LAWRENCE -- The heart of downtown Lawrence is a handful of blocks, framed on two sides by Union and Lawrence streets, on the other two by Common Street and the Merrimack River.
But this urban core has been drained of life by years of neglect, and needs an infusion of something new, which is why a special event was being held there on Saturday.
Called Imagina Gastronomia, which translates as "imagine gastronomy," the gathering featured displays of unique desserts and prepared meals, along with live music and cooking demonstrations in an empty building at 238 Essex St. There were also food tours through the surrounding neighborhood, and a visit from a food truck selling Puerto Rican specialties.
At the same time, organizers were using it as a kind of audition, to see what local residents would like to put in empty storefronts on a permanent basis.
"If this is popular, we know we could fill these storefronts with some restaurants, maybe a bakery or coffee shop," said John Andrews of Creative Collective, which works with small businesses in the creative economy. "But we want to get that feedback from the community."
Imagina Gastronomia was just the second of four programs that are planned for this summer, and are known collectively as Imagina Essex, because each event is intended to help locals imagine what they would like to see on Essex Street.
The themes they represent were chosen through months of consultations with the community led by MassDevelopment's Transformative Development Initiative.
"It's important, in the sense that it's not been done in this fashion," said Jessica Martinez, who works for MassDevelopment. "Imagina Essex is a pilot experiment to see what could work."
While Imagina Comerico showcased local artisans in June, Imagina Arte will invite artists to the space at 238 Essex St. on August 21, to be followed on September 18 by theater groups at Imagina Teatro.
"At its core, each of these events is showing a different cross section of Lawrence and the Merrimack Valley," Andrews said.
The vendors at Imagina Gastronomia included Hamdallah Olona from Haverhill, who sold natural coconut snacks called GoodieKrunch, which are based on a recipe she got from her grandmother in Nigeria. Along with an original recipe, they feature dark chocolate, flaxseed and peanut butter versions.
Sue Petrakis from Lawrence sold biscotti, which she prepares with ingredients that appeal to special dietary needs.
She calls her company "Simply Biscotti," and learned to bake these traditional Italian cookies 20 years ago, but developed her brand while participating in the small business training program EforAll.
"I wanted to do organic biscotti, then someone in the accelerator program with me who was vegan said, 'Do you make vegan biscotti?' I said no, but I'll try.' So the chocolate chip I made is vegan," Petrakis said. "That's our top seller."
Jessy Melo of Lawrence, the chef and owner of Jessy's Clean Meals, said the meals she prepares every Sunday feature healthy grains and lean meat, and are perfect for people who are trying to lose weight.
She said prepared meals are also convenient for people who don't have time to cook a lunch, or who want something different for themselves after cooking for others.
The name of her company, which soon will be operating out of the Revolving Test Kitchen on Common Street, alludes to Melo's struggles to achieve sobriety.
"It's like an image of me," she said. "It's consistent, it's healthy, and I'm providing that for other people."
Will Ventura and Yarleny Jimenez, both from Lawrence, offered chocolate dipped strawberries through their business Queen Delights.
"We started just from a spontaneous event," Ventura said. "Her cousin was going to get married, and instead of paying someone to do the treats we're like, 'Hey, let's give it a try.'"
Some of the strawberries are dipped in white, dark or vegan chocolate, and some have toppings on top of the chocolate.
"You got strawberry shortcake, birthday cake, fruity pebbles, cookies and cream and coconut," Ventura said.
For more information about upcoming events in the series, visit www.imaginaessex.com.