What do chili, macaroni and cheese, music, art, and a park at the end of Fourth Street all have to do with one another? Incredibly, more than you might think.
This coming Saturday, Fourth Street Arts will host its Cinco de Mayo Chili Cook-Off, one of two annual events the organization hosts to raise money for local arts programs and students. This year, however the Cook-Off will also benefit the renovation of Mary Benson Park.
“This will be our third Chili Cook-Off and we’ve done three Mac & Cheese Bake-Offs as well,” said Mike McNamara, the organization’s co-founder. “These events fund our free events, the Fourth Street Art and Music Festival, which we do every year, and this year we also had the Leap Year Ball at City Hall.”
Fourth Street Arts holds fundraisers, including the Chili Cook-Off, that help the organization award grants to young and emerging artists in the community.
This fall the organization will host its ninth art and music festival during the Artists’ Studio Tour weekend. The Art & Music Festival, McNamara said, started as “small little gatherings that didn’t really require any money or permits. And then it kind of snowballed into what it is today.”
A trained photographer, McNamara first participated as an artist in the 2002 and 2003 Artists’ Studio Tour. The next year, in 2004, he and sculptor Joe Churchirillo organized a block party outside his Fourth Street apartment as a way to generate more foot traffic for his stop on the tour.
Over the years that block party has morphed into the Fourth Street Art and Music Festival that it is today.
City-wide celebrations, grants for youth
The festival eventually spawned Fourth Street Arts, a nonprofit artist collective that supports arts in the community. Among various activities, the collective holds fundraisers – including the Chili Cook-Off and the Mac & Cheese Bake-Off – that fund grants for young and emerging artists in the community. Each year’s Art & Music Festival includes participation from grant award recipients from the previous year. The 2011 Art & Music Fest, for example, featured a performance by County Prep High School student Tanisha Boon and an art installation from visual artist Wenye Fang. Boon and Fang, a Saint Peter’s graduate, each received grants from Fourth Street Arts in 2010.
Two months ago, in honor of Leap Year, the organization held a free arts-oriented party in City Hall on Feb. 29. The organization’s grants and free programming are all funded by smaller events like the Chili Cook-Off and Mac & Cheese Bake-Off. The organization has now added a new project to its list of beneficiaries: Mary Benson Park.
New park for the kids
“We’re working with the Village Neighborhood Association, the PTA of No. 5 School, and the Jersey City Parks Department. And we’re trying to do a renovation of Mary Benson Park, at the corner of Fourth Street and Merseles Street,” said McNamara. “It’s going to be a multi-stage project. We’re trying to build a new playground for the kids. We’re going to try to put a garden in. Right now, our goal is to try to have the park ready by the start of the next school year. Fourth Street Arts is going to try to finance part of the renovations with some of the money generated from our fundraising events,” including Chili Cook-Off.
For the Cook-Off, master chili makers have been invited to bake up their best recipes and put them to the test. Members of the public will pay $5 to eat and judge the best pots of chili prepared by the contestants. There can be anywhere from 12 to 24 contestants, McNamara said, who are divided into two groups, restaurants and individuals.
When asked how much chili five bucks will buy, McNamara said, “Let’s just say, I don’ think anybody has ever left hungry. We try to keep the cost low so that people can come and participate and make a contribution, but they can afford to bring their whole family. Five dollars is a price that almost everybody can afford.”
Community members will vote on the best chili recipes and the winners will receive prizes. The event can attract as many as 500 people.
And lest you think $5 can’t buy a swing set, let alone an entire playground, McNamara said that in 2010 and 2011 these events enabled Fourth Street Arts to give $2,100 in grants. Not bad for two fundraisers built on noodles and beans.
The Cook-Off gets underway on May 5 at 1:40 p.m. at Mary Benson Park. About 100 volunteers from Jersey Cares are scheduled to do a clean up of Benson Park before the Cook-Off begins. Sun., May 6 is the rain date.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.