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The Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center wants to be a torch-bearer for neighborhood renewal

When neighbors see flames leaping up inside the former Wreck Brothers auto-body shop at 3749 Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis, they'll need to remember not to call the first responders. The building won't be burning down. It'll be doing its part to build up the neighborhood.
The shop, originally a silent-movie house, is being transformed into the Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center (CAFAC), a school, exhibition venue, and studio building devoted to pretty much any art form or art process that uses heat, sparks, or flame, from sculptural welding to "fire performance." The center's first classes--in blacksmithing, welding, forge building, and jewelry-making--are set to begin in mid-October. The building still awaits some electrical work and final permits from the city, but plans are going ahead full-steam.
CAFAC won't be promoting fire art solely for art's, or fire's, sake. The closely-knit group of six neighborhood activists who have been bringing the center into being since 2007 hope it will help heat up the redevelopment of the 38th and Chicago business district. And they want to give neighborhood folks, and anybody else who signs up, a taste of how empowering this literally incandescent kind of art-making can be.

Recipes for Renewal
Thirty-Eighth and Chicago is the hub where four of Minneapolis' 81 officially designated neighborhoods touch each other: Powderhorn Park, Central, Bancroft, and Bryant. In 2005 it was also a hub of urban decline. This being the Twin Cities, however, there were many concerned neighborhood people willing to take action. Community board members and other residents of all four neighborhoods began drafting a plan for the redevelopment of the area. Major points: a more pedestrian-friendly streetscape, preserving the neighborhood's fine old architecture, and exploring how the arts could aid urban revival.
As the discussions went on, six people who lived within six blocks of 38th and Chicago got to know one another and found themselves particularly attracted to the art-and-development idea: fire artist and instructor Heather Doyle, med-tech marketer Maren Christenson, attorney Scott Hofer (who later married Christenson), ad-agency art director Montana Scheff and writer Ryan Knoke (who live across the street from Doyle), and educational administrator Victoria Lauing.
"We were all very involved in the planning for the revitalization," says Christenson, "but there's a limit to what you can do as part of a neighborhood organization that meets for two hours a month. We began asking ourselves, is there a way that the six of us can just take on a piece of this vision and make it happen?"

SPEAK-ing Out
In 2006 Doyle forged ahead and founded the SPEAK Project, in which she put welding torches and other metal-fashioning devices in the hands of young people, including juvenile offenders and kids who had survived the sex trade, and helped them to discover themselves as public artists. "There was a lot of tension between young people and the rest of the community," Christenson says, "and this was a way to build bridges, to have the kids give something back in the form of public art." SPEAK works showed up in parks around the neighborhood and elsewhere in the city, and soon spoken-word art and photography were added to the group's repertoire.
Doyle's five friends helped out with SPEAK, and as a welding instructor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, Doyle was also officially collaborating with Lauing, who is the program director for continuing education there.
The group also tried their hand at redevelopment by attempting to bring a franchise coffee shop to 38th and Park. "We didn't succeed," says Christenson, "but we learned a lot, mainly that redevelopment isn't rocket science and that we could actually do it."

Finding a Home for Fire
By September of 2007 they had incorporated CAFAC and were eying the vacant Wreck Brothers building as a possible permanent home. "The building owner listened to us," Christenson says, "but he just wasn't interested in selling." They did a marketing study with the aid of a grant from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC; a sponsor of The Line) and a business plan followed.
And then, on Christmas Eve 2007, they learned that there had been a serious offer to buy the building, from a taxicab company. The CAFAC crew hadn't done enough fundraising to be able to offer earnest money, but they wanted that building, and now the clock was ticking.
 "We talked to our mentors, especially Elizabeth Glidden, our city council member," Christenson recalls. "We approached the owner, expressing serious interest and asking for a little time to get things together. And we began fundraising like mad."
 The group's prayers were answered at one fundraiser, when another city council member, Lisa Goodman, suggested that the city of Minneapolis could buy the building through its Capital Acquisition Revolving Fund, a pot of money designed to allow the city to buy property in transitional neighborhoods and sell it to redevelopers. The city paid the owner, sold the building to the development company Artspace, and Artspace--a nationally recognized pioneer in the creation of loft spaces and other art-friendly properties--became CAFAC's landlord. Everybody was happy. "Artspace has been a fantastic mentor," says Christenson, "and the support we've had from the city has been nothing short of marvelous."
 "It really seemed like a very bad time to start a nonprofit," says Victoria Lauing, the center's administrative director. "I mean, in an economic downturn? We had to be crazy, what were we thinking? But we learned that in challenging times really unique and creative ideas are allowed to happen."

A Torch in the Hand...

    A month or so away from the beginning of classes, there's still plenty to do in the cavernous interior of CAFAC headquarters. But Heather Doyle, now the center's artistic director, isn't worried. "We are really a community project, and our community has been with us every step of the way," she says. "They know that we aren't bringing a lot of money to the table, but rather a lot of effort." And in any case, CAFAC has been designed as a work in progress. The center welcomes proposals for classes in fire-art genres of all types and, as Doyle puts it, "We'll keep outfitting the center for whatever new classes are approved. For each class there will be a new challenge."
The center will be the new home for the continuing SPEAK Project and, according to Victoria Lauing, it may develop an ongoing relationship with MCTC's continuing education division, perhaps offering project-planning and design classes to augment the school's basic welding curriculum. There will be studios for rent and a gallery up front to show off student and professional work. And despite little marketing so far, all of the October classes are at least half subscribed and one, the oxyacetylene intro, is full.
The CAFAC six would love to see first-rate professional art emerge from 3749 Chicago, but it goes without saying that their goals are broader and deeper. "It's just as important that someone who doesn't see himself or herself as an artist can come in here and create," says Christensen.
"I want us have a vibrant intersection here," adds Victoria Lauer. "I see CAFAC as a catalyst for a whole bunch of other amenities that could develop as people come here--places to eat, shop, see art." In fact, the neighborhood is attracting entrepreneurial energy already, with a pair of buildings across the street from CAFAC being rehabbed by a local developer, and other amenities popping up nearby, including the glamorous StevenBe fiber arts shop/workshop at 35th and Chicago.
All  easy metaphors about "lighting a fire" aside, Christensen draws a genuine parallel between the excitement of fire arts and the renewal of the neighborhood. "Putting an oxyacetylene torch in somebody's hand is a really empowering experience," she says. "Using these media gets people to think differently about themselves--and that's what this whole project is about: getting the neighborhood, and the city, to think differently about this intersection."

Jon Spayde is managing editor of The Line.

Photos, top to bottom:

Heather Doyle aims her oxyacetylene torch.

The Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center is in a fireproof building--old movie houses were built to handle flammable film stock.

Art-welding instructor and CAFAC artistic director Heather Doyle.

The graffiti-style metal sculpture in CAFAC's lobby, created by Doyle for the SPEAK Project, says "speak" in Somali, Hmong, Spanish, and English (and Hip-Hop).

The fancy openwork on CAFAC's mezzanine evokes the spotlights that once advertised movie premieres.

The Center's main floor will accommodate large media like metal sculpture, blacksmithing, and forging.

All photos by Bill Kelley




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