By Max Murphy
As a student of history and art history I am always drawn to cross-cultural comparisons that highlight the subtle differences between two seemingly similar methods or events. On a recent Saturday afternoon, a MoRUS tour member from the United Kingdom offered interesting specifics on major sustainability initiatives in London; unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, their United States counterparts were unable to rival even the most basic civil programs that the U.K. municipalities are able to provide to its citizens.
First and foremost, the composting programs that are in place at gardens such as La Plaza Cultural and Green Oasis were simply eye opening. While I previously knew that composting was an easy, simple and affordable way to make nutrient-rich soil, I had no idea that such programs were occurring in New York City – indeed, the density of the flora in some of these gardens was so overwhelming, to the extent that not even the city’s own parks could compare, that the concrete jungle disappeared as if in a mirage – surely it must be the work of this natural, non-GMO infected soil.
At one point during the tour, Bill, MoRUS’s resident tour guide, described how even the most basic community garden functions – such as composting – could be seen as a political act by those opposed to the gardens. It was at this point that a young woman from London chimed in and shared with the group that in her council composting is not only encouraged by the government, who perhaps see it as a way to both reduce waste as well as provide soil to parks, but it is also sponsored by the government. That is, the government will pick up your weekly compost and turn it in to soil.
According to the New York City Independent business office, each resident produces over 2 pounds of garbage per day. Certainly, at least a small percentage of this weight can be composted – the standard orange and apple peels or even eggshells are perfect ingredients for excellent soil. At a time when the city parks are struggling to make ends meet, it seems odd that composting (which could essentially produce free, natural soil for the city) is not more accepted in New York.
Regrettably, the Londoner also touched on a facet that is all too common in New York City: the bureaucratic chain that prevents any citizen from easily speaking out. She mentioned how for one particular area, the chain is so clogged up that people are intentionally submitting bogus applications for protests in hopes that the city will become so overwhelmed that their policies will have to change. While the United States’ Constitution protects the right to assemble, city ordinates make it hard to easily protest. It was simultaneously both comforting and irritating to know that this is a worldwide phenomenon.
The Saturday tour was much more than a look at a hidden side of New York City, the dynamic of this tour not only connected MoRUS’s initiatives to the Lower East Side, but it also provided an outlet to explore cross-cultural discrepancies and similarities that effect sustainable initiatives from progressing.
On Thursday, June 13, at 7:00 PM, author and cultural commentator John Strausbaugh will appear at MoRUS to read from his latest book, The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues, a History of Greenwich Village (Ecco 2013). On May 20, he took a moment to share some of his expertise as an observer, participant, and chronicler of all things Gotham by answering five questions:
MoRUS: What is your favorite public green space in New York City and why?
JS: I like all the community gardens. I like them philosophically and just as spaces, especially La Plaza Cultural and the Sixth Street and Avenue B Community Garden — although that one makes me a little sad since they tore down Eddie Boros’ tower.
And as someone who loves New York history, I really like walking around and in Columbus Park, because of the history of Mulberry Bend and the Five Points. I guess it’s not the greenest or fanciest outdoor space in the city, but it gets a tremendous amount of use from people in the neighborhood.
MoRUS: Please name anyone whom you consider to be a radical in the following categories:
JS: On the theory that I can name historical as well as current figures, I’d say:
NY politics — Emma Goldman
NY media — Barney Rosset (Evergreen Review)
Film — Clayton Patterson (he’s video, but I think that counts)
Music — John Cage
Theater — Rosalyn Drexler
MoRUS: Where do you turn first for your news of the day?
JS: NY1 on TV, and bbc.com
MoRUS: Having devoted so much time researching the past of Greenwich Village, what are your thoughts about the area’s future, particularly in light of recent tragic incidents?
JS: Last week’s murder seems like such a throwback that I’d like to hope it was an anomaly, an aberration in 2013, not a sign of some larger retrograde trend. I hope.
More generally, it’s clear that Greenwich Village today is not the Greenwich Village of old. It was, for a very long time, a magnet and haven for artists, political radicals, life adventurers, misfits, and outcasts from around the country and the world. Coming together in a little neighborhood you can walk clean through in fifteen minutes, they bounced off each other like subatomic particles in an accelerator and created tremendous amounts of American, and therefore world, culture. With the astronomical rise in real estate prices over the last quarter-century or so it has become a magnet for millionaires, not misfits. It’s not impossible that this will change, but it’s hard to see how it might, short of some cataclysmic alteration in Manhattan real estate.
MoRUS: Do you believe that the increasing gap between the rich and poor is effecting radical, progressive thinking in New York City? If so, in what ways?
