Frontside 180: JXTA Arts turning vacant lot into a youth-designed art plaza and skatepark

A vacant lot in North Minneapolis is the site of JXTA Arts' youth-designed art plaza and skatepark // Photo by Tj Turner

A vacant lot in North Minneapolis is the site of JXTA Arts’ youth-designed art plaza and skatepark // Photo by Tj Turner

At the corner of Emerson and Broadway in North Minneapolis lies a small vacant lot in an otherwise bustling neighborhood. Though it may look empty and idle, the site is actually in the midst of a radical metamorphosis from a gravel lot into a youth-designed art plaza and skatepark.

Previously the home of youth arts organization Juxtaposition Arts’ business operations since 2004, the decrepit building had to come down this spring—a few years earlier than expected due to falling bricks that resulted in safety citations and mounting fines. Though they’d been planning to tear the building down for over a decade, the premature demolition left a blank canvas for the Northside youth arts organization to fill while they execute a four-year plan to raise $14 million for the new building.

“We didn’t want to leave it just as a blank spot,” says JXTA co-founder Roger Cummings. “We wanted to have it activated—wanted to make it a place for people to have lunch, to have meetings, to show projections and movies, to be a gathering place but also a place to be physically active.”

JXTA Arts founder Roger Cummings // Photo by Tj Turner

JXTA Arts co-founder Roger Cummings // Photo by Tj Turner

With a crowdfunding campaign in the works, Cummings called on City of Skate, a local coalition aiming to install world-class skateparks in the community, to consult on the project. They eagerly jumped on board, as did the West Broadway Coalition.

City of Skate co-founder Witt Siasoco says the decision to partner with a youth-oriented organization like JXTA was a no-brainer. “Skateboarding and creativity go hand in hand, especially because it is a youth culture,” he says. “JXTA comes out of a youth culture, it comes out of graffiti and hip-hop. Roger started off as a graffiti artist, and he knew what it meant to have spaces that were maybe illegal, or maybe it wasn’t signed off with parents. Skateboarding is that same way—I really love those aspects of skateboarding and youth culture, and that’s why the partnership is a perfect fit.”

A skater since the age of 10, Siasoco credits his exposure to skateboarding culture for leading him to his current career as an artist and graphic designer, citing magazines like Thrasher and TransWorld for sparking his obsession with design.

“There’s just so many creative aspects that come out of skateboarding, and it’s such a positive activity, kinesthetically, and also just creatively. It occupies every facet once you go down the rabbit hole,” he says. “You look at this graphic, then you start drawing, then you learn how to screenprint, then you learn how to make your own boards, then you learn how to sell them—there’s just so many things that you get passionate about with it. I know that a lot of these kids will totally grasp onto it if they’re not already involved.”

The youth apprentices involved in the skatepark project predominantly come from JXTA’s environmental design lab; about 10 students have rotated through the project over the last six months. To work in the JXTALab, youth apprentices must first go through the VALT (Visual Art Literacy Training) program. Once they graduate from VALT, they can apply for paid apprenticeships in environmental design, graphic design, screenprinting, public art/murals, contemporary art, and tactical urbanism, a term used to describe temporary, low-cost tactics to improve an urban environment in the interest of its community.

Though the apprentices involved with the project are working with City of Skate, the West Broadway Coalition, and JXTA instructors Niko Kubota-Armin and Sam Ero-Phillips, the students come up with many of the design concepts themselves.

JXTA Arts students review the plans for the new North Minneapolis skatepark and art plaza // Photo by Tj Turner

JXTA Arts students review the plans for the new North Minneapolis skatepark and art plaza // Photo by Tj Turner

“They’re the design talent,” says JXTA instructor Kubota-Armin, who’s also a practicing architect. “[Sam and I are] both in the industry, so we’re familiar with the vocabulary and teaching scale, things like that, but we try to translate it so that, as much as possible, the students are doing the work.”

“Whatever the project is, we try to find the appropriate way to use their talents, because often there’s stuff that they come up with that we never would’ve on our own,” Kubota-Armin adds. “So we try to harness the talent in the most productive way we can.”

The design chosen by the apprentices includes a skate park as well as green space, areas for people to come sit, and a performance space for concerts and events. Artistic elements will include sculpture and apprentice-designed mural panels invoking a “natural” theme, chosen in order to offset the heavy concrete of the skatepark.

The emphasis on the lot becoming a multi-use, public space is crucial to both Cummings and Siasoco. For Cummings, he wants anyone in the neighborhood looking for a place to hang out to feel welcome there. “We can’t just have a full skatepark and that’s it, that’s all it’s programmed to do—nobody can eat lunch there, anything like that. That would be not as powerful.”

For Siasoco, the importance of having the skatepark be open to the public is the driving force behind City of Skate. In fact, the organization first came together five years ago when the Minneapolis Parks and Rec board needed an advisory committee to map out a skatepark activity plan for the city. While he knows of several private skateparks around town—Familia HQ, Third Layer, and unnamed secret spots (you’ll never get him to spill on their whereabouts)—Siasoco’s focus is to work on places where skateboarding first started: public space.

“We need to start thinking about public spaces differently, and I think that’s a byproduct of skateboarding and it’s central to what we’re about,” he says. “Creating good public space is what skaters go to anyway. We don’t want to pave everything in concrete—you want to have trees, you want to have shade, you want to maybe have the ability to have something happening aside from skateboarding in that space. And that’s what this space will be.”

Two JXTA Art students mark the outline of the youth-designed art plaza and skatepark in North Minneapolis // Photo by Tj Turner

Two JXTA Arts apprentices mark the outline of the youth-designed art plaza and skatepark in North Minneapolis // Photo by Tj Turner

The skatepark and plaza project began earlier this year following a massively successful Kickstarter campaign; with funding in place and designs now in the final stages of approval with the city, and JXTA expects to break ground on the plaza next spring.

To put so much work and materials into something that will eventually be torn down (this is the same location where JXTA’s future new building will go, after all) may seem confusing, but its impermanence actually ties directly to the heart of JXTA’s founding mission: to create art that lives and functions in its moment.

“Just doing murals, we know that murals are temporary. There’s not gonna be a mural that stands forever,” says Cummings. “So once you give that to the community, it’s like, that’s it. They can take care of it, and if they want to hold it forever, that would be great. But we go into it knowing that pretty much anything is gonna be temporary.”

JXTA currently occupies four properties on the corner of Emerson and Broadway, including a gallery space, VALT headquarters, space for some of their JXTALabs, and a temporary warehouse space until their new building is up. Since its beginnings in graffiti and mural work, the organization has stayed nimble, constantly seeking creative fixes for ill-designed and underutilized spaces while providing a professional platform for young artists. Whether its an installation in the Guthrie or a skatepark to activate their own lot, JXTA is—at its core—a multi-purpose organization.

“It’s not just being an architect, but being an artist. Not just being a landscape architect, but being a designer,” says Cummings. “Coupling those things together, so that when you’re coming out of here you’re very multi-useful. Our buildings and our plazas and our places have to do that too—they have to serve more than one purpose.”

Both Cummings and Siasoco agree that JXTA students and the community as a whole could benefit from having access to an activity like skateboarding—something that involves little more than a board and the desire to skate. They also hope the temporary plaza will increase the want for additional multi-use skateparks down the road. Siasoco emphasizes that once you’ve got the board, you’re set. “From there, you don’t have to sign up for classes. All you have to do is roll down the street.”