Tonight, the Levitt AMP Virtual Music Series comes to a close with a one-time virtual concert featuring Trenton’s legendary soul, funk and disco singer-songwriter, Sarah Dash. Co-presented by the Trenton Downtown Association, the nonprofit behind the Levitt AMP Trenton Music Series, tonight’s virtual performance celebrates Dash’s 75th birthday (her special day is August 18!) as well as the community’s ongoing efforts to expand the mix of artistic offerings and revitalize the local economy through the power of free music. Tune in at 8pm ET/5pm PT at https://levittamp.org/virtual!
The arts as community builder
Located less than a half hour from Philadelphia, Trenton is New Jersey’s state capital and home to just over 83,000 people. Known for its Revolutionary War era historical landmarks, including the Battle of Trenton Monument (where George Washington earned his first military victory), the city became a center for manufacturing and ceramic industries in the early 19th century, inspiring the proud slogan “Trenton Makes The World Takes” still visible on the city’s iconic bridge. Like many other former industrial hubs, however, the loss of manufacturing and industry brought challenges to the area in recent decades, including shuttered businesses, a shrinking population and a high poverty rate. Still, the city boasts vibrant racial and cultural diversity with nearly half its residents being African American and nearly 37 percent Hispanic.
Since its founding in 1987, the Trenton Downtown Association (TDA) has been working together with other local nonprofits to revitalize the city’s economy while providing accessible arts opportunities for residents. For years, TDA Executive Director Tom Gilmour and Development Manager Meaghan Singletary have also worked alongside statewide organizations and companies like the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Co. to further develop the vibrant arts scene in the city. They recognize the importance of expanding a “thriving arts and culture scene that is representative and has the ability to become an economic driver and a community-building vehicle for the city,” explains Gilmour. Over the years, TDA had spearheaded several well-established and collaborative art projects—like the Trenton Film Festival, Art All Night and Murals on Front Street—helping Trenton forge a path forward by nurturing the local creative economy and expanding arts engagement, providing opportunities for the community to come together and experience the arts free of charge. With robust experience organizing community events, Trenton’s community-oriented leaders were poised to collaborate to bring the Levitt AMP Trenton Music Series to life.
Making “Trenton Proud” through Levitt AMP
In 2014, Capital Green—a rarely activated three-acre green space behind the State Capital in the center of Trenton’s urban core—inspired a concerted effort to expand opportunities for its public use, prompting the TDA team to apply for a Levitt AMP grant. They hoped that bringing the Levitt AMP Trenton Music Series to Capital Green would create public appreciation for the sprawling underused lawn surrounded by historic sites and help build a vibrant gathering space for the whole community. Upon winning the Levitt AMP grant, the inaugural Levitt AMP Trenton Music Series in 2015 was enthusiastically received and sparked new opportunities for both arts and community-building in downtown Trenton. Yet following its second summer of presenting Levitt AMP concerts, TDA realized that the concert series would better serve the community if it were moved from Capital Green to the neighboring Mill Hill Park, another underused space save for the Thursday Farmers Market, which had become a successful weekly event during the summers and early fall. “We were looking for ways to activate Mill Hill Park all day long, and we realized that moving the Levitt AMP Music Series to Mill Hill Park, and changing the concerts from Saturdays to Thursdays to coincide with the Farmers Market, would be a great way to introduce more community members to this wonderful open space,” says Gilmour.
In addition to its beautiful, tree-lined lawn, paved walkways and rushing creek, Mill Hill Park is easily accessible to local residents and visitors alike, with several residential communities within walking distance. Moving the Levitt AMP Trenton Music Series to Mill Hill Park grew the series, from an average of 200 people per show to 500 people per show by 2019, and played an integral part in furthering “the Levitt mission of providing free music to people, a great benefit that creates community involvement and attracts visitors,” says Gilmour. Many residents discovered Mill Hill Park for the first time through Levitt AMP concerts, inspiring concertgoers to explore the city’s nearby downtown area and providing a valuable boost for the local economy. “It’s become a great opportunity to develop the arts in Trenton, and in doing so, it has become an economic vehicle to revive the city,” said Gilmour. Not only are concertgoers able to enjoy a great show with neighbors, family and friends, Levitt AMP also helps them discover the many services that local businesses and nonprofits offer the community.
According to Singletary, the free summer concert series “creates a connection through the gathering of people, community members who come together to enjoy a great night of arts and culture, and a great night of music.” The Levitt AMP Trenton Music Series also allows for new music discovery, as it “highlights regional and local artists, who come together to put on a more dynamic performance,” says Singletary. Levitt AMP concerts provide a platform for creative collaboration. Singletary describes how in previous years, solo artists have actually formed bands with other artists they met through Levitt AMP Trenton. “These artists would rehearse with other area musicians with the goal of putting on a better show, creating a rewarding outcome for the community.”
