In July, 2010, the Institute joined a group of curators and public space advocates to seek approvals, argue for the interest of community groups, and articulate the mission of a public art festival on the edge of the waterfront. The festival used light- and -projection art to expose the industrial warehouses and turn adjacent streets into a temporary gathering place. By activating the waterfront edge, the project modeled transformation of the riverfront into a lively cultural district. A corporation formed to administer the project, of which we are minority shareholders, continues to independently produce work under the name Nuit Blanche New York.
In 2011, we submitted a grant request to the Newtown Creek Fund to "systematically collect and share existing concepts, proposals, projects, and plans for ecological and cultural programming, and public access to the East River within the Newtown Creek Watershed ... part of a program of advocacy, community-development, consensus-building, and event production to immediately initiate active cultural, ecological, and commercial uses of the waterfront through opportunistic interventions and ongoing cultural programming." We expect to publish the first study within a few weeks; this report evaluates the Bring to Light event as a preliminary product of the support.
Consensus-Building Public Space Projects in the Newtown Creek Watershed: Newtown Creek Fund Report
The Consensus-Building Public Space Projects in the Newtown Creek Watershed project leverages the capacity of a large-scale public art event to activate underutilized waterfront-adjacent property. It assumes that by creating an immediate experience of publicly accessible open space, a precedent would be created with knock-on effects for future development, helping protect the character of the community. The event aims to convey an immanent experience of neighborhood connectivity that will positively influence urban design as development proceeds; the project takes for granted that growing real estate values and investment spurred by the event will also allow advocacy groups to speed up improvement of environmental conditions, restoration of the natural ecology, and access to open space, in accordance with the 2005 zoning resolution.
The positive effects of public art for quality of life have been well demonstrated in many other areas of the city. In some ways, however, the flaw of this model as experienced in places like Soho, the East Village, and Dumbo, where accelerated real estate redevelopment eventually made the neighborhoods less hospitable to previous inhabitants and less affordable to newcomers, is already being glimpsed in Greenpoint.
We believe that the Bring to Light light-and projection-art festival supported by our consensus-building work is currently in danger of causing as much harm as good to the character of the neighborhood. Much more ongoing work is required to engage the disparate ethnic communities and interest groups and accommodate their conflicting agendas within the area. Even then, it might be impossible to restrain the rapid demographic change that is on its way, and we are tempted to agree, as a few residents argued during our meetings with them, that it might be better to discontinue the festival rather than attract more attention to the district. In particular, the urgency of bringing together Polish and Spanish-speaking groups, native residents, Baby Boom college-educated residents, and the latest generation of college-educated migrants in a meaningful way could only be exacerbated by the growing popularity of the neighborhood, partly as a result of the Bring to Light project, in conjunction with city-wide patterns of real estate development.
With the intention of encouraging more intensive community-based collaborations and more successfully engaging interest groups, we are in the process of completing a primer for neighborhood cultural producers and environmental activists. The pamphlet exhaustively surveys all of the existing community-based initiatives in Greenpoint. It will include informational maps and keys documenting all of the advocacy groups, community organizations, nonprofits, cultural initiatives, environmental conditions, planned, proposed and speculative uses of waterfront sites, regular public meetings, stakeholders, and property owners. This survey is expected to be completed in the coming weeks.
In order to get buy-in for the project, we wrote personal emails to all of the known advocacy groups, activists, and nonprofits in Greenpoint, arguing for Bring to Light’s service to multiple agendas and appealing to our common interest in waterfront access and neighborhood connectivity.
We attended Community Board 1 general and subcommittee meetings, met with representatives of the Open Space Alliance and attended community committee meetings, consulted with the City Planning department, organized independent community meetings, met with smaller neighborhood groups, and corresponded with residents who expressed specific concerns about the possible impact of the Bring to Light event on real estate values in the neighborhood, foot traffic on their blocks, bikes locked on gates, bathrooms, and open containers. We worked with producers to mediate concerns expressed by neighborhoods and block groups. We created and distributed hundreds of flyers throughout the neighborhood for the event and for our meetings in English, Polish and Spanish, and publicized the event in Polish newspapers in order to invite multiple groups to participate. We worked with local artists to facilitate inclusion of their work into the festival.
In particular, we sought to bridge a gap between the Greenpoint Monitor Museum and younger residents by organizing a special event during the festival, helping to publicize their existence and cause, bring new people to the site of the future museum on Bushwick Inlet, consulting with the city planning department on their behalf, and building new partnerships with cultural producers.
Finally, we worked for several weeks compiling maps, links, lists of organizational information, in order to share knowledge acquired from living and working in the district since 1998, attending community meetings over the years, and following developments. We collaborated with an artist, Erin Knutson, and an architect and curator, Jacqueline Miro, who offered pro bono help to produce a high-quality online and print publication that will make the data transparent to future cultural producers and advocates.
While we believe the Bring to Light festival has been a worthwhile exercise and had positive impacts, it failed on multiple levels, and the outlook for bridging the gap between these communities looks worse today than it did before this year’s event. We believe that the event, indeed, has only contributed to the concentration of college-educated elites in a section of the city that has previously been relatively remote from aggressive patterns of capital accumulation and demographic change. Without a more intensive commitment on the part of our co-producers to the community-development process, our recommendation would be to cease the festival, and we agree, to an extent, with the harsh resistance confronted by organizers among some factions to its continued presence. However, if a sustained commitment to consensus-building were be wholly embraced by the event organizers, it might help alleviate the inevitable pressure on community that the project has attracted, and we would agree to its continued production.
