Stirring the Dreams of a Community

Candy Chang’s public art projects solicit community interaction and commentary on civic issues. She has advice for real estate pros who want to influence how public spaces develop.

September 17, 2014

Public art can transform a town square or any community space, especially when the art tackles high-priority community issues, says Candy Chang, a New Orleans–based artist who has worked in urban planning, architecture, and graphic design. Much of Chang’s work offers an interactive experience or enables commentary in public spaces. She has addressed such civic matters as tenants’ rights and urban development, including food deserts in neglected neighborhoods. Her 2010 “I Wish This Was” project gave New Orleans residents the chance to use fill-in-the-blank stickers and place them on vacant storefronts. Messages read: I wish this was a home, a community garden, a safe place for my kids to play, a bike shop, a grocery. “Our public spaces have so much potential to nourish our well-being, not just as residents but as humans trying to make sense of our lives,” Chang says.

She is best known for her “Before I Die” walls, which have fostered intimate dialogue within communities around the world. The idea sprang as she grieved the loss of a close friend in 2011. After a long period of depression, eventually she felt gratitude for the time they had together, and Chang says she became more proactive about the things that mattered to her most.

The project developed when she received permission from the city to write “Before I die I want to ____” in chalkboard paint on the side of an abandoned house in her neighborhood. Chang left blank spaces and sticks of chalk for others to fill in their own responses. Before long, the wall was filled with the hopes, dreams, and fears of her neighbors. “I never expected it to go beyond this, but word spread and I received hundreds of messages from people who wanted to create a wall with their community,” says Chang, who published a book last year chronicling the evolution of the project. To date, 500 “Before I Die” walls have been created in 70 countries.

Even when done privately, writing down your dreams is the first step to turning abstract thoughts into something concrete, says Chang. It’s a practice real estate pros can use to help them figure out next steps on the way to bettering their business, their communities, and their personal lives. “I’m a big list maker. It helps me capture moments of clarity and sets me back on course when I’m distracted,” Chang says.

Real estate professionals have a lot of influence in how a community evolves, Chang says. If you’re interested in helping to create parks, outdoor gathering spaces, gardens, or public art projects that are meaningful and cared for by the community, Chang says, it’s important to be transparent in communicating ideas and sensitive to residents’ hopes and concerns. You can also help raise neighborhood awareness of the project and invite residents to be part of the development process, she says.