It would seem as if Springfield’s new favorite night this summer was Thursday. If you weren’t at the weekly Knights of Columbus Mega Jackpot drawing, you were likely out with family and friends trying out the downtown Y Block as a venue for live music – all for free, as part of the Levitt AMP Springfield Music Series presented by PNC Bank.
he California-based Levitt Foundation’s AMP (amplify-music-place) grant program, which started in 2015 and has awarded 33 communities across the nation to date, provides $25,000 matching grants to help communities transform an underused public space into a thriving community destination.
Our goals were twofold with our first winning grant application: to break down racial and other barriers by inviting all neighborhoods to a central gathering spot, and to bring the public into the decision-making process about a specific parcel: the city-owned, vacant block next to the Governor’s Mansion.
Our volunteers counted at least 7,700 people enjoying the lawn during the 10-week series, and we gathered personal surveys of nearly 500. Here is what we found out:
Diversity on the lawn
The Levitt Foundation has carefully thought out why each awarded venue must be a large lawn without fixed seating. This, and the fact that concerts must be free and family-friendly, ensures a welcoming environment.
We were excited to discover that our work to bring diversity to the Y Block lawn was effective. This year’s attendees generally mirrored the demographics of the city of Springfield, according to the U.S. Census. To personally invite African-Americans to the series, we partnered with UAct, a local nonprofit, which made a total of 117 contacts with people in 59 east side entities.
The Latino attendance was a higher percentage than Springfield’s Latino population. This can be credited to the Salsa Ambassador, Julio Barrenzuela, who apparently does not sleep. One of his many creative outreach efforts was to dance in 30 out of Springfield’s 40 Zumba classes before Merengue Night. The performer that evening said he could see more than a dozen nationalities from the stage. An attendee wrote us that, “I hope there will be more and more Latino bands in the future. It was so wonderful being around everyone who enjoyed our culture.” An area of improvement would be attracting more from Springfield’s Asian community, who were underrepresented.
The family-friendly atmosphere was evident. Nearly 60 percent of surveyed attendees came with their family. Forty-seven percent came with friends. More than a quarter of surveyed attendees brought at least one child with them to the concerts. And tellingly, eight percent of those surveyed came by themselves, which indicates the venue felt safe and welcoming.
The future of the Y Block
We hoped to create positive conversations about the future of the block, and when hashtags of “Springfield Pride” started popping up on social media, we knew Levitt was really on to something. An important outcome of the season was to capture the wishes of the audience to be shared with elected officials and others.
We asked, “For what would you visit this space regularly?” Not unexpectedly, 80 percent of those surveyed would regularly return to the south side of the block if it became a permanent bandshell or concert venue. The next three favorites were “Food Truck Park” at 45%; “Gardens” at 35%; and “Dog Park” at 22%. Playground finished fifth in our written list of choices. When people wrote in their ideas, they included “university,” “outdoor theater,” “tennis courts,” “residences” and “all open space.”
Will there be a year two?
The Levitt Foundation does award grants for multiple years to a community if it demonstrates a continued need and growth through the AMP grant program. To be selected, Springfield must show that the venue itself improves between year one and year two. As letter-writer Kyle Muskopf pointed out, there are obvious ways to improve the series– but that’s not the entire point.
The Levitt AMP grant combined with generous sponsors allowed the memories of the Y Block as a gravel parking lot to be erased by a welcoming, if bare-bones, outdoor concert venue. All of the public was invited into the decision-making process for the block’s future. Finally, Springfield enjoyed a simple, shared pleasure for which they could be proud.
Lisa Clemmons Stott is executive director of Downtown Springfield Inc., one of the many partners who made the Levitt AMP Springfield Music Series possible. Springfield will find out later this fall if it is selected for the next national voting period, which takes place Nov. 1-20. Fifteen communities with a large percentage of votes, and a compelling case, will receive AMP grants for 2020.