By Lauren Friederman, Reporter
From the piano to the colorful walls on Austin Avenue, downtown Waco has undergone a transformation over the last few years. Members of the community like Andy Anzollitto, Mike Trozzo, Tanner Freeman, Matt Shepard and Chris McGowan, have come together to make Waco more beautiful and inspire people to love where they live. Through their passion for Waco, the Wacotown effort was born.
“Waco was dead when I got here eight years ago and started this downtown revitalization program,” McGowan said. “I was literally the only person walking around on Austin Avenue except maybe the occasional homeless guy or something.”
The Wacotown effort started back in 2012 when former Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III won the 2011 Heisman Trophy.
“When the Heisman trophy was originally awarded, there was a sense that it was a really special moment for both the school and the city,” Mike Trozzo said. “It provided an opportunity for the city and the school to have a little bit of a bridge, a shared interest.”
This inspired artist Mike Trozzo to paint the “Wacotown” Wall on the side of the Forty Thieves Hookah Lounge. This mural started it all.
“It was an effort to say, let’s not forget this moment and hopefully use this moment to look at ourselves as Wacoans and as a city, differently,” Trozzo said. “I think there was a generally negative self-view of the city and I think the five of us all felt like we could move the needle in terms of people believing that the city could be a positive place to live.”
Anzollitto said in the beginning, the members sat around and brainstormed ways to make Waco a more beautiful place to live. Lots of people talk about how there’s nothing to do in Waco, but they never do anything about it, he said.
“We want something positive, we want something interesting, we want something new, then let’s not ask for it, let’s just make it,” Anzollitto said.
To do so, he said they all asked themselves how best they could affect change with the resources at hand.
“We didn’t have a big budget,” Anzollitto said. “What we had was a trust and a willingness of the community to go along with things.”
The idea to add more murals was born. Anzollitto said murals are beneficial for every party involved, from the citizens of Waco to the local artists such as Mick Burson and Mike Trozzo, who are able to display their art around the city.
“You get the plus one of taking down the blight, you get the plus two of putting something positive up and you get the plus three for directly affecting someones’ life, someone who wants to [paint murals],” Anzollitto said.
Anzollitto said the benefit of painting the town is getting rid of the beige walls and coloring with something that pops.
“I think having color and patterns and interesting visuals in your space, like the streets you walk on and the walls you interact with, and having that around you as a person and as a citizen affects you,” Anzollitto said.
In addition to beautifying Waco, Anzollitto said he hopes the murals will inspire people.
“If you could change your environment and you could change what you saw, then you could allow people to believe they could change and they can create change,” Anzollitto said.
According to Chris McGowan, former director of urban development in Waco, there are three to four more murals in the works.
“We’ve got three or four artists lined up and three or four walls lined up,” McGowan said. “We just need to make all that come together. It’s a challenge, there’s not a lot of money going into this.”
Trozzo said another part of the Wacotown effort is the potlucks that were hosted in various undeveloped buildings in downtown Waco. Here, people get together to recognize and celebrate the city.
The first potluck dinner included about 30 people and was held in the building that has become Dichotomy. The space was hot, there was no bathroom and it was dark — but they still gathered there, Trozzo said.
“It’s worth coming down here and bringing food and setting up a long table, and decorating a space that is absolutely nothing to celebrate the city,” Trozzo said.
According to Trozzo, the potlucks expanded to include 50 to 60 people, and they have been hosted in iconic locations, like the Hippodrome when it was under construction.
Anzollitto said the goal of the potlucks was to connect like-minded individuals who want to improve Waco, creating a sense of community, a point McGowan said he agreed with.
“The reason we wanted to do it was because there was a community that was starting to emerge in downtown of creative people, mostly young creative people,” McGowan said.
The Wacotown effort also added the blue piano on Austin Avenue in front of the Bank of America.
“We’ve always wanted to put a piano downtown,” McGowan said. “So for three years I’d been trying to find a piano I didn’t have to spend a lot of money on that worked.”
The day after they installed the piano downtown, a couple of Baylor music students were invited to play the new piano, drawing a crowd of 20 or 30 people, McGowan said.
“It created a moment and people felt good about what was going on,” McGowan said.
Other parts of the Wacotown movement include the design of the dichotomy mugs and the placement of Hippodrome seats mounted on plywood outside the theater.
“I think it’s kind of a new age, a new era for Waco,” McGowan said. “It’s trying to figure out who it is, this collective community, and things like this are defining it as a place for creative people.”
McGowan said he hopes the Wacotown effort is helping start conversations about beautifying Waco.
“I think we’ll focus on murals for now,” McGowan said. “We’ve talked about doing pop ups and doing designs for businesses to put a refresh on their space.”
The group said they’ve discussed adding sculptures to downtown Waco, but they need to figure out how to accomplish that, McGowan said.
“Do it. Just pick up a hammer or a paintbrush or something. Make something, put it somewhere. If you need help, find us,” McGowan said.
To find more information on the Wacotown effort, find it online at wacotown.com or follow them on twitter @wacotown.