When John Gerdy moved to Lancaster from Dayton, Ohio, in 1998, he was less than impressed with the vibrancy of the community. Fast forward 25 years later, and Gerdy, the founder and executive director of the music education nonprofit Music for Everyone, will publish a book on Oct. 24 about Lancaster’s revitalization thanks to its commitment to the arts. (He mentions that less-than-stellar first impression in the preface.)
“Lights on Lancaster: How One American City Harnesses the Power of the Arts to Transform its Communities” includes essays by Gerdy and 34 other local creatively minded people, from musicians to educators to poets and a pediatrician.
And Gerdy knows a thing or two about making art himself — in addition to being an author and entrepreneur, Gerdy is a multi-instrumentalist who performs as Willie Marble and is also a painter.
Gerdy hopes the book can be used as a template to inspire other cities to create their own transformations from barren cultural landscapes to thriving, vibrant communities and continue to power Lancaster’s own art scene.
“Hopefully, (the book) will spark a community dialogue about the role of the arts in our community and how we can continue to keep them vibrant,” Gerdy says. “We’ve come a long way in terms of being an arts destination, but there are many challenges we face. We have to continue to work at (supporting the arts) and make it a priority, because it could just as easily fade away if we’re not cognizant of supporting artists and supporting creativity in our community.”
Gerdy has done his part to help bring about Lancaster’s current vibrant art scene. His nonprofit Music for Everyone has invested more than $4 million into school and community arts organizations through projects like an instrument repair program for public schools and the Keys for the City program, which places pianos in public spaces around Lancaster city for several months a year.
But in his eighth book, Gerdy shows how Lancaster’s artistic revival was truly a community effort.
That’s where those 34 other essayists come in.
“There are so many artists and creatives who use their art to change our communities and move the world forward, I could have easily included 50 or more contributors,” says Gerdy, who edited the essays. “I really learned something from every single one of (the essays). Every one was unique and added to the project. There literally is something for everyone in this book.”
The essay collection opens with a foreword from Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace, who credits the emergence of the First Friday events in the early 2000s, a wave of new gallery openings and other creative initiatives as the sparks which turned Lancaster into a destination for the arts.
“The arts weave together personal and community expression and create experiences of joy and reflection, as well as economic opportunities,” Sorace writes. “In so many ways, the arts fuel Lancaster.”
George Mummert, a Lancaster-based sculptor and co-founder of Keystone Art & Culture Center. contributed an essay about the power of art to heal and transform.
“John’s book is important because it’s sharing those personal stories on how individuals who are involved in the arts have been transformed, and how the people who have been exposed to their work have been transformed,” Mummert says. “And so, as the residents go and as the artists go, so goes the city.”
The essays in the collection are divided into four sections: “Create;” “Educate;” “Heal;” and “Transform” and demonstrate the link between a thriving arts scene and a thriving city.
Gerdy gives special attention to the power of the arts, specifically music, when it comes to education — a subject he’s written about before in previous books — especially at a time when, for many schools, art programs are among the first to be cut from the budget.
“Music and the arts are the most effective tool in our educational and community arsenal to teach creativity and to teach out of the box thinking,” Gerdy says. “So it’s critical, now more than ever, that we invest in music and the arts.”
Marci Nelligan, a poet and arts administrator, writes about Lancaster’s many resources and grant programs made available to artists. Pia Fenimore, a pediatrician with Lancaster Pediatrics (and occasional columnist for LNP | LancasterOnline), contributed an essay about how engaging with the arts can help promote positive mental health benefits and a sense of connection to children and adolescents. Derek Dienner, founder of Make/Films, wrote about the area’s film community and how, during the pandemic, Lancaster County came together to produce a feature film, “Brave the Dark” about late Garden Spot High School teacher Stan Deen.
The book also features essays about how music brings joy to a refugee family, how to create and sustain an inclusive literary community and how architecture can encourage a more diverse and innovative city.
A ‘crazy renaissance’
“Lights on Lancaster” is all about creativity, collaboration and how the arts are able to function as an all-around benefit to the community by connecting neighborhoods with residents from diverse backgrounds, bringing tourists to the city, and encourages of other small businesses — all of which is evident in Lancaster today, but perhaps wasn’t as much 20 years ago. Lancaster’s burgeoning restaurant scene, which features a wide range of cuisines and trendy eateries, is one example of an industry benefiting from a vibrant, established art scene.
“Taken as a whole, the essays in John’s new book serve as a blueprint of sorts for the whys and ways that communities everywhere can and should embrace the arts,” says Barry Kornhauser, the assistant director of campus and community engagement at the Office of Visual & Performing Arts at Millersville University, who contributed an essay about arts, education, and marginalized youth to the book.
“Lights on Lancaster” highlights some of the city’s past successes, its current culture and its hopes and plans for the future. For example, Sorace’s essay highlights two newer initiatives: the River Connections Project and the PACE program (Public Art Community Engagement), which facilitates a diverse range of artists creating temporary, public-facing installations to enhance their neighborhoods The River Connections project aims to tell the story of residents of the city through murals, spoken word, and storytelling, especially those residents among the underserved communities that live closest to Conestoga River.
The connection between residents, sparked by creativity, is at the heart of many of the essays.
“I feel like there’s a crazy renaissance of art and culture happening in Lancaster right now. There’s just a blend of so many different cultures,” says Terian Mack, a Lancaster-based songwriter, recording artist and painter, whose essay “Hip Hop, Transformation, and Community” is featured in the book. “Hip hop is almost totally based around collaborations. I love connecting with everybody. That’s kind of my thing in Lancaster. I just want to find all the talent and see who does what and really push everybody to their potential.”
For Gerdy, the book project not only highlighted his beloved city as a model for other cities to follow and demonstrated the transformative power of the arts, but the opportunity to connect with so many creative people and collect their thoughts into a collection gave him hope for the future — of Lancaster and the world.
“Creativity is the currency of the future,” Gerdy says. “Every single advancement in the history of humankind, whether scientific or social, always starts with a spark of creativity. Looking at something a little bit differently and saying, maybe if we do it this way, we’ll be able to come up with something new and impactful and, you know, suddenly change the world.”