Saturday, September 7, 2013

Getting to know Hastings

Like many towns on the Plains, Hastings traces its development (after the Pawnee were forced to move to Oklahoma) to the railroad. But unlike some towns who's rails haven't been used in decades and depots that haven’t seen a traveler since soldiers returned from WWII, trains both freight and passenger continue to stop here regularly. It’s a crossroads - of train lines, of trails, of flyways for migrant birds, and of paths for migrant workers following the rhythms of planting and harvest.

Corn is king of the economy and ingrained into the culture. We tend to think of it as fuel for livestock and automobiles and a symbol of the Nebraska football team, but corn is a staple and a revered symbol for the Pawnee as well. Just the other day outside of Kearney, we saw a small stand of Pawnee Eagle Corn, once thought to be lost and extinct, restored and growing vigorously after a few protected seeds were found by the tribe in Oklahoma.

Amber in a garden of traditional Pawnee corn.

Pawnee Eagle Corn kernels.

Today, Hastings is in the midst of a modest revival. After years of struggling with a changing economy, development plans that took businesses out of downtown and slow population growth, residents and city leaders are looking back to the heart of their community for inspiration. A city that was beset with ground water pollution problems in the 1980’s, Hastings was named “America’s Greenest City” in 2007 by Yahoo! The progress that has resulted, which as one of our design team members reminded us is not the same as growth, has come largely from creative reuse and reimagining of what was already here - including former residents who have begun to move back after realizing what they missed.

One example is on the grounds of the old State Hospital, known as the Regional Center, where Prairie Loft is reintroducing visitors to agriculture appreciation, outdoor education, cultural traditions, and the wise use of natural resources. Also, the area that once comprised the massive Navy Ammunition Depot just east of downtown has been repurposed as many things including Central Community College and the Good Samaritan Retirement Village. And many of downtown’s buildings are being restored to new uses including The Lark, an art and performance space that is scheduled to open in December.

But the best story of reinvention I’ve heard here comes from one of our own design team members, Dave Stewart. He is a living example of creative reimagining of one's own life and vocation. A custodian for the Hastings College art department Dave, at age forty-nine, was inspired to take an art class and then another and another. That was twenty-five years ago. Today, Dave, who I'll write more about later, is one of the region's most important and highly esteemed working artists.

Dave Stewart in his studio.

A big question for the design team is - What else can be reimagined? What cultural traditions and forgotten histories can be restored? Who's voices need to be amplified? And how? Our design team was quick to realize that the mural itself will be a reimagining of the wall and the creative reuse of a place that was once a rail line and is now the Pioneer Spirit bikeway.

Design team visiting the mural site.

The process of designing and creating the mural are tangible examples of the too often forgotten role citizens play in shaping the place they live. We together through this process are reclaiming how the community including its history, current challenges and future aspirations is portrayed and understood. What was for years the unadorned back side of a strip mall, will soon be a collective vision of Hastings ongoing renaissance.

Rebecca leading a go-around with the design team.

Design team members in action.

And this may be the most important part of what we have been doing in Tonkawa, Newton, Joplin, Arkadelphia, Waco and now Hastings - modeling a process of community engagement that takes the form of a collaborative public mural. If we do it right, our artwork will be evidence of our commitment to each other, our conversations, research and new perspectives. Hopefully it will endure as a touchstone, reminding viewers of what is possible when we come together in a spirit of respect and affection to first think and then act on our shared interests.

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