JS: I suspect this is a very low point for radical, progressive thinking in NYC. Again, I’m speaking from what I know of the history. New York City was, for so many decades and in too many ways to enumerate here, a hotbed of forward thinking, not only in traditional political terms but in social and cultural movements as well. All the reprogramming and refashioning of the city over the last quarter-century or so to create the affluent, suburbanized, generic, tourist-friendly New New York has had, I think, a severe dampening effect on the city as a place that nurtures radical or progressive thinking on any front — political, social, or cultural. New York used to be a fantastically creative place on all those fronts. Now it’s being repurposed as a place of recreation, not creation.
by Jackson Smith
The successive waves of European immigrants to the Lower East Side have each made use of the neighborhood’s buildings in their own distinct ways. Storefronts in the neighborhood have transformed from German beer halls in the 1870s to the pickle stores of the Jewish Lower East Side and cheese shops of Italian immigrants during the early 20th-century. When many of the buildings began to decay and disappear in the 1960s and 1970s, they were replaced with Puerto Rican casitas in community gardens. At the geographic heart of this unceasing social transformation lies Tompkins Square Park. It is a symbol of the class struggle that cuts across the diverse historical experiences of the Lower East Side. After the closure of the park following the most recent riots there in the late 1980s, the park’s working-class history began to fade. The park was gentrified along with the neighborhood.
The museum’s tours are crucial to the preservation of this rich history. On Bill Weinberg’s Sunday tours, visitors can walk through Tompkins Square Park and see through the glossy façade of sunbathing hipsters and designer dogs. The park’s association with the social unrest extends all the way back to the Draft Riots in 1863. Just over a decade later, during the Panic of 1873, thousands of unemployed Germans gathered in Tompkins Square Park on January 13th, 1874, in what was then the largest demonstration in the city’s history. Foreshadowing the park’s other famous riot in August of 1988, mounted police attacked the crowd in what one observer called “an orgy of brutality.”
Over one hundred years later the tensions in the gentrifying Lower East Side invariably boiled over in Tompkins Square Park. It became the semi-permanent home for hundreds of homeless people and the public arena for squatters and anarchists in the neighborhood to protest the city’s housing policies. As a heat wave settled over the city in early August of 1988, the police moved to clear the homeless out of the park and enforce a curfew. After their efforts were met with resistance, the cops began to attack people indiscriminately on the evening of August 6th. Dozens were injured, but protestors continued to fight for the park over the next few years until the city finally closed it in June of 1991. When it reopened a year later it was clear that it could never again be the same park. Most significantly, the bandshell – where punk rock bands played and fiery speakers rallied crowds during demonstrations – was gone. On the museum’s Sunday tours, however, the legacy of class struggle in the park lives on.
By Grace Dowd
I am an artist. I am an amateur, yes, but I am an artist. When I first saw La Plaza Cultural, I was blown away. In my own art, I use found and reclaimed objects to create a visual narrative, taking the history and lifespan of the object to further my own sculpture. This is why I was so taken aback at La Plaza Cultural. It was on my first tour with Bill Weinberg, radical site expert and general LES legend, when I was speechless because of the incredible art on the fences of the garden.
The community created the garden, out of ruin and out of nothing. Green space created from cement, and art gallery created from household items. You wonder why people need to pay money to see artwork, when they are entirely capable of creating it. Community art holds a certain place in my heart, able to take hold of a neighborhood and change the visual details of the space, and created by those who get to enjoy it.
La Plaza is surrounded by a wall of homemade artwork, used soda cans, detergent bottles, and plastic things, painted, reshaped, and hung, to encourage a neighborhood, a community, a city, to open its eyes. Beauty can be found everywhere, but there is nothing quite like a garden, nestled between buildings, bursting forth with colorful, weird, and exciting sculptures made by your neighbors and your family. THAT is what community is about.
By Lynne Carmickle
It is so hard to decide upon a particular highlight of the tours. I think I would have to say entering the squats, and meeting the squatters, an experience that was different each time even when we met the same hosts. Heading into Paz’s apartment while he was jamming with his friends…again to Paz’s apartment on a second tour, this time hearing instead of music, the gripping story of how he and others created their spaces out of the bare bones of broken buildings. From campfires to radiant heat floors!
Each tour lead us from one squat to another, from one person’s home to another’s, greeting a variety of people, in apartments in contrasting stages of renovation; through it all there was that amazing energy, the shared struggle of creating one’s personal space. It was a different dynamic than any I have encountered, a strong sense of community far beyond that of my bland suburban neighborhood. I left with the sense that this was the way humans had lived together successfully for millennia, and I took away lessons that have been forgotten by most in recent decades. The value of together. The spirit of a group. The strength of us.
