When Sarita Asawa moved to Steubenville, Ohio, it was in a dire state. Now, she is the executive director of the Harmonium Project — a collection of people who are passionate about the city and want to help revitalize downtown through arts and culture.
“I’ve seen a shift in attitudes,” she shares. “People seeing a glimmer of hope that maybe we can come back, maybe we can be different, maybe we can be a fun city again.”
Meet Sarita: Downtown Revitalizer
Sarita Asawa: When I first moved here, probably one of the first things anyone ever told me was, “Don’t go downtown; you’ll get shot” — and I believed them. And if you had told me that I was going to be taking my kids to downtown Steubenville on Fourth Street and hanging out with them every month, I would have laughed in your face because there was no way I was going to do something like that. Night and day difference.
I mean, at one point, Steubenville was in its heyday. It was considered “Little Chicago.” At that point, thanks to the steel mills, the city was booming, but when the steel mills started to close, people started leaving, the revenue dropped. And when I moved to Steubenville, it was definitely in the middle of the tired, dying steel-mill town.
The Harmonium Project is just a collection of people that are passionate about the city that want to help revitalize the downtown through arts and culture. And mainly, our primary event right now is First Fridays on Fourth — basically, a community-building event where all of the community can get together and where you can meet your neighbors, where you can have great food, you can have a great beer, and all of it’s local. And we want to help encourage business in the downtown.
For the first First Friday, we said let’s throw some sort of art/music thing, and maybe a couple hundred people will show up if we’re lucky. We advertised it, and we ran out of beer twice, we ran out of cups twice — over a thousand people showed up. And we were absolutely flabbergasted because it was not what we expected. It’ll take me close to an hour-and-a-half to walk two city blocks because as I’m walking, I run into everyone I know. Everyone from my dentist to the priest to the pastors — they’re all here. And you get a chance to just have brief conversations as you walk down, and it takes forever but it’s wonderful.
I’ve seen a shift in attitudes and not just my own. People are seeing a glimmer of hope that maybe we can come back. Maybe we can be different. Maybe we can be a fun city again. But the Harmonium’s not the savior of Steubenville — we’re doing this for and with the community. And I think that’s the only reason it succeeded. It’s not the Harmonium Project. This is Steubenville.