“Place matters, and the first place is your body. We are whole people. We bring that whole-ness to our communities.” –Maria Bauman, leading a “Physio-Expresso” exercise / Photo: @keith5chweitzer via Twitter

What do the Lower East Side’s finest scaffolding, North Brooklyn churches, a chocolate factory, and the Staten Island Ferry have in common with something called Physio-expresso? All were on the roster when artists, art administrators, community leaders, urbanists, researchers and policy makers gathered last week in Fort Greene’s South Oxford Space for the cheerfully dynamic  Spacing Out: A Forum On Innovative Cultural Uses of Urban Space. The event was coordinated by the Arts & Democracy Project, Urban Bush Women, and the Naturally Occurring Cultural District Working Group (NOCD-NY), an alliance of community-based cultural networks and leaders that aim to ‘revitalize NYC from the neighborhood up’.

The aim of the forum was to share best practices (and war stories), to help activate and enhance Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts in New York City. Councilmember Letitia James started things off by explaining why building support for NOCDs is a pressing issue right now, in light of real estate development trends where neighborhood boundaries are hastily redrawn and renamed (DUMBO, Bedford Hill, BoCoCa, anyone?) without appreciating that the community’s cultural workers will likely be priced out, victims of their own ‘success.’ As the morning’s speakers revealed, many communities lack the expertise for navigating arts and cultural resources, and are thus unable to develop the capacity to advocate for themselves and their work.

The morning’s presenters (representing each of New York City’s boroughs) described their own experience spearheading creative re-use of existing urban spaces, and how they routinely navigate issues such as partnership-building, programming and managing spaces.

“Saints of the Lower East Side” is on view through September 5, 2012 / Photo: Fourth Arts Block

Tamara Greenfield of the Fourth Arts Block on Manhattan’s Lower East Side described how art could find an unlikely but happy home within temporary, and typically unsightly structures like the scaffolding at vacant lots and construction sites. While street artists, especially those who are lesser known, relish the opportunity to create work for a new urban platform, the generally brief public life of temporary infrastructure creates huge challenges in terms of rapid project planning, having time to secure adequate funding, and brokering relationships with building owners and the ragtag team of necessary city partners like the DOT and NYPD.

Up next was Sheila Lewandowski, director of Long Island City’s The Chocolate Factory, a theater housed in a formerly-industrial home of delicious things. Sheila spoke about adaptive reuse, and her search for an experimental performance and art space which would help preserve the natural character of the neighborhood. “Space matters,” she proclaimed, explaining that many artists want to respond to old buildings in their existing state. In addition to re-use of a physical structure, the Chocolate Factory has also shown how the community surrounding a venue can inform how it adapts to new cultural tenants by partnering with 200 local businesses in an average year. “It’s very important that the community sees that you’re a part of it,” Sheila said. “You don’t do anything alone.”

Monica Salazar’s presentation about cultural use of religious spaces turned an eye toward the economics of re-use. In 2009, inspired by a New York Times article about local North Brooklyn churches renting out space for rehearsals (and with her own band needing a music-making place), Monica contacted Most Holy Trinity-St. Mary’s in East Williamsburg/Bushwick, Brooklyn with a similar suggestion. Her initiative rapidly developed into The Trinity Project, a bartering program with a membership structure that allows artists to teach classes in exchange for space, while also offering the church a ready army of caretakers. Said Monica: “I was amazed to see how valuable trade is…once the dollar is removed from the equation.’

Visitors explore The Point’s Bronx facility during the “Key to the City” project / Photo: Shelley Bernstein via Flickr

Carey Clark of The Point in the Bronx’s Hunts Point neighborhood illustrated that while some neighborhoods may not have high levels of cultural traffic or city investment, they nonetheless house communities craving the same opportunities and advantages. The Point is an organization which formed in 1994 to strengthen the South Bronx in partnership with local residents through programming, facilities, and resources, including the wildly successful Hunts Point Riverside Campus for Arts and the Environment, a permanent open public space for the arts and environment. “You need to have a vision,” she explained, “but be prepared to be flexible.”

Sometimes strategic flexibility means saying “no,” as highlighted by Prerana Reddy, Director of Public Events at the Queens Museum of Art, who spoke about the QMA’s current work supporting the Heart of Corona.  The QMA has a well-deserved reputation for working with the local community by seeing ‘the museum is a production partner’ in a community ‘full of cultural workers.’ The museum declined the DOTs invitation to take on full management responsibilities for a re-designed Corona Plaza, arguing successfully that maintenance and upkeep should be handled by another organization while the QMA focuses on what they do best: programming. “We have broad cultural networks,” she explained. “How do we use these to co-produce with the neighborhood?” The QMA is now working with several partners on a series of Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper activations of the space.

COAHSI’s “Culture Lounge” will encourage visitors to Staten Island to linger in the ferry terminal / Photo: COAHSI

Turning challenges into opportunities was a necessary philosophy, if not working method, for Melanie Cohn, director of the Council on the Arts and Humanities for Staten Island. COAHSI received a Rockefeller grant to create a new cultural space at New York City’s third most visited site – the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, where 75,000 people pass through every day. For this new space, COAHSI had to balance the needs of local artists, who are feeling the squeeze of a growing lack of cultural space as the borough booms, with the DOT and Homeland Security, organizations that prioritize moving people through the terminal as quickly as possible. The solution? “You talk a lot,” according to Melanie, and invest in outreach about how to engage with influx of population coming into the space.

With presentations over, the room broke into a series of rapid-fire discussion groups to delve further into the topic areas, share our own experiences, and explore common challenges. The room rejoined to share key take-outs. Here, a few of the questions most pertinent for Placemakers looking to bring cultural activity out into streets & public spaces:

  • How can cultural workers arm themselves with ‘the right questions’ to ask?
  • What is the process for acquiring space, and where can we access the technical expertise to manage and use it?
  • How can cultural workers develop effective relationships with host organizations such as museums and libraries?
  • How can cultural workers help expedite the sharing of a common vision with project partners?
  • How can projects be made more sustainable in the short and long term?

Ideas, tactics, experiences, strategies and indeed, the entire morning, passing by with blistering speed and spirited enthusiasm. Many thanks to the organizers and The South Oxford Space for their initiative and planning, and creating the opportunity to develop some new practitioner working methods.