Citizen Placemaker: Nathan Martin on Prototyping a [Semi-]Public Space

This article originally appeared on PPS.org and is republished with permission.

In our Citizen Placemaker series, we chat with amazing and inspiring people from outside the architecture, planning, and government worlds (the more traditional haunts of Placemakers) whose work exemplifies how creating great places goes far beyond the physical spaces that make up our cities.

The Bayardstown Social Club is a Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper outdoor space created in Pittsburgh’s Strip District by Deeplocal, a creative firm headquartered in the neighborhood. The space, a slightly-renovated vacant lot, is meant to act as a communal back yard for city-dwellers. While users must pay a very modest monthly membership fee to be able to use the space, Bayardstown represents am interesting model for semi-public space, especially given that it is the project of a private company, and was borne out of a desire to create more outdoor space for socializing without needing to “buy stuff.” We recently chatted with Deeplocal founder Nathan Martin to learn more about what inspired his company to start up this sharing economy-style outdoor living room.

What you’re creating with the Bayardstown Social Club isn’t quite a public space, but it is a very public private space. As a private company, what was your motivation for taking this project on?

My company, Deeplocal, is a creative studio with artists, engineers, and designers. We do a lot of advertising work, but every Friday we try to brainstorm about our own projects. We like to do things that are more for fun, and for us. A couple of months ago we were thinking about this really simple question: what do we like about summer in Pittsburgh? One of the big things is that we like places with outdoor seating, where we can just hang out in a casual environment. We have some amazing parks in Pittsburgh, but going to the park is generally something you do with group of friends; you go there for a specific reason. Usually you’re not meeting new people there. Whereas if you go to a bar, maybe it’s more about meeting new people, but it’s more of a constrained space. You’re there to buy stuff, and if you don’t, you feel bad about it.

We figured that the best summer environment is something like a back yard. But one of the challenges in a city is that a lot of us don’t have backyards, or anything that feels that friendly. So we set out to create a sort of shared back yard. Look at the model of the old social clubs—the Elks, the Rotary Clubs—there was a period when all of these social clubs were created. We wondered, why aren’t we creating social clubs nowadays that are just about gathering, talking, and meeting people?

Once you had the idea, how did you go about tackling the work that needed to be done?

Well we started by asking, what’s the simplest way to do this? We figured that if we could just get access to a vacant lot, all we’d really need to turn it into a casual space where people could meet and hang out would be a grill, maybe a stage where bands can play…pretty simple stuff. We talked to our lawyer to figure out how we could legally allow liquor. We didn’t want to create a bar! We did want people to be able to drink socially, though.

 

Volunteers & Deeplocal staff worked together to prepare the space. Photo credit: Deeplocal. Used under Creative Commons license.

What we figured out was that, as long as we don’t serve any alcohol or food, it’s basically legally like having a house party. Instead, we’ve partnered up with some local businesses, and we’re going to make a little menu so people can order certain items from places that are nearby, for delivery. There’s a natural food market store, and a couple of smaller, startup restaurants, and food trucks. There’s a unique challenge in Pittsburgh with food trucks, where they can only remain parked on public streets for two hours at a time. We specifically designed the lot to leave space that allows them to pull off of the street and be in a “private” yard so they can be out all night. Partnerships are key; it’s a great situation because we don’t have to worry about getting a liquor permit.

We also designed all of the walls in the structure that we built with mostly found materials; we used pallets that were donated from around the community. We made the height of all walls under the limit for a building permit so we didn’t need one. We found an area that was primarily commercial space. There’s no residential within earshot of the site. The whole area sort of shuts down at 5, and we start up at 6, so it allows us to not interfere with other residents of the neighborhood. It’s all an experiment. The idea was just to create the simplest thing that would be a lot of fun, and that we would want to go to and doesn’t cost a lot of money to set up.

Your website says you’re going to have 200 spots open initially, and then you’re going to see how people use the space, and adjust based on that. What are the virtues that you see in doing things quickly and iteratively?

It’s just like prototyping with technology, which is a big part of what we do at Deeplocal. When we have a new product idea, or something we want to work on, we always force each other to simplify it. If you can’t make some version of that thing in two weeks, I don’t care how interesting it is, it’s probably not going to get done. What I’ve found over the years is that, if you can’t take some piece of what you want to accomplish and get that part done in a few weeks, you probably won’t ever complete it. More importantly, once you start working on something, you learn really quickly along the way when it becomes tangible. Like with this space, for instance: we put some picnic tables in, strung some lights up, put in a campfire, and built two walls. Everything else, we decided, we’re going to learn along the way.

