I’m barreling down Interstate 280 toward Newark, N.J.  Navigating an eight-lane highway, I give exactly .001 seconds of attention to the sign I’m passing beneath: Exit 10 The Oranges.
Slowly, I turn my head to the right. Using my bionic vision, I see through blocks of urban blight, vacant buildings, chain-link-fenced lots, and discover a mural, full of color and motion, at the end of Stetson Street. I see a creative, innovative neighborhood taking root in an almost desolate triangle of Orange and West Orange. This is the Valley Arts District, affectionately known as “Hat City.”
Hat City is easy to miss. A highway crosses one corner, and a major commuter railroad crosses the other. I’m an avid practitioner of and advocate for the arts, but I’m also a skeptic; a mural does not a creative place make. But something tells me to circle back and check things out. It’s not an illusion. The vibrant revival of a once-ailing neighborhood — powered by art — is real.
One hundred years ago, these streets were crammed with industry. As the hat-making capital of the world, the neighborhood attracted thousands of immigrants looking for jobs. Just to the east, Newark hummed with factories. The manufacturing boom could be felt far and wide.
MORE: Why Don’t More Poor Kids Get to See Art?
And then the boom went bust. Hats went out of fashion, heads went bare, and 34 hat factories whittled down to zero.
By the late ’60s, I-280 dug a wide trench through the middle of Orange, and effects of the Newark race riots rippled west. The neighborhood emptied out. Families who stayed behind in the shadows of empty warehouses fought for the few remaining jobs — and a way out of harsh living conditions.
Enter Patrick Morrissy.  In the early 1970s, Morrissy was a bearded college grad from Detroit who enlisted in the war on poverty. An idealist and an activist, he found his way to Orange with a group of community organizers, eager to take on a pressing urban issue: tenant rights. His mission — then, as now — included giving local residents “a sense of belonging, a sense of pride.”
Morrissy put down roots, and helped others to do the same. He worked to stabilize the neighborhood by acquiring, renovating and selling affordable one- and two-bedroom homes. At that time, 1 in 4 properties in Orange were identified as vacant or deteriorated — a huge number. In 1986, he started HANDS, Inc., a real estate development nonprofit designed to fulfill Morrissy’s mission, one space at a time.
HANDS, Inc., made an impact on the area by renovating hundreds of properties and making them available to homeowners. But progress moved slowly. “Real estate takes a long time to make happen,” says Morrissy, 67, whose beard is now trim and white. “There wasn’t enough activity in the neighborhood.”
DON’T MISS: The Only Time You’ll Want to See Graffiti All Over Your Neighborhood
In 2004, HANDS, Inc., reviewed its strategy for the area with community leaders. “We made a list of all the goals you might imagine for a place,” says Morrissy. They included beautification, attracting business, creating career opportunities, engaging residents. “And it hit us:  The arts could be a driver for all of these goals.”
The idea started as a hunch. The community would leverage its greatest resource —vacant space — and open it up in daring and innovative ways. “But not so that we could sit in a gallery and sip chardonnay,” says Morrissy.  “We wanted to draw talent and culture up from the community and give it expression.”
How do you encourage the residents of a post-industrial, impoverished neighborhood to embrace their own creativity? That’s the 10 million dollar question.
Catherine Lazen, an educator and activist, took up the gauntlet. As a long-time resident of a neighboring community, Lazen connected to this vision, and committed herself to it. She wanted to get to the bottom of one question:  “What role do the arts play in building communities and relationships?” In 2008, Morrissy, Lazen and a group of community organizers co-founded the nonprofit organization Valley Arts to put an answer into motion.
They had their work cut out for them. Encompassing a 15-block area designated by the city of Orange as an impoverished commercial/industrial zone, the Valley Arts District would plant its seeds within an area long known for its vacant and dilapidated hat factories. As a nonprofit organization working alongside HANDS, the goal of Valley Arts was to act as a catalyst for artistic growth and creative neighborhood development. The challenge:  Valley Arts wanted to create an area that not only attracted arts organizations to take root there and spur economic growth, it also intended on drawing from the creative energy of the residents who had lived in Hat City for years.
