3rd Friday can save Salisbury’s soul

A view from the Division Street in Salisbury, Md.I’ve said it and written it over and over, Salisbury is an easy target. But, as we mentioned in last week’s┬áTodcast, Salisbury also is on the precipice of cultural change. By cultural, I’m not talking about the visual or performing arts, although that is a part of it. I’m talking about changing a culture of apathy and surrender.

Depending upon which person you ask, the Salisbury 3rd Friday project is anywhere between five and ten years old. Variously promoted by the various entities entrusted with it, including the noble but doomed Urban Salisbury, 3rd Friday had significant problems over the years. Primary among them was the notion that it should mimic other art walks around the region, becoming a draw for the downtown merchants and, by extension, an economic engine for the area.

The problem always was, there are proportionately few merchants separated by darkened storefronts that long ago were converted from retail into professional office space. Leaning on the merchants, who saw no practical benefit in participation but who continue to participate gamely, was too much to ask. But over the last two years, the cultural re-imagining not only of what the event could be, but also what it ought to be, began to take hold.

The change wasn’t affected by the infusion of new blood, so much as it was a realization among the 3rd Friday committee veterans that the event itself needed an attitude adjustment, so they turned it on its head. Although they probably wouldn’t describe it this way, 3rd Friday is a celebration of what Salisbury’s Downtown might be. Too disorganized for the proper gentrification that should have targeted the area, on 3rd Friday, Salisbury’s plaza acts as a stage of sorts; a bohemian Halloween where all the professional offices act as a backdrop to a thriving arts center.

Another important difference is Salisbury is home to a significant number of professional artists and a magnet for others. These mostly are committed young artists who, because Salisbury hasn’t really found a way to support a de facto arts community, have crappy part time jobs or day jobs to support their art. In this way, it is a monthly coming out of sorts, where artists can shed their workaday personas and show off their passions.

And this is where the cultural change starts.

One day each month everyone can feel good about a downtown that supports the arts as well as a thriving retail center. The retailers, for now, are vendors who set up shop during the 10 months each year the event is held outside. Since the attitudinal shift from merchant-centered to artist-centered, the event has stabilized. It is not the hit-and-miss affair 3rd Friday has been since its inception. Rather, it is something hundreds of people look forward to monthly.

In the next year, the challenge will be to hit a tipping point. The conversion of the Firehouse (host to the Ignite event this evening) is an excellent next step. Similarly, the decision to open the Parker Place building on the corner of the plaza for artists to use is something of a masterstroke and Salisbury University’s investment in the Division Street gallery could be a real lynchpin (I guess it also is worth noting that talking about Salisbury’s future brings out the buzzword in me). 3rd Friday continues to be an advertisement for Salisbury’s future, an invitation to investment of both capital and attention. With any luck, those of us with the will to have a vibrant downtown can embrace it.