In Tempe, we are gearing up for our biggest event of the year, an art festival that has been taking place twice a year since the mid 1960’s. To give you the feel, it’s 8 city blocks, 370 artists, food vendors, a kid’s block, a stage and roaming entertainment. It probably sounds like a fairly standard formula, and one could argue that it skews more classic than cutting-edge, more approachable than innovative. However, classic and approachable is sometimes exactly what your community needs.
One afternoon a few years ago, I watched an endearing interaction play out, that has never escaped me. A young couple was pushing a stroller with their toddler boy soaking up all the stimulants of an outdoor festival. They walked with intention and made a beeline to a long-time artist vendor, a wooden toy maker. The man hugged the artist and they started chatting as if they were old friends that hadn’t seen each other in a while. Jobs, friends, children, movies and weather were all woven into this reunion conversation. While they chatted, the multi-tasking mother was “trying on” toys with her son. He seemed disinterested in the carved letters that might spell his name. The wooden planes were a bit more tempting, but his preference was immediately for the multiple train cars. The transaction took place; the group conversed a bit longer, then they exchanged farewell hugs and the couple moved on to another artist at the festival.
Nosey and curious, I asked the artist for a rundown of what had just taken place. Doug, the artist, had met a couple who purchased toys for their nieces and nephews decades ago. A few years later, they had a child and with great anticipation, bought toys for their unborn son. They brought him to the festival for the next few years and let him select his own treasures. That day the little boy was a grown man buying his son the same hand-carved, hand-painted wooden toys from an artist that had known him his entire life.
It all sounded ridiculous. You can’t make up these stories; they are simply too idyllic. But that story and dozens more that could be shared encapsulate community.
Events are operational chaos on their best days – from portable toilets to generators to food vendor placemaking – it’s a big undertaking that brings a lot of stress. But we sometimes lose sight of the magic that is taking place.
All over the world, our downtowns are the backdrops for moments of incredible human exchanges. We know this when we see children giggling at a silly juggler. We recognize it when we catch a sweet kiss as a couple ice skate at a temporary rink. We are moved by the family taking photos in front of a large-scale dreidel. We don’t want the evening to end at the Juneteenth Celebration, where the dance floor is busting out into the streets. We feel a sense of pride when we overhear a family debating if this is their 12th or 13th holiday parade. We hear stories of first dates, anniversaries, proposals, and family traditions transpiring amid our temporarily transformed city streets.
It’s a privilege to do the work that we do, even with the chaos. Many parts of this work are challenging and bring controversy and we can never please everyone. But this year, as we head into Spring and Summer, take the time to enjoy the magic that you make possible. And know, that just maybe you are creating generational connections!