“There is more here than just empty hat factories,” says Lazen. “There is a deeply rooted community that has been here for generations.” Much of that community, however, lacked a common, unfenced space. “They had no place to make a connection, no place to say ‘I know you.’ That’s exactly what the arts can provide.”
Lazen, 45, knew that the arts could serve as a powerful starting point for conversations about change and growth.  And it began with that mural at the end of Stetson Street.
For months, she walked the neighborhood trying to gather input on what story the mural should tell. “No one opened the door,” she says. Lazen gained their trust only after chatting with a young girl. “She ran up to her mom and said, ‘She just wants to make a mural.’ That was all I needed to get the dialogue started.”
ALSO: What’s the Country’s Best ‘Smart Growth’ Project? You’ll Be Surprised
Nine years and thousands of conversations later, Hat City is humming — and dancing and singing — once again. As trust between residents and community activists grew, so did the output of ideas, and access to space. Artists, both from Hat City as well as from neighboring communities, began to put down roots, just as Pat Morrissy had done years before. Affordable studio and work/live spaces opened up, even attracting artists from Manhattan (less than 20 miles away). The original mural on Stetson Street gave way to more murals, and galleries, and performances venues, and spaces where there is no distinction between residents and those who create art.
Accessible space has had a liberating effect on the area. And even though you won’t find a latte shop on every corner, you will find something much more stimulating: locally produced art integrated into the fabric of a raw, urban landscape.
You will find Luna Stage, a 99-seat professional theater; the Ironworks Gallery, home to ORNG Ink, a studio for local teens; Hat City Kitchen, a three-star restaurant and haven for local musicians; and Arts Unbound, a gallery and studio (founded by Lazen herself) dedicated to creating avenues of expression and empowerment for people with developmental disabilities.  You’ll also find the greenhouse of Garden State Urban Farms, teeming with hydroponic plants.
The organizations that took the Hat City leap of faith see their missions as more than just presenting talent. Luna Stage, who made the move to Hat City from nearby Montclair, jumped at the chance to “become part of something larger,” according to Cheryl Katz, Luna’s artistic director. She sees it as a celebration of community.  “I want our neighbors to feel like Luna is their theater. That our doors are open to them and that we welcome their ideas and their contributions and their participation.”
There is little more precious to an arts organization than space, and access to it. The key to leveraging vacant space in Hat City has been to make it affordable — that is how growth is made both possible and sustainable. “The growing energy and pride of the neighborhood is palpable. It’s tangible. It’s really an exciting place to be right now,” adds Katz.
MORE: How a $300 Million Donation Kept These Classic Artworks in Detroit
The hunch is paying off. That’s why HANDS, Inc., has pledged to create 100 permanently affordable artist live/work spaces.  They’ve already occupied 46 spaces and control the real estate for the remaining 54. This commitment to artists goes beyond their need for a place to work; they are being valued in their own right.
“Artists are bringing more than their art, they’re bringing their voices,” says Richard Bryant, Valley Arts District’s executive director. “They’re getting back to the table as leaders in their community.”
But the business model for selling art in a struggling region is a tricky one. Can neighbors afford to buy the paintings hanging on gallery walls? The challenge ahead is to continue to invest in local families, even with pressure for commercial success. “It’s a delicate balance between fostering a neighborhood conversation and bringing outsiders in,” says Lazen.
It remains to be seen whether or not the more affluent communities of South Orange, Maplewood and Livingston to the south and west appreciate Hat City for what it is — an organic, eclectic mix of local artists — and will support the neighborhood in a sustaining way.  Even with the help of HANDS, Inc., and Valley Arts, the neighborhood depends on the faith of individuals to take those risks:  to create art, to make their voices heard or to get off the highway and take a closer look.
“We cannot have an isolated arts district,” cautions Morrissy. True to his original vision, he adds, “This is our goal for all of Orange: to become the urban village of the 21st century. A just and beautiful city.”
ALSO: This Social Worker Went Above and Beyond to Give a Struggling Single Mom a Fresh Start