Five Boro Story Project » City of Stories: Lower East Side
June 24, 2016
As part of the Clinton Street Fest, “City of Stories,” an interactive installation and collaboration with Fragile City, invited people to take paper buildings and write Lower East Side stories, memories, reflections, and wishes for the future of the neighborhood, and hang the buildings to create a city made up of everyone’s stories.
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?”).
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.