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.
Today’s post is the first in a planned series to highlight the wonderful community gardens of the Lower East Side. Today’s post is courtesy of Brooke Demos of Garden 6B.
Garden 6B is located on the corner of 6th Street and Avenue B, in the East Village.
Until the colonial era, the site was a salt marsh, an arm of the East River. These coastal wetlands provided cover for waterfowl. These marshes were later filled in, and by 1845 the first buildings had appeared on the site, providing housing for tradesmen and artisans. By the 1890′s, the lower East Side had become the home to hundreds of thousands of immigrants, densely concentrated into dank, airless tenements, lacking adequate light, air, or green space.
In the 1960′s the outward movement of families began to change the neighborhood into the home of students, low-income working people, and a growing Latino population. In the late 70′s and early 80′s, the energy crisis caused landlords to abandon their buildings, and the corner of Sixth Street and Avenue B was occupied by deteriorating, vacant buildings used as shooting galleries by drug addicts. As the City removed the buildings from six of the lots for safety reasons, the ugliness and uselessness of the debris-filled terrain galvanized the community into action. Seeing the vacant lots as an important opportunity to restore some green to an overbuilt community, in 1982 a committee of the 6th Street A-B Block Association petitioned the City’s Operation Green Thumb for a lease and began the arduous task of hauling rubble and trash from the 17,000 square foot site.
People are encouraged to visit the garden during open hours on Saturday and Sunday, 1:00 – 6:00 pm.
or visit the website.
By Sarah M. Duncan
Last September, myself and my co-organizer, Kate Foster—along with a vast number of dedicated performers, actors, directors, and activists from within and outside the Tri-State Area—held a new ten-minute play festival and teach-in platform entitled Occupy the Empty Space (2): The Human Right to Mobility. For our purposes, we used the word “mobility” in regard to the legal ability to immigrate and emigrate without losing one’s inherent, human rights in the process.
Back in June, before the festival went up in September, we were having a hard time finding a space for the event. Our last festival (Occupy the Empty Space: Housing Is a Human Right) had taken place indoors, inside the marvelous Judson Memorial Baptist Church. Our first event worked wonderfully there, but we had many, many people encourage us to find an outdoor space for our next festival, so as to achieve more visibility. When we began thinking of outdoor spaces and parks, we wanted to make sure wherever we chose was legal. This may seem like a small detail, but our festivals are always non-arrestable, something we decided in our mission. As a result, we abandoned big spaces that required permits, and began to consider community gardens.
We tossed the idea around to a few people, and got a lot of feedback and names of different gardens. Ben Shepard, a friend of ours and long-time activist and speaker for free public spaces, encouraged us to check out El Jardin del Paraiso. This seemed perfect, as we had been hoping to do the event in the Lower East Side, considering the area’s rich history. As securing our event locations usually was my job, I took it on myself (Kate calls me the “Space Queen,” and it has nothing to do with being air headed…I hope) to go scope out the garden.
When I walked up to the gate and peered inside, I felt like the main character in The Secret Garden, discovering not just a hidden slew of greenery, but a surprising desire within to care for it, and to be a part of it. I did not have much reverence for nature as a child, but as an adult, I understand the transcending quality a garden can have—not just on individuals, but whole communities.
“Kate,” I remember typing into my phone, “this garden is perfect.”
Of course, because Kate is a responsible, rational person and phenomenal organizer, she naturally wasn’t sold without seeing it. “That’s great, Sarah, but are there big enough spaces that could be dubbed performance spaces? Yes, Sarah, it’s AMAZING that there’s a tree house and chickens… but do you think that will be truly usable?”
All I could say was, “You have to see the space.”
The rest is history. Once she saw the space, she understood. Then, we contacted those in charge, the garden’s community board approved our proposal to hold our festival there, and the event went up beautifully. And in fact, one of the plays actually DID end up using the tree house, and one chicken demanded some stage time when the day came.
El Jardin del Paraiso is more than adequately named, and we were completely grateful for the opportunity to create within and with such a place. Seeing a garden tended and created by the very community around it, we became joyfully aware of the artistry in not just nature, but in growth, in upbringing. As the flowers and grass seed respond to April rains, so, too, do the people doing the planting and the weeding, The almost “mutual aid” in the relationship between earth and her creatures is exactly what artists and collaborators, like Kate and I, seek to do in creating art and community events.
There is, in the heart of art, in loving, in growth, and in creation, a balance of give and receive. Thank you, El Jardin del Paraiso, for the opportunity to do both.