By Kyle Barr
Among the empty storefronts, cracked sidewalk and blighted buildings along Lake Avenue, local artist and longtime St. James resident Arline Goldstein drives down the road and pictures something better, something that will draw crowds and make the area vibrant with art and music.
“When I ride down Lake Avenue, I don’t see [the blight], I see boutiques and cafés and art galleries,” Goldstein said. “I use my imagination.”
In a new twist on St. James revitalization, local artists are putting forth the idea of creating an art district along Lake Avenue in an effort to make St. James a hot spot for art and culture. Goldstein presented the idea to Town of Smithtown officials at the May 8 board meeting.
“It’s in my heart for artists to show their work, and for others to see that work,” she said. “This project is the culmination of all my ideas about art.”
“When I ride down Lake Avenue, I don’t see [the blight], I see boutiques and cafés and art galleries. I use my imagination.”
– Arline Goldstein
In April, Golsdstein and Eric Neitzel, the owner of DeBarbieri Associates Real Estate agency, went up and down Lake Avenue from Moriches Road to Woodlawn Avenue. Together, they counted nearly 20 empty storefronts along the approximately .8 mile stretch of road. Nietzel hopes the project could not only increase interest in the arts, but bring in restaurants, retail and other businesses.
“I think we could make a prosperous little downtown here in St. James,” Neitzel said.
The artists involved in the project believe this project could be a way to bring business back to downtown St. James.
“I think it is one thing that will help save this town,” photo artist Jack Ader said. “It has been proven all over the country that when places get together and create an art district, it revitalizes the town, it helps the local businesses.”
On June 12, Goldstein and some of her compatriots will meet with the town board and town planning department in a work group so she can fully explain what she has in mind. She said that if all goes well she hopes they could form a committee to truly start work on creating plans for the project. Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) has already shown support for the idea.
“In my opinion it’s a great idea for St. James, and I think it could really work well,” Wehrheim said. “Once it gets advertised, and people come and see it, word of mouth goes around and it really attracts people to it.”
Smithtown historian Bradley Harris said there are a number of historical underpinnings of art in St. James, including the St. James Calderone Theater off Lake Avenue that was built in 1929 and hosted many early vaudeville shows.
“There were a couple of individuals, artists and musicians who made a big impact in the area,” Harris said. “We’re still rediscovering that history in what was devoted to the arts in the past.”
““It has been proven all over the country that when places get together and create an art district, it revitalizes the town, it helps the local businesses.”
– Jack Ader
Even with the excitement she’s seen from the community and town board, Goldstein said she knows that creating an art district could take quite a long time. In March, the Village of Patchogue named Terry Street an art and culture district, but the revitalization of the area into the artistic hot spot it is today took many years. Not only that, but making Lake Avenue an art district would require not a small amount of legal commitment. It would mean a total rezoning of the area, and Goldstein predicted there would likely need to be incentives for businesses to open along the road and for landlords to upgrade buildings while not increasing rents.
Wehrheim said the St. James revitalization project, slated to begin this month, has been pushed back approximately a year to allow the installation of dry sewer mains at the same time. The revitalization plan calls for the renovations of Lake Avenue from Moriches Road to Woodlawn Avenue. This will include new sidewalks, planting of trees, installation of street lighting, curbs, concrete gutters and crosswalks, driveway aprons, asphalt, driveway aprons, benches and other decorative amenities.
Goldstein said she believed that if all goes according to plan and everything from the sewers to the new sidewalks are installed in time, then this project could really get underway.
Natalie Weinstein, the owner of Natalie Weinstein Design Associates and Studio 455 Art Gallery in St. James, said they are not going to wait for the sewers and revitalization to move forward. The artists are already looking to create events to promote art on Lake Avenue this summer, at the St. James gazebo.
“The art district will not be able to occur before we have the sewers hookup,” Weinstein said. “While we are waiting for that we are not sitting on our duffs. We’re doing exciting things to excite people and help spread the word.”