Beyond the music, the Levitt AMP Trenton Music Series has also become “a platform for the city and for a lot of efforts that are happening simultaneously,” explains Singletary. Take Murals on Front Street, a project created in 2017 as part of the Levitt AMP Trenton Music Series, that exemplifies how TDA’s thoughtful approach to multi-layered arts experiences at Levitt AMP concerts have created a platform for local artists to be discovered and celebrated. For four consecutive years, TDA has partnered with Trenton-based artist Leon Rainbow to bring new life to a condemned parking garage adjacent to Mill Hill Park. Serving as the lead artist and curator for Murals on Front Street, Rainbow would arrange for a local artist to paint one of the garage’s 11 boarded up panels in the style and medium of their choice during each Levitt AMP concert. The weekly live mural painting became a highly anticipated attraction for the community and added another layer of excitement to the summer concerts. And by the end of each summer, passersby could enjoy fresh, new outdoor art exhibits filled with colorful and eclectic murals. “Our goal has always been to reach a wide audience through art that resonates on multiple levels. By painting during the concerts, which brought so many people into the city, we were able to do that,” says Rainbow. This community-driven outdoor art exhibit has continued to inspire beyond the concert series, becoming one of the destinations of Artworks Trenton’s annual Art All Day event, a celebration of the local creative economy showcasing local artwork in all forms across the city.
Since becoming a Levitt AMP grantee in 2015, the Levitt AMP concert series has continually highlighted the local arts and culture scene in Trenton, helping to revitalize downtown and bolster the city’s creative economy, while building a stronger, more connected community. With the ongoing growth and success of the Levitt AMP Trenton Music Series and TDA’s thoughtful approach to celebrating the city’s rich diversity through the series, in 2018 Trenton was selected as one of three communities to receive a multi-year Levitt AMP grant, securing Levitt funding for the next three years. According to Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora, who had focused part of his 2018 campaign on strategies to revive the city’s downtown, “a strong downtown is crucial to maintain a healthy community. Levitt’s three-year commitment to support free concerts in Mill Hill Park provides the City with a great opportunity to revitalize the city center and bring our community together.”
2020 would have been the sixth consecutive year of the Trenton Downtown Association presenting free Levitt AMP concerts to the community. While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the series to be postponed until 2021, the creative and proactive spirit of TDA continues to be in full force. In addition to helping local downtown businesses navigate small business relief and remain viable during the pandemic, TDA is also working to keep the community active, engaged and hopeful. In this spirit, TDA has decided to continue its popular Murals on Front Street project to keep the vibrant downtown murals alive. Each week this summer, through September 20, Murals on Front Street will once again invite different artists to transform boarded parking garage panels into meaningful works of art. “Right now, we could all use a little more positive energy and joyful, creative expression in our lives,” says Rainbow. “Murals on Front Street, along with the virtual concert, brings the Levitt AMP Trenton Music Series back to life, in more than spirit.”
In addition to the mural program, TDA continues to support the development of the Creek to Canal Creative District, a plan inspired by the 2016 “Trenton Arts in Focus” year-long city-wide planning process exploring ways to engage more residents in the arts and culture and inspire revitalization, with an emphasis on family-friendly engagement activities. The Creative District will celebrate and elevate the local artistic energy of Trenton while embracing arts-based economic development that will become a catalyst for positive change. It will further strengthen connections and partnerships between Trenton’s arts and culture institutions, local artists and creative businesses. The goals of the Creative District are to further establish arts and culture as key drivers of equitable downtown revitalization. “By continuing this effort, we can encourage the ever-thriving creative community within Trenton to spread a message of strength and resiliency outward,” says Singletary. The development of the Creek to Canal Creative District will further demonstrate the transformative potential of community arts-based programming and arts economic development. Part of the Creative District vision aims to ensure the vibrancy of Mill Hill Park by linking it to established arts and culture institutions which will further position the location of the Levitt AMP Trenton Music Series as a creative destination.
A rousing finale to the Levitt AMP Virtual Music Series
Tonight’s one-time, special virtual show with Sarah Dash will treat viewers to a vibrant and upbeat performance that’s sure to inspire all with her rich, soulful vocals. Aside from Dash’s amazing musical career, having been a member of Patti LaBelle’s music group in the 1960s and 1970s and touring alongside The Rolling Stones and Keith Richards, local Trenton artist Dash has been an outspoken champion for the community through the creation of youth programs and supporting homeless mothers and children. Be sure to catch this exciting finale to the 2020 Levitt AMP Virtual Music Series, just in time for her 75th birthday! Visit https://levittamp.org/virtual tonight 8pm ET/5pm PT to experience what’s sure to be a memorable performance with Sarah Dash!