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Photo by Rob Bartlett

The West Art District makes an eloquent statement on the power of art to build community 

The streets of west Orlando have been engulfed by a behemoth construction zone for two and a half years – a construction zone that eventually yielded the new Orlando City soccer stadium – but many new visitors to the Parramore neighborhood won't venture too far past the monolith. That's a shame, because just west of the stadium a neighborhood renaissance is blossoming.

A little over a decade ago, the city of Orlando initiated Pathways for Parramore, an initiative to revitalize the historic community with new business investment, increased housing options, reduced crime, expanded educational opportunities and more public transportation options. Parramore's reputation for high rates of drug trafficking and other crime still lingers, even as the community and the city work to show the greater population of Orlando the vitality that lives on these streets.

That vitality is exploding a couple of blocks west of the Orlando City Stadium, tucked away amid residences, auto body shops and warehouses. The West Art District is a 50,000-square-foot warehouse at 1011 W. Central Blvd. that has been repurposed in a very unexpected manner. As visitors approach the block, their eyes are greeted with a vibrant symphony of colors. Every square inch of the former Auto Machine and Parts Co. is covered in graffiti, but this street art isn't the vandalism of delinquents tagging an abandoned building. As you cruise past local artist Lemus' 13-foot-high black-and-white portrait of Damian Marley, surrounded by brightly hued superheroes, dragons and pandas, it dawns on you that the West Art District is the newest and perhaps most authentic expression of community art in our city.

Purchased in late 2016 by private investors, the West Art District is a collection of warehouses that are being constantly decorated and redecorated by street artists both local and global. Harrison Rai, a 28-year-old industrial developer and real estate agent, doubles as one of the primary property managers at the site. It was his idea to transform the bare-bones warehouse into a creative space.

"We had the vision of an art district already," Rai says. "We pretty much had this vision of developing this area to make it into an art district."

click to enlarge PHOTO BV JOEY ROULETTE
  • Photo bv Joey Roulette

Rai, who grew up in Orlando, looked at the empty warehouses and saw more than a development opportunity; he realized that he had been presented with a literal blank canvas. He decided to turn the former automotive parts machining factory into an open space for artistic expression. He got in contact with a local graffiti artist who goes simply by Noun, and together they devised a plan to develop the space into a haven for artists.

On Jan. 3, they put out an open invitation for people of any age, style or skill level to come paint on any open space they could find on the walls. Using social media, they invited the public to come watch the artists create murals live. Within three days, every single wall was covered.

It's been six weeks since that first day. Since then, the West Art District (located on the corner of West Central Boulevard and Westmoreland Drive) has grown, and continues to do so with an incredible momentum. Their Instagram page boasts more than 1,300 followers, and is updated daily with pictures and videos of the art being created that day. The invitation to create is open and free of charge, so artists from as far away as Europe are requesting space on the walls in which to create.

click to enlarge PHOTO BV JOEY ROULETTE
  • Photo bv Joey Roulette

"I'm getting messages from Spain, Tokyo, Russia, Japan. It's crazy. People from around the world are actually looking at this," Rai says. He and Noun, now West Art District's art director, were initially taken aback by the response. Painting is by appointment only these days, and the demand is very high. "I've got maybe 30 artists here every week," Rai says.

To help them establish a sense of organization within this accelerated growth, the pair maintains a database that functions as a log of the artists who have contributed to the walls thus far. Although the database is not available to the general public, it helps Rai and Noun determine when an artist can come paint, where exactly the art goes, and details how much time and effort went into each piece.

click to enlarge Noun at West Art District - PHOTO BV JOEY ROULETTE
  • Photo bv Joey Roulette
  • Noun at West Art District

As a result of the high demand for space, the walls are constantly in flux. Some pieces have been up since the inception of the project, like the Statue of Liberty wearing a gas mask adorning the front of the building, which was created by Noun. Others may only be up for a week before they are painted over, making room for a new creation.

When it comes to recycling available space, there is a method to the madness. Noun is the deciding authority on where new pieces go. A Bronx native, he grew up in a New York borough that has long been a hub for stunning displays of street art. A follower of the famous TATS Cru, he studied graffiti and tagging religiously in his youth, and learned to respect the art form, the culture that surrounded it and the unspoken rules of this underground form of expression. When he moved to Central Florida to be closer to his children, he brought his love of graffiti with him, and was able to offer an authentic perspective to the creation of this venue.

click to enlarge PHOTO BV JOEY ROULETTE
  • Photo bv Joey Roulette

"For those that don't know the rules in graffiti, I use what they call a pyramid system to determine the duration of each piece, and how long it should run," Noun says, describing the process he uses to decide which spaces get repurposed and which pieces remain on display. "It goes: tags, hollows, fills, straight letters, text, characters, murals, productions. You can cover going down, but not the other way around. A tag can't cover a production. That's the rules of the game. If not, it's pretty much a form of disrespect."

As you tour the facility, it's clear to see why these rules are in place. An intricate, colorful depiction of Michelangelo's David by the artist Revel graces the western face of the building. On a small structure located on the east facing block, an intricate lion by Miami-born artist Chaya Av is on display. On the opposite side of the wall, a breathtaking portrait of a woman by Eduardo Smet faces West Central Boulevard. Each piece reflects a painstaking attention to detail and thus is here to stay, for the time being.

