Decade of a Dream

It's been 10 years since Kristen Nelson pulled the trigger on her dream mission, packing up her life in New York City and heading out to find a place where she could establish a writing center unlike any that existed back home.

"I was looking for a community that had a vibrant writing and arts scene, but where it was still small enough that you could start something grass roots that didn't have to be academically affiliated," said Nelson, a former newspaper reporter who founded Casa Libre en la Solana in 2004. "In New York it would have been very hard to start something like that."

Nelson, 35, settled on Tucson after making several trips here. What she saw was a place that embraced the arts, and one that seemed ready and willing to add another such offering.

"When I came here I saw an atmosphere of welcoming, a place that fosters collaboration rather than competition," she said. "I loved that. And the beautiful weather helped, too."

Nelson said she chose the name Casa Libre en la Solana (the free house in the sun) to honor Tucson's Hispanic history and culture.

To celebrate Casa Libre's 10th anniversary, the organization is hosting what Nelson calls a "friendraiser" on Saturday, Feb. 22, for people to honor what Casa Libre has accomplished over the years. Though some merchandise will be available for purchase, and tickets to the event range from $20 to $50 (based on attendees' own perception of affordability), the essence of the event is to bring people together, Nelson said.

"We just want people to come and celebrate," she said.

The anniversary gala, which will be held at the YWCA, will feature a buffet dinner with food donated by Fourth Avenue restaurants and a cash bar. Readings by local writers are also scheduled, and local filmmaker Bob Byars will screen his documentary about Casa Libre.

Nelson said Casa Libre started out exactly as she had hoped a decade ago. After acquiring a property on Fourth Avenue, where the organization still resides, Nelson turned the front structure into venue space and established seven residences behind the main building. She said the structures, which date to the late 1890s, were originally used to house people working on the railroad.

Nelson lived in one residence and the others went to writers who applied for scholarships to live in Tucson and work on their craft. The writers would spend two to four weeks at Casa Libre, and Nelson also offered community programs that were a collaboration with groups such as Kore Press and the University of Arizona Poetry Center.

Casa Libre wasn't a commune, per se. Rather, it was a place of communal values, Nelson said, where such things as group meals and the relationships between the writers in residence developed organically rather than on a predetermined schedule.

"Everybody who lives here respects the fact that everyone (else) who lives here is a living, working artist," she said.

Things changed around 2008, though, when the nation's economic downturn caused public funding for nonprofits like Casa Libre to all but dry up. Nelson had to drastically alter Casa Libre's operation, and the scholarship residences became rental properties catering to those in the literary field.

"We're in the process of bringing the residency program back, and looking for other ways" to fund and operate Casa Libre, Nelson said. "We hope to do this within the next three years."

Casa Libre's 10th anniversary gala will be held from 6 to 10 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 22, at the YWCA, 525 N. Bonita Ave. For more information, call 325-9145 or visit

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