Foreword by Anna Adler
As a cultural worker, I am sometimes uncomfortable saying that I use artists (or other culture makers) as ‘tools to create conversations.’ In a recent exchange, however, an ED of a non-profit lamented feeling that they play a less creative role in their job, and said that they’d love to be called a ‘tool’ — I laughed and realized we should own this. If being a tool is to have a function, and we extend the metaphor, then the function of artists is to be catalysts for change. Often pioneers and risk takers, artists are unafraid to criticize, investigate, break down, re-examine, and rebuild. This is why it is so important to bring artists into the conversations around neighborhood development — not to parachute in but to sensitively infuse and engage.
Last month, Clinton Street Fest highlighted and celebrated the relationship between culture and commerce, and the relationships built on the historically bustling corridor. The event was organized by FABnyc, GOLES, ALBOR, and Anna Adler + Artists with the support of SBS, and Coro Leadership Center.
The Fest’s lineup of culture makers included artists who have lived, worked, and walked in the neighborhood, with varying levels of their own history and engagement with the LES, but all with direct investment sincerely informing their commentary and dialogue. Artists allow a creative platform for a variety of stakeholders to connect, share an experience, and exchange stories. This in turn builds social capital, energizes, and strengthens community. This relationship may seem self explanatory and redundant to most of you, but sometimes we forget the power of human connection and exchange — artists remind us.
In contested places on the brink of change such as Clinton Street, this work encourages us to assess what is here, to ignite memories, and to envision a future together. Weaving together threads of ideas and people strengthens community fabric.
City of Stories, developed at the intersection of Bridget’s Five Boro Story Project and Priscilla’s Fragile City during Clinton Street Fest, is an example of just this.
The following about City of Stories is written by Bridget Bartolini & Priscilla Stadler.
Bridget Bartolini created the Five Boro Story Project to produce community storytelling events that bring New Yorkers together through sharing true life stories and art inspired by our neighborhoods. Five Boro Story Project events feature performances of stories, poetry, music and art inspired by our neighborhoods, alongside participatory activities that invite all attendees to share stories and memories. Bridget recently began holding neighborhood love letter-writing programs, aiming to more deeply connect New Yorkers the places where we live, and to our neighbors.
Priscilla Stadler’s Fragile City installations use fabric “buildings” to explore vulnerability on both personal and community levels. Fragile City alludes to transformations of neighborhoods as massive real estate development displaces both residents and local businesses. In addition to making installations, Priscilla works with art as a form of community engagement and creative social justice. and had been seeking ways to explore narrative and storytelling in conjunction with Fragile City.
City of Stories grew from the idea of combining our projects by collecting stories on paper that we cut into buildings, mirroring the cheesecloth buildings of Fragile City. For the Clinton Street Fest, we planned to transform the Clinton Community Garden into a colorful city made up of stories by inviting community members in to write down and hang up their stories on paper buildings.
June 24th was a beautiful, sunny day. We met with our team of volunteers in the garden before the festival kicked off. We created hand-made signs welcoming people in English, Spanish, and Chinese, and inviting them to write down memories, stories, and wishes for the Lower East Side. Priscilla hung an installation of Fragile City in the garden and together the buildings and stories created a meandering contemplative space.
People came into the garden, wrote memories and concerns for the neighborhood on paper buildings, explored the space, hung their stories, chatted with friends, and read the stories of others.
LES history is alive in people’s stories; people referenced the squatter movement and homesteading, as well as memories that are tied to particular sites in the LES but evoke experiences that are universal to people growing up all over the city, such as this reminiscence in the right pink building image.
These stories give us insight into what makes a neighborhood – namely, the people and landmarks of personal importance. There were stories of happy memories of visiting friends and family, having BBQs and house parties, that show the primacy of people.
The places that carved out permanent spots in our hearts and memories are cultural spaces (ABC No Rio, Umbrella House), public gathering spaces (Tompkins Square Park), and beloved shops and places for entertainment and sustenance (Economy Candy, Ludlow Street Lounge, Bowery Ballroom, Sahara East). The stories reveal the long-standing role of the LES as a dynamic place to find art, inspiration, and culture.
People expressed wonder at all the changes that they have seen in their own lifetimes (“I remember the LES when it looked like Berlin after the war. I can’t believe how it has changed!” and “When I think about all the things that no longer exist on the LES, I’m surprised and grateful that I still exist.”) and in the lives of family members (“My family found their way from Italy to the LES at the turn of the century. What would my great-grandparents think now?”). Click on individual images in the gallery below to view in a larger size:
Palpable anxiety about the neighborhood’s future ran throughout the stories: “I was born and raised in the LES – Now I’m 28 and can’t afford to live here :(” and “I hope to always hear salsa, bachata, and merengue from outside my window!” and “I hope the LES will remain a place for diversity and cultural exchange. I wish for affordable housing and fair housing policies.” Even a 7 year-old wrote, “I miss my old [neighborhood] on Essex Street in LES. Time has changed since I left.”
Together these stories help us imagine the future we want to see, highlighting what should be preserved and what should be changed. One person wrote, “My wish for the LES is that ‘regular’ people can afford to keep living here!! Displacement isn’t just by accident – it’s not inevitable – it’s a result of policy and funding, or lack of policy and funding.” Especially in a neighborhood like the Lower East Side, and on a street like Clinton Street, we can’t help but read this as a call to action.
As artists, cultural workers, and New Yorkers, we are humbled to bear witness to stories of our city. Stories of the past illustrate the incredible propensity for change in New York City. They show us that things haven’t always been the way they are now, and that they can’t possibly stay this way. What are other ways of living? What do we preserve? What do we adapt and renew? What do we want to see in our city? Imagining alternatives is the first step in making them reality.