On Main Street, a community brainstorms for a better Liberty

Above: A young Liberty resident makes it known that he'd like to see a video game store on Main Street. Photo from Green Door's Facebook page.

Liberty’s Main Street has challenged locals for years.

"Driving down Liberty's Main Street, you might get the sense that it is a lifeless place with vacant storefronts and neglect,” said Green Door Magazine editor Akira Ohiso.

Ohiso is on a mission to change that -- and with a new project that transforms a dull construction barrier into a community-wide interactive art project, the village's Main Street is already looking brighter. Last week, Green Door, the Liberty-based “Journal of Responsible Living in the Catskills and Beyond,” unveiled its Interactive Construction Wall on Main Street in Liberty, and suggestions from the community have been coming thick and fast.

"We hope the interactive wall will engage residents in a public space to show Liberty's often missed or disregarded vibrancy," said Ohiso.

The wall invites all comers to grab a piece of chalk and opine about what they would like to see inhabit the space under construction. Inspiration for the project came from artist Cindy Chang’s “Before I Die,” a project begun in New Orleans and now spreading like wildfire from Paraguay to Budapest and beyond.

The renovation in progress, being undertaken by Brooklyn-based redeveloper Stephanie Eisenberg, includes five vacant storefronts and the long-shuttered 622-seat Academy Theater, a property that caught Ohiso’s eye back when Green Door was just a twinkle in it. With the assistance of Liberty’s Community Development Corporation, the renovation project has received $75,000 in grant funding through New York State’s Main Street program. Eisenberg intends to freshen and reopen the theater itself as a 500-seat performance space.

A setback to theater renovations came last fall, when an anonymous phone caller claimed the site contained unsafe levels of asbestos. resulting in a stop-work order from the state Department of Labor. The order has delayed the project, but not derailed it, Eisenberg said.

“We’d hoped to be farther along than this,” says Eisenberg. “But we’re getting it taken care of. The only asbestos turned out to be in the basement, and we aren’t working on the basement… Meanwhile, the artist came to us through Heinrich Strauch over at Community Development and suggested this, and it brightens things up in the meantime."

Eisenberg has a few ideas of her own.

“What I’d like to do is a restaurant with rotating guest chefs, something new and fresh every week or two, that would create a dining destination that would work with the people who come to events at Bethel Woods, maybe offer picnic baskets that people could take along to the Woodstock site," she said. "The rest of the storefronts might do well with popup containers for vendors, artisanal stuff -- there is something like that going on very successfully [in Brooklyn] and it’s a big draw. You need to get people with money to spend off the highway.”

With the interactive wall now in operation, residents and random passers-by have all been chiming in with ideas.

"Simply asking a question and giving people permission to answer is a huge step towards outreach and community development," said Ohiso.

Suggestions in the first few days included a skate store, toy store, music venue, community workshop programs, teen pregnancy prevention center, community center for wellness, choreography center and youth center.

“The answers seem to focus on our youth,” Ohiso said. “There is little to support them, which falls squarely on the powers that be. They've been asleep at the wheel for far too long."

The call for ideas for the space appears in both English and Spanish.

"There is a large Latino community in Liberty.  It shocks me that more community information and opportunities are not translated into Spanish.  That is step one of cultural competency," said Ohiso.

Some might expect that an invitation extended to all and sundry would yield chaos. But so far, Ohiso said, most of what has been written has been constructive and upbeat.

“This morning we washed off some offensive immature stuff,” he said. “A man across the street said, ‘We don't need that kind of negativity on the wall.’  I felt like he expressed some ownership and investment.”

Will Eisenberg take the suggestions of locals into account? Either way, she can’t go far wrong. Along with suggestions such as arcades and American Girl doll emporia, more than one respondent answered “I would like to see this storefront become…” with a single word: “Anything.”

“Unfortunately, ‘anything’ won’t do it,” says Eisenberg. “But if a town like Callicoon can be going strong, why not Liberty? I didn’t realize it would be quite so hard, but I haven’t given up. We’re gonna get this done.”

Correction: An earlier draft of this story referred to Akira Ohiso as Green Door's publisher. He is the editor. Also, the executive director of Liberty Community Development is Heinrich Strauch, not Straub. We apologize for the errors.

Below: Liberty's Interactive Construction Wall last week, a blank slate for the community's Main Street visions. Photo from Green Door's Facebook wall.