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Granite City: Where art, industry meet

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 8, 2009 - Can a crack in the sidewalk be beautiful?

Is there beauty in rust?

Artist Ron Laboray recently challenged his photography students to see beyond the empty storefronts, loose bricks and crumbling concrete that permeate the downtown core of Granite City.

Under Laboray's direction, junior high and high school students who attend the Alternative Educational Program focused their cameras on the streets and buildings of the city's historic but decaying downtown, the target of new revitalization efforts. The photo project was sponsored by the Public Policy Research Center of the University of Missouri-St. Louis in conjunction with Coordinated Youth and Human Services of Madison County, a nonprofit social service agency.

"We also talked about things that are special to your place. Characteristics that are special to where you live. Characteristics of your neighborhood and the people in your neighborhood,'' Laboray said.

The photos, which were exhibited at City Hall, did, indeed, offer a different perspective -- something Laboray is also trying to do as a member of the city's downtown rehabilitation committee.

In recent years, Laboray, 39, an adjunct lecturer at Washington University's Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts, moved back to his hometown and bought a house just a few blocks from City Hall. He joined the revitalization efforts because, he says, he could sense that city leaders are serious.

"Growing up here, I watched all the stores downtown eventually close. I would come back after being away at school and see the decay continue,'' he said. "And then, finally, you get to where it can't get worse, outside of turning to dust and falling down.''

Laboray said there appears to be a recognition that the status quo isn't acceptable -- that it's time to try a new approach.

That new approach is to create a cultural arts center in the downtown area, modeled somewhat after efforts in Paducah, Ky., said Jonathan Ferry, the city's economic development director.

"We're really trying to embrace and expand and define what it means to have culture in Granite City. There are some projects that we've been working on that could really enhance and define Granite City as one of the art hubs of the St. Louis metro region," Ferry said. "We're actually looking at combining the arts with industry in as many ways as we can. We've been talking to some of our industrial companies around the area, and there's been some interest on their part to look at starting a sculpture program similar to what Kohler has in Wisconsin."

The hope is that a new movie theater being constructed downtown with $4 million in tax-increment financing funds will entice residents downtown, where they would find an art community, including the visual and performing arts.

To an extent, it's about changing perceptions about Granite City, while celebrating the industrial heritage of the city, Ferry said.

"Not only does industry create jobs for people, but it can also be a source of community pride beyond just the jobs. It can be used creatively -- yes, we make something here," he said.

Alderwoman Brenda Whitaker, who chairs the downtown committee, said the theme is "Granite City: Where art and industry meet." She acknowledges that there are critics who disagree with the use of TIF funds to build the theater.

"Do they think we've lost our minds? Absolutely. This last election, I won by three votes. Some people don't get it. They think it's a waste of money. And they don't understand TIF funds and how they can be spent," she said. "A lot of people don't realize, that as blight occurs, if you don't contain it, then it just spreads like a cancer. We're trying to contain it and eradicate it."

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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