Musical group Suenatron, the audience at the ¡Sabor! Latin Festival, and Sadie Marquardt with Empress Dance

(Top left) Musical group Suenatron at Levitt Pavilion Arlington (Top right) The ¡Sabor! Latin Festival at Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks (Bottom) Sadie Marquardt with Empress Dance at the Taste of the Middle East Festival in Levitt Pavilion Denver

This past summer, Levitt venues across the country were a platform for cross-cultural celebrations and understanding, bringing different pockets of their communities together through cultural festivals and concerts. From Los Angeles to Bethlehem, Pa., Denver to Arlington, Texas, read how permanent Levitt venues created space to honor the diverse music and traditions of Latin, Middle Eastern, Tejano and Indigenous Mayan cultures.    

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The Levitt AMP program is all about building community—through music, through partnerships and through engagement across sectors to help create more thriving and inclusive communities. Among the sectors touched by the Levitt AMP program are local businesses. Today, we’re shining the light on how organizers behind three Levitt AMP Music Series—Fort Smith, Ark., Stevens Point, Wis., and St Johnsbury, Vt.—have leveraged their respective music series to support local businesses and stimulate their creative economies while strengthening connections within their communities.

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GRAMMY Award-winning blues sensation Ruthie Foster performs at Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks on a recent August evening at the base of the iconic blast furnaces that once powered Bethlehem Steel.

GRAMMY Award-winning blues sensation Ruthie Foster performs at Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks on a recent August evening at the base of the iconic blast furnaces that once powered Bethlehem Steel.

Two Sundays ago, echoes of Ruthie Foster’s smooth blues vocals invited me onto the Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks lawn during on an otherwise quiet evening. Following my 90-minute drive to Bethlehem, Pa., from my hometown of Freehold in New Jersey, my anticipation grew as towering blast furnaces—rusted remnants of Bethlehem Steel, known as “the ruins”—came into view, welcoming me to the historic manufacturing hub-turned-arts campus. As I arrived at Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks, I noticed a lush green lawn filled with the energy of a music-loving audience who showed up for the performance despite dark gray clouds and scattered showers earlier in the day. From couples snuggled into folding chairs to families lined up at food and beverage stations, to volunteers galore, the excitement for Foster’s free, live show was palpable.

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DJ Rekha at Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts in Westport, CT in July 2021

DJ Rekha at Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts in Westport, CT in July 2021

“I love free shows that are for all ages. I just love it.” 

This may sound surprising to hear from a DJ, someone we may picture in the exclusive and adult-centric nightlife industry, but Rekha Malhotra, named “Ambassador of Bhangra” by The New York Times, has never been an ordinary DJ. DJ Rekha’s goal is to “challenge the norms of nightlife” and make spaces “as welcoming as possible to everyone.”  

I had the wonderful opportunity to sit down backstage with DJ Rekha, just minutes before their show on Saturday, July 17, at the Levitt Pavilion in Westport, Conn, part of its 2021 season of free summer concerts. “It’s really exciting, they said, “it’s my 10th anniversary of being here. I love this gig, it’s one of my favorites,” they added, citing its open space and the enthusiasm of Levitt audiences “dancing literally barefoot on the grass” of the Westport lawn, surrounded by beautiful greenery and the picturesque Saugatuck River. Indeed, DJ Rekha’s infectious blend of bhangra, Hindi film music and hip-hop has been making people of all ages and ethnicities dance on Levitt lawns coast to coast, from Levitt Pavilion Westport where they had their first concert in 2011, to Levitt Pavilion Los Angeles, also in 2011.

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A concert at Levitt Pavilion Dayton in Dave Hall Plaza

A concert at Levitt Pavilion Dayton in Dave Hall Plaza

Happy Park and Recreation Month!

This July organizations across the country are celebrating Park and Recreation Month by using the hashtag #OurParkAndRecStory and sharing how green spaces have made their communities stronger, more vibrant and more resilient.

At the Levitt Foundation, ensuring access to green space is an essential part of our mission to foster equitable, thriving and sustainable communities. Through partnerships with nonprofits across the country, we support the activation of underused parks, vacant downtown lots, former brownfields and more to create green spaces where people of all ages and backgrounds can come together to enjoy both the beauty of nature and the power of free, live music through Levitt concerts.

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This summer and fall, Levitt lawns across the country are once again filling with the sounds of free, live music. After a devastating pandemic year that forced us to be apart, Levitt venues and AMP grantees weren’t sure what to expect while planning their concert series, however record-breaking audiences have proven that people are ready to come back together and build community through the power of music. “People are just excited to be back,” said Lisa Wagner, executive director of Levitt Pavilion Dayton. “Greeting one another. Hugging each other. Picking up where they left off in many ways. There has been a real healing experience of what we missed in 2020.”

