Exuberance. That’s all you can say about the painted trucks of Loisaida. I love them.
Last weekend we had the first sunny and warm days of spring. I visited community gardens with my friend Katy and our phone cameras. We stopped by 6BC Botanical Garden first. This garden began in 1981 and is a lovingly cared for and peaceful place. In the book Community Gardens of the East Village, gardener Cary York says, “One thing they did design wise that was so important was that someone wanted to build the raised boxes, and Diana said “Don’t do it, don’t do it. Well, if you’re going to do it, do them on a diagonal.” So suddenly, the garden had this whole diagonal thing which is so nice because it’s against the grid. Little by little people started lifting up the boxes and letting the soil be in the soil.”
Our next stop was the Sixth & B Garden. So many gardeners were out clearing the debris of winter and turning the warmed soil. I remember the group of mothers I used to hang out with when we brought our children to play in that garden. I ran into two of them that day. Even though we only socialized in the gardens, there is an intimacy to knowing someone that long and seeing their children now grown. I was interviewed by one of those children, a 20 year old named John, who I remember as a shirtless tow-headed toddler in baggy shorts, playing in the garden. He was doing a school project about community gardens. I was happy to see that the playhouse was still there.
I enjoyed my February read “I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp” by Richard Hell, an engrossing memoir set in New York city in the 70’s and 80’s. Its a history of downtown New York culture of the time when young people were free to live without the tethers of responsibility and moved through the streets with the freedom and loping grace of wild animals in a natural habitat. One of my favorite passages was the last one in the book, “My life is not different for having written this book – my life only comes into being by having been written here. What I have been given and what I have been and what I have and what I and what – all are only to the extent they all are only to the extent all are only to the all are only to all are only all are all. We know that we are constructed of time, not of sequence, and it is impossible to write time “not of sequence,” except maybe in poetic flashes. I didn’t want to write about a person through time, but about time through a person.”
For my March book, I decided to visit the new bookstore in the neighborhood. Bonnie Slotnick’s Cookbooks was priced out of its West Village home and the happy ending to the all too familiar New York story is that some book lovers offered to rent her space in the basement of their family townhouse in the East Village. And so, another bookstore has survived in New York City. On a very snowy Sunday afternoon, red-cheeked and with snow encrusted eyebrows, my friend Katy and I entered the warm and homey store. Bonnie Slotnick welcomed us by pointing out where the radiators were so that we could warm up first. What a charming and inviting bookstore. I felt like I was in someone’s home, albeit a person with a lot of bookshelves. Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks specializes in Out-of-Print and Antiquarian Cookbooks.
I picked out a 20 year old cookbook from the Florida Keys with lots of recipes for fish and rum cocktails. Standing there in my wet snow boots reading tropical recipes ringed with illustrations of palm trees felt good. I searched for a proper book for my March read and found “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals” by Michael Pollan. I’ll let you know how it goes.
I hope that the neighborhood will never be so sanitized that we will not have street art. It is heartening to see that people feel the need to embellish the streets.
I admire the work of Tatyana Fazlalizdeh and especially her street art project “Stop Telling Women to Smile”. Why are we still fighting for women’s rights and civil rights? IIt should be something we read about in history books. It was good to see her mural in the neighborhood.
Alas, I did not enjoy my first Year in Books read, I am one of those people who likes tidy plots and I just kept wondering what the hell was up with Miles. I fought the urge to skip ahead until I finally just put the book down. Nevertheless, I did enjoy getting back to the practice of reading in bed. As it’s been snowy in New York and the roads are icy, I’ve been off my bike and have been riding the bus and subways which gives me another good block of time to immerse myself in a book.
I’m following Laura’s (of The Circle of Pine Trees blog) lead of only purchasing books from independent bookstores, thrift stores or borrowing from the library. This month I sought my book at the Saint Mark’s Bookshop, a neighborhood institution. The relentless gentrification and “mallification” of my neighborhood almost claimed our bookstore on at least two occasions. Each time, the community rose up and closed ranks around the beloved bookstore, circulating petitions, fundraising and volunteering labor and services. Read here and here for news stories about the battle for the bookstore. Saint Mark’s was eventually chased out by rising rents, but reopened in the neighborhood this summer. It is much smaller than the old store, but I think it is far more beautiful. The design by Clouds Architecture Office was a donation. The existence of St. Mark’s Bookshop is a testament to the power of community.
In my neighborhood bookshop, I picked up a book by a neighborhood author. This month’s read is “I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp”, an autobiography by Richard Hell. A cultural history of the punk rock era in New York in the 70’s and 80’s, in which Richard left an indelible mark as a musician and a writer.
It was supposed to be the storm of the century and we only got a few inches so this morning’s headlines read “New York dodges a bullet”.
My friend Katy described it in this way: “I’m looking at this now like its a flash mob, only in reverse. The Mayor has sent all the New Yorkers scampering to their lairs and now the city is quieter than it has been in a century or two… world’s biggest flash mob inversion.”
Nonetheless, we got a snow day.