Residents from the surrounding area have embraced the space as an integral part of their community, a testament to the fact that the impact of the West Art District goes far beyond aesthetics.

Rai and Noun both attest proudly to the informal youth programs that they've gradually launched since development began. Children from the neighborhood flock to see new art and tend to the small container garden in front. Parents bring their children to the district to keep them out of trouble in a neighborhood that historically has higher rates of crime than many other areas of the city.

click to enlarge Harrison Rai at West Art District - PHOTO BY ROB BARTLETT
  • Photo by Rob Bartlett
  • Harrison Rai at West Art District

Rai tells me about a student who practices at the West Art District on a regular basis. "We took him in," he says. "His mom brought him over here. He'd gotten arrested for graffiti. So instead of him being on the street, now he just spends his time here. Now he doesn't get in trouble."

To promote a sense of community, they even offer scheduled one-hour lessons to anyone interested in dabbling in street art. Noun doubles as the resident art instructor, tutoring students of all demographics. They use a small alley tucked away within the parcel as a practice wall for novice painters. Most of their students are teens, many from the neighborhood, but the appointments are open to anyone, regardless of skill level or age.

"My oldest student is about 70," Noun says. "I pretty much try to teach them how to turn your aerosol-can cap into any other medium. ... A pencil, a pen, a paintbrush. It's just another form of paint, you know?"

Their goal is to help artists improve their talents and eventually learn to make a living from this art form.

"Eventually I want all these kids to learn how to monetize their skill and become commercial painters," Rai says. "These kids could actually make money because all these people see what we're doing here and they want us to paint their restaurants, their businesses."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JOEY ROULETTE
  • Photo by Joey Roulette

Palmer Feed Store, a local hardware and animal feed supplier located on West Church Street, is one such business. Bill Palmer is the owner of the store, which has been in his family since 1947.

"I asked them if they wanted to do graffiti art on the side of my store that faces Westmoreland. We're going for a fresh look. We always try to adapt to the changes that are going on," Palmer says.

A man with deeply rooted history in the area, he recognizes the change coming to West Orlando and wholeheartedly embraces it. He says that the art district has "definitely" had a positive impact on the surrounding area. One indication in his eyes is the transformation of local foot traffic.

"There's a whole lot more people biking here on the weekends," Palmer says. "That's just nice to see."

West Art District is still in its development stages, and isn't officially open to the public yet. Rai and the other developers involved in the project are hoping to have all the spaces – which are currently very raw – renovated and operational before the end of the year.

click to enlarge PHOTO BV JOEY ROULETTE
  • Photo bv Joey Roulette

Many of the spaces have already been leased to local businesses, Rai says. Among the future tenants he plans to work with are an art gallery, a restaurant and brewery, a co-working space, a yoga and CrossFit studio, several tech start-ups and a business incubator – the latter to be headed by Rai himself.

One of West Art's main initiatives is to give back to community in which they are located. Auto Machine and Parts Co., which occupied the warehouses for more than two decades, employed dozens of people from the neighboring streets for years. When the factory finally ceased operations last summer, those who were left found themselves out of work. Rai and the owners of the facility intend to revive the trend of employing locals by going to them first when they begin seeking staff to run the finished operation.

"This business here, before it closed down eight or nine months ago, used to give a lot of people that lived around here jobs for the past 20-25 years," Rai says of his predecessor. Since he's been working on West Art, he says, "I actively got to know everybody in the neighborhood. Once I get this all developed, those are my first employees."

Located one block from new Orlando City Soccer Stadium, the establishment of the West Art District comes at a very convenient time for the residents of West Orlando. The Downtown Development Bureau's CRA district boundary is at the corner of Central and Westmoreland across from the West Art District, so Rai, Noun and the owners of the facility are, in essence, picking up where the DDB leaves off.

click to enlarge PHOTO BV JOEY ROULETTE
  • Photo bv Joey Roulette

By developing the West Art District, all those involved are continuing in the revitalization efforts of this community that was once viewed as a loss. Palmer sees the change in the neighborhood and is eager to embrace the positive change he sees on the horizon.

"I've seen it in other neighborhoods that have done revitalizations," Palmer says. "Look at Thornton Park. Years and years ago, it was not a very great place. Now it's a wonderful place. I think in time, over here on the west side, eventually we'll follow."

Palmer and others in the community are excited about the change that Rai and his team are bringing to Parramore, and are especially keen on their emphasis on the local. In creating a space for the artists of Orlando (and Miami, and New York, and well beyond) to come and create freely, they have managed to also gather the collective spirit of a small group of individuals who live and work near the growing business district, and remind them that they are integral to the success of the place they call home. Placing the art district in the middle of the western neighborhoods is a reminder to those individuals that Orlando has not forgotten about them.

In turn, by allowing the West Art District to flourish in their community, these citizens are giving way to the city itself to take on new and exciting projects. Their community is embracing and encouraging change, at the hands of a few very talented individuals who have decided that the best way to encourage the beauty in Orlando is not to whitewash the people and neighborhoods who were here first, but to give them the recognition and respect they deserve.

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