People also bring their own ideas to it. Now that we have people coming through the space, we can see where they stand, where they bring blankets, where there’s low lighting and people aren’t hanging out. You can observe what’s going on, and then retrofit. We know that people are going to tell us what they want. Right now we’re working on creating a cell phone disruptor; the idea came from someone who attended our opening night party, who said ‘you know, it would be cool if you had adult swim hours where, for one or two hours a night, it would be cell phone free.” And I said that’s a great idea, we’ll do that. Someone else had the idea for us to get some boomboxes and a box of cassettes, and let people take the music they wanted to listen to into their little area instead of having some sophisticated sound system set up. That’s a great idea because it creates this communal activity of sorting through cassettes which is a lot of fun.

Now that we’re open, I’m also starting to see groups planning events. Dribble, a design website, is planning their meetups now at Bayardstown, and some knitting groups and other interest groups are going to use the space to meet. Now we want to reach out to some of these groups that normally meet at a Starbucks or something and invite them to use the space. It’s kind of interesting to just try out different things. It’s not a profit-making project for us. I just like to do stuff like this, and it keeps my team motivated to do fun things. It’s something that we can afford to do because it’s not that expensive. The only reason that I have a company is so that I can do stuff like this.

 

Bayardstown in full swing on a recent summer evening. Photo credit: Deeplocal. Used under Creative Commons license.

There’s a lot of discussion about the grey area between strictly private and strictly public space. Do you feel like what you’re doing is part of a larger responsibility that you have to the community, as a successful private enterprise?

For me, the motivation is that I just like being a part of the community. Before I started Deeplocal, I ran an art group for about ten years; that led to me working in economic and community development, because I wanted to have more of an impact locally in Pittsburgh. I grew up in the area. Then I had an opportunity to build a company. Today we do a lot of work for corporate clients, but I’m still really dedicated to the arts community here, which has changed and grown a lot in the past several years. We’ve always tried to find creative ways to support that community at Deeplocal. For about three years we ran the Old and New Media artist residency with a local bookbinding group. More recently, we’d been hosting monthly Waffle Wednesdays, where we served waffles in the office and anyone from local nonprofits, foundations, museums, etc. could come and ask questions and get advice about projects they were working on. We would have, pretty regularly, about 75 people at Waffle Wednesdays. It was cool because it was a really casual, but productive social event. We stopped doing that when we moved to our new office. So I’ve been looking for a new way that we can be doing that kind of stuff, connecting people.

In the meantime, the startup scene in Pittsburgh has gotten much bigger, and the art scene has gotten much bigger; there are a lot more young people than there ever were in the past, who are doing interesting things. I do feel like I have a duty to try to create things locally. I want to be part of a community that’s helping to change the city.

You were talking about old-school social clubs, earlier, like the Elks and the Rotary Club. Those are groups that have the social aspect, but they also go out and do things in the community. Do you have larger ambitions for Bayardstown, in that direction?

I think it would be great if it does evolve that way, and we’ve already had people talking about getting involved in some of the vacant land reclamation projects, and about doing cleanups locally. To me, what’s interesting is letting people bring their own ideas to the table. If we can get some momentum as people gather and get to know each other in this space, and we can find a way to use that that momentum to mobilize people to do a little bit more, we’re definitely interested in that. Just like any sort of movement, it’s all about whether we can get enough momentum with enough people. If we can’t, it may just stay a shared yard!

I think the biggest thing to remember is that it doesn’t take a lot of work to do stuff like this, which makes it easier to take that experimental approach. If you have some ambition, there’s enough opportunity in most cities—especially in mid-tier cities like the St. Louises, or Milwaukees, or Pittsburghs of the world, where people want more of the interesting stuff that they see happening in bigger cities. You have almost more opportunity in a smaller city to just go out and do it, and learn through doing before you go through all of the hassle of making something more permanent. I’m a big fan of asking for forgiveness later. That’s what we’re doing with the Bayardstown Social Club. We figure we’re about 95 percent legal. We’ll see about the other 5 percent!

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