Healing is exactly what so many of us are needing following the past year. During that challenging time, the Levitt network pivoted to create virtual programming, mobile concerts, pop-up shows and more. These efforts not only helped people feel a sense of connection during a time of great uncertainty and isolation, but also gave artists an opportunity to share their music and brighten otherwise dark and challenging days.

Now that in-person Levitt concerts have returned, read on to learn more about the 2021 Levitt season and how you can experience some of these amazing free concerts, either in-person or virtually. 
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Left to right: Levitt AMP Utica at Kopernik Park in 2019, Bunny Swan performing for Levitt AMP Soldotna in 2019 and 2021, Celloquacious at Levitt AMP Gallup’s 2020 virtual series

Left to right: Levitt AMP Utica at Kopernik Park in 2019, Bunny Swan performing for Levitt AMP Soldotna in 2019 and 2021, Celloquacious at Levitt AMP Gallup’s 2020 virtual series

Levitt is all about embracing the power of free, live music to strengthen the social fabric of communities. In the towns of Gallup, New Mexico, Soldotna, Alaska and Utica, New York, the nonprofits behind their respective Levitt AMP Music Series are each embracing this mission wholeheartedly by encouraging authentic connections with their diverse communities on stage and off, from Navajo Nation tribal members to Eastern European and African refugees to Alaska Natives, creating an inclusive series where all members of their community feel welcome.  

“Diversity is going to look different in every community,” said Shanon Davis, Executive Director of the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce, the nonprofit behind the Levitt AMP Soldotna Music Series. These Levitt AMP grantees are working closely with their local communities to ensure greater representation that is equitable and culturally responsive. After the tragedies of the past year, particularly for communities of color, we’re heartened to see these Levitt AMP sites work towards healing by celebrating the diversity of their communities. 

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Levitt AMP Berea audience members dancing during a 2018 concert.

Levitt AMP Berea audience members dancing during a 2018 concert.

Many college and university towns grapple with how to bridge the town-gown divide – a phenomenon in which a place that harbors two communities (the university and its student population within a town and local residents who live there full-time) experiences a sociocultural disconnect between these groups of people. While higher educational institutions bring economic growth, diversity and a youthful energy to their surrounding areas, local residents aren’t always accepting of the shifts to their established towns. Today, we’re shining the light on how two college towns – Berea, Ky., and Merced, Calif. –  are balancing the needs of both students and local residents through the Levitt AMP Music Series in order to foster connections, build relationships and create a larger sense of community.

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From left to right, top to bottom. Ann Brusky, Nancy Halverson, Meaghan Singletary and Sharon Yazowski participate in the “Expanding Place Through Adaptive Programming” panel at the Walk/Bike/Places conference.

During last month’s Walk/Bike/Places conference, Levitt Foundation Executive Director Sharon Yazowski moderated an engaging virtual panel with Levitt grantees from Sioux Falls, S.D., Trenton, N.J. and Sheboygan, Wisc., titled “Expanding Place Through Adaptive Programming.” The conversation focused on how these nonprofits continued to build community through the arts during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how their experiences and lessons learned have influenced their programming in 2021 and beyond, expanding their thinking around place, access and the arts. 

“This past year was focused on adaptive programming to continue to connect people with each other to offer comfort, healing, and a sense of togetherness, even while needing to be apart,” Yazowski said. ”Through rethinking their programming these three nonprofits created a sense of place and opportunity for social connection beyond their traditional sites.”

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Warner Bros.

Promo Image from In the Heights. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

A Timeless Story of Tradition, Hope and Belonging

Lin Manuel Miranda and Jon M. Chu’s 2021 film adaptation of In the Heights is an emotional rollercoaster filled with love, community, and most importantly, infectious music! The story follows two American Latinos: Usnavi (played by Anthony Ramos), an ambitious bodega owner with a dream to move back to the Dominican Republic for a better life, and Nina (played by Leslie Grace), a Stanford student struggling with her identity and the pressure to succeed. Taking place in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, or the “Little Dominican Republic,” Miranda’s songs encapsulate the grit it takes to survive in a place that is so concentrated with tradition and culture, yet often underrepresented and isolated from the rest of the city.

Even with the film’s focus on representation, the movie has faced criticism for its lack of Afro-Latino lead cast members, who are the predominant residents of Washington Heights. Miranda apologized for this oversight shortly after the film’s release a few weeks ago and reminds us that even for a movie with such a strong focus on representation, there is still more work to be done.

Nevertheless, there is much to love about the movie version of In the Heights, starting with its accurate portrayal of the long history of immigration and cultural change that has been brewing in the Manhattan neighborhood for decades. As chronicled by Smithsonian Magazine’s Nili Blanck, Washington Heights was home to Russian, European and Latin American immigrants (mainly Puerto Ricans and Cubans) in the 1950s and ‘60s. It has since vastly changed into a Dominican community. During the latter part of the 20th century, however, Washington Heights became known as a community plagued by crime. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that this neighborhood began rebuilding that initial spark of optimism and potential, which serves as the iconic setting for this movie musical.

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