Reasons for failure
While our intention was to use a light-and projection art festival as a community-building exercise and as a possible tool of community formation around common interests between the new college-educated migrants and long-term residents, the overwhelming concern among the other producers focused on increasing their recognition within established institutions with ready access to capital; therefore, fund-raising for the production was left to the last minute while they took on projects with institutions such as the New Museum and Design Trust for Pubic Space by means of connections gained by producing the event. This pattern continued after the festival, with talks and projects organized at the New Museum, Storefront for Art and Architecture and other organizations; as a result, participation and interest in the process of community formation and consensus-building in Greenpoint was almost entirely absent on the part of the other producers.
Part of the problem was that partial funding of the project provided insufficient buy-in for the consensus-building aims of the event and exacerbated differences among the producers. Indeed, this experience conforms to observations shared with us by panelists for New York State Council on the Arts independent projects grants, which has a policy of not partially funding projects for that reason.
The informational mapping component of the proposal was also under-resourced but is being sustained by pro bono work on the part of the Institute and outside contributors. The results of that component cannot be judged yet, since it has not been completed.
Since the Bring to Light project was initiated, a bustle of construction activity, cultural projects, community-based initiatives, and announcements of new developments testifies to the validity of our model: we predicted going in that our activity would produce enormous amounts of related real estate value and cultural activity. In particular, we believe that the preservation of the Greenpoint Terminal Market building, much of which was destroyed in a fire, and its conversion and reuse for galleries, artists’ studios, rehearsal spaces, offices, and condos, has been aided immeasurably by our initiative. The waterfront site to the south, long dormant, has also reportedly begun to seek financing for new construction, offering the hope that additional open spaces along the river will emerge in the coming years. We cannot help but think that the character of these developments will be impacted by the expectations raised by the experience of thousands of residents using the area as a dynamic public space.
The event itself also received positive feedback from stakeholders, despite bad weather that significantly reduced the number of attendees—or possibly because of it. Our systematic outreach to established stakeholders helped bring many members of the community out into the streets during the event with their families, and they expressed a sense of ownership of the event. Many others, however, were not reached by the targeted efforts, and experienced the event as somewhat of an unwelcome and perhaps even invasive force.
The art itself was curated in a way that scaled up the previous year’s event and produced less of a do-it-yourself character, but the attempt to cater to art-world elites somewhat reduced the community spirit of the event and gave it the appearance of a generic festival that could have been placed anywhere. Indeed, the curators picked several prominent works from recent global art events and placed them within the festival in an effort to garner status through association with big-name figures. A few local artists noted that their offers of participation had been rejected by producers.
The effort to create ties with the Greenpoint Monitor Museum nonprofit also created a very positive spirit of collaboration that offered the hope of future collaborations with other, especially younger college-educated members of the community. However, the event also revealed the limitations of that ambition, as the existing obligations and fierce protectiveness of the Greenpoint Monitor Museum organization in terms of mission, direction, and property ownership forestalled the possibility of ongoing partnerships, and we were unable to successfully bridge the gap with younger residents eager to produce events commemorating the Monitor. That said, there remains a possibility of increasing acknowledgement across that boundary in future years, with consistent efforts, and a limited degree of collaboration at least during the Bring to Light event, if it were to continue.
We believe that the forthcoming information mapping guide for cultural producers and environmental advocates will be the greatest ongoing contribution of this year’s Consensus-Based Public Space Projects in the Newtown Creek Watershed, freely offering other producers all of the information and contacts we put at the disposal of the Nuit Blanche New York corporation in order to establish the Bring to Light festival.
Our pilot project observes a consistent pattern within the project area of culture serving as an agent of accelerated demographic change and capital accumulation. The result for the character of the neighborhood has been mixed. There is reason to believe that the community-based and advocacy intentions of the project may not relieve the negative impacts, while the positive impacts set in motion are not likely to be halted.
The positive: attraction of elites to the area has amplified preexisting efforts of neighborhood activists, focusing attention on the need for environmental remediation of ongoing water pollution, underground oil spills, collapsing waterfront infrastructure, and soil contamination left over from a century and a half of industrial activity. With an increasing attraction of real estate capital, the development regime instituted by the last period of zoning reform is more likely to fulfill its mandate of creating open space as well as fulfilling new demand for housing for the urbanizing college-educated middle class. In the future, as graduated tax-abatements are removed, these new developments will in turn provide revenue to support the demand for public services to a bourgeoning city.
Patterns witnessed in other neighborhoods of the city suggest that the negative impacts of the public art component of the project for quality of life will only be exacerbated year after year. The revaluing of land and housing units within the project area will largely erase the presence of the Polish community except for a few relics as historical artifacts. While the native population’s connection to the heritage of the area and ownership of property will allow it to maintain a presence indefinitely, the overwhelming dominance of the new class of residents will largely render this group invisible except for historical markers.
Under these conditions we would advise against continued production of a public art festival without more integral coordination of the event with local stakeholders. Stakeholders should be asked to do more than give assent to a process developed independently of their participation. In order for the event to have a truly community-based character, stakeholders need to be invited to lead the development of the programming or participate as equals, and have input throughout the process. The curatorial and production process cannot continue to be led by the desire to appeal to the aesthetic interests of elite cultural institutions, and gain credibility and access within those spheres.
This would require a radical reconstruction of the project, likely with a new set of co-producers whose interests are aligned with those of the residents. Moreover, in order to have a significant impact on patterns of demographic change that are inevitably turning Greenpoint into an enclave of college-educated middle-class migrants from other parts of the country, alienating its native and ethnic groups, the project would demand the dedication of a year-round part-time staffer to actively attend political meetings, create events targeting underserved parts of the community in multiple languages, facilitate discussions and interactions around common interests, and spaces where they begin to recognize one another as members of a diverse neighborhood with shared interests.
Prepared by Stephen Zacks/ Institute for Applied Reporting and Urbanism