maturation of NEON – the Norfolk Arts District – from the conceptualizers, to the early adopters, to the funders, to the creatives and artists, to the tireless laborers who made this dream a reality – thank you – not only for the amazing place you’ve created, but for the incredible lessons you’ve bestowed upon the rest of us by your efforts and example.
(Mike Rau thinks everyone should head to NEON on Thursday and Friday to soak in the symphonic crescendo of the efforts of so many creative and determined people in your community. Most if not all of the people who made it happen will be there for you to meet and thank. But even if you sadly can’t make it down there on one of those two days, the arts district will still be there next week or next month or next year for you to appreciate.)