By Brooke Demos
I am lucky enough to live right next to Garden 6B in the East Village. I have four windows in my apartment that look out onto it. I am able to observe the change of seasons and watch the evening dusk change the color of the sky. The garden provides an unobstructed view for many apartment dwellers on the block. It’s an added benefit of the garden spaces in the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan that some may not be aware of.
I am also a member of the garden and have two plots of my own to garden in. There are approximately 80 garden members and it is one of the largest gardens in the neighborhood. But it isn’t necessarily my favorite garden. There are two other beautiful gardens on the block, smaller than Garden 6B and completely designed as one large garden space. I’d have to say that even though The Creative Little Garden, with its numerous bird houses and swing, to enjoy is very special, The Botanic Garden is my favorite. It was designed by horticulturists and landscape designers. There are “secret” spots to sit in as well as a small, romantic “house” with a library and porch to enjoy. I like to bring my breakfast there in the summertime and eat it in one of the many sitting areas.
There are many other gardens in the neighborhood. MoRUS gives tours of them every Saturday and Sunday at 3:00 pm. I am looking forward to going on the next tour so that I can meet some other special garden spots in this uniquely community-oriented area of Manhattan.
EAST VILLAGE MURALIST ARCHIVES THE SOUL OF A NEIGHBORHOOD
by Sheila Jamison
As visitors are guided through the avenues and streets during MoRUS walking tours, the murals of “Chico, the Artist” serve as vibrant co-tour guides, depicting scenes, personalities, and sentiment that are 100 percent Lower East Side.
Having lived in the neighborhood for over 40 years before making a recent move to Florida, Antonio “Chico” Garcia has dedicated his distinctive style of transformative graffiti to brightening the bleak and dangerous feel of the neighborhood that was prevalent in the 1980s. He is credited with creating close to 7,000 murals all over New York City; some he took on independently and others under commission by grateful local vendors and community organizations. If Chico christened a wall or metal gate with one of his works, it was less likely that those with lesser talents and intentions would choose it for tagging.
I had the opportunity to meet the artist in person in 1993 while working on the Columbia Pictures film, I Like it Like That, a coming-of-age story about a young Puerto Rican family living in the Bronx and life-changing events following a summer blackout. Chico was hired to dress one of the sets with murals dedicated to slain characters in the film. (Many of his early East Village murals are dedicated to locals who lost their lives to violence — a milieu that helped launch his career.) While few on the cast and crew ever got to see him at work, it was impressive how quickly — sometimes overnight — he could infuse passion and color onto a dilapidated and previously disregarded wall.
Chico’s other feature film credits include Beat Street and The Warriors, the latter being the cult classic about gangs in Coney Island for which Chico created the iconic title lettering. He has taught graffiti art all over the world and although he’s moved out of state, he returns from time to time to visit family still in the area. I hope we can catch up with him on one of those instances and induct him as a guest tour guide!
by John Hudson
As a dramaturg and theater producer I am always interested in new and exciting places for performance, and wonder what stories are associated with a space, and how those stories can be turned into a theatrical performance. That was why I took a photograph of this remarkable stage at the end of the Saturday tour. It looks rather like a gigantic bird’s nest. This reminds me of a story in the Tales From the Arabian Nights of the giant roc (a mythical bird) that picked up Sinbad and put him into her nest. Come to think of it, there are several folk stories about the same theme. This could be a wonderful beginning for a devised theater piece.
In medieval times sailors were often worried about the threat from these birds. sinking their ships. But shipwrecked sailors thought that if stranded on a desert island they could wrap themselves in ox hide in order to be carried off and rescued. Marco Polo describes one of these birds “‘it was for all the world like an eagle, but one indeed of enormous size; so big in fact that its quills were twelve paces long and thick in proportion. And it is so strong that it will seize an elephant in its talons and carry him high into the air and drop him so that he is smashed to pieces; having so killed him, the bird swoops down on him and eats him at leisure.” In this painting by Jorden efter Syndefaldet (1690). Rocs can be seen in the air at the left carrying a goat, and in the center of the picture, another Roc is carrying an elephant. I imagine they go home at night to a nest like this one.
by Ben Shepard
Whenever I do a MoRUS garden tour I stop at Creative Little Garden on 520 E. 6th Street. Throughout the late 1990s, early 2000s, the garden was an organizing hub for the Lower East Side Collective. In the East Village since 1982, it was long the backyard of garden advocate Francoise Cachelin, who understood what was truly radical about a community garden and why they were threats to the established order, and who passed in October 2003. “Tout alors we all hate these stinking wars,” she helped us chant in protest against the rising wars, six decades after her struggles as part of the French resistance to the Nazis.
The beauty of the garden movement is all the people we come to know through the years, from Michael Shenker, to Aresh, to JK, LA Kauffman, Ariane B, and so many others. Images of all of them churn through my head as I walk through these tours.