It is a new year and it feels good. Fresh starts and a rubbing of the eyes – a time for shaking off the sort of cobwebs that don’t do us any good. From where I write (Northern US), every single day going forward, the sun will set later and later. We are on the other side of the light now. It will get sunnier. At the start of this new year, here are some words that my friend Katy Lyle wrote that I wanted to share with you. I found this passage to be all the things she said she wanted it to be.
I want to post something encouraging, heartening, beautiful… Something to help us all lean into the wind if need be – or go with it if not – ever bolstered by hope and the presence of each other… May these days be good ones for you. May you be understood. May you be met halfway. May financial worries ease, and frictions too. May pains lessen and loss be felt less keenly. May friendships surprise you often and love undo you completely, friends – I wish you well!
Katy Lyle, New York City, December 2014
One of my first blogs posts was a collection of photos of the storefront gate murals in Loisaida. These murals come and go with the opening and closing of stores so I thought it was time to do a part 2. What I like most about these murals is that someone sees the gate and feels the need to embellish the grey metal. It becomes a canvas and an excuse to add a bit of color and swirl to the cityscape.
I’m very proud and pleased to present my first guest post: The Little Garden That Could, Guerrilla Gardening in the East Village, written and photographed by my dear friend, Raquel Shapira, artist and neighborhood royalty.
End of the summer, 2010
The city just completed their new traffic design along lower First Avenue introducing a new bike lane and crosswalk islands featuring a young tree on every corner of the crossing street.
Early September, 2010
A few sunflowers plants appear around the tree on the corner of First Avenue and 7th Street, which has 5 X 5 feet of soil surrounding it (the tree on this corner is Zelkova serrata or Japanese zelkova). A young woman, whose name I cannot remember, plants those, and disappears. It’s a dry month and the plants need water.
The obvious thing to do is to water the plants. However, there’s no hose or anything to connect a hose to. I buy a watering can from Saifee’s, a hardware and gardening store right across the street from the island. The Tile Bar, which is the closest establishment to the island, allows me to keep the can there and use their water. By the end of October the sunflowers bloom, changing the face of the block.
Small sunflower sprouts begin to appear (all from seeds of last year’s sunflowers—the sunflower is an annual flower). A resident from the neighborhood plants an iris, a yucca, and a few other flowers. I notice he’s also been “weeding” the sprouts. I need a solution for protecting the sprouts. Here it is. Thank you Tile Bar for providing the cocktail straws.
The sunflowers are growing 7 feet high and are ready to bloom.
One plant, on the south side of the garden, is nearing a full bloom, but on a weekend night some drunken idiot beheads it and breaks my heart. Fuck.
A lesson learned. Having flowers in an open space, without high fence, a gate with a key is beyond challenging. As Amy Stewart eloquently said in her blog Garden Rant.
“Anyone who thinks that gardeners are naturally generous people, eager to share their bounty and always glad to see the neighbors enjoying the beauty and tranquility that their garden has brought to the neighborhood, has never been around my place in early spring. Sometimes having a garden can be so aggravating that I don’t know why I even bother. I am referring, of course, to the problem of flower theft.”
As the lower plants are flourishing, the sunflowers—one by one—are ripped off.
This summer is more of the same, although this year I do not include sunflowers. I plant a few coneflowers. The garden is pretty, but hardly lush.
Early summer, 2013
Wow. Finally after 3 years the yucca plant is flowering. What an amazing chandelier of white flowers. The Iris is looking pretty but the mini rose bush is sad-looking. A friend buys Celosia—some are doing great, others not as good. The garden is beginning to look lush. With the help of Tile Bar, we pay someone to build a fence. It’s a wooden white fence, which makes the garden somewhat more formal yet sweet.
Late summer, 2013
Arriving one Friday afternoon the garden is upside down. After 3 years, the city decides the cement that was used to build the islands was not strong enough. Millions of dollars are spent to re-do the islands. This is what I see.
A week later
The workers are done. Island is re-built, and to my astonishment the workers erect the fence back, but most of the plants are gone. My friend Rose and I decide to get 40 mixed bulbs of tulips, daffodils, and hyacinth and stick them in the ground. The show must go on.
After the coldest winter of my life living in NY, spring finally arrives bringing with it new, colorful life.
I get busy planting new plants. A friend gives me “mammoth” sunflower seeds. The package says they should grow up to 10 to 13 feet high. Who would bother with those? I sow the seeds. You already know how that story ends . . . sadly.
I get an idea to experiment with growing vines around the tree. Saifee’s Gardening store only has Cypress vine seeds so I buy them and sow them around tree. Within a few months they begin to attach themselves to other plants so I buy a yard of chicken wire, place it around the tree and direct the vines to the wire.
And that’s how it’s done in a nutshell. It’s all been a wonderful experiment. All you need is a watering can and good intentions.
Next year it may be a mix of wildflower seeds. We shall see.
I met Kristin in 1985 when we were working on a documentary film about Nicaraguan poetry (Azul) directed by another friend and neighborhood resident Roland Legiardi-Laura. Shortly thereafter I began to see Kristin in the neighborhood splattered with paint, hanging out on scaffolding with her murals blooming in the devasted landscape that was Loisaida at the time.
What inspired you to create large-scale paintings on walls?
I graduated from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn with an MFA in painting and had a studio in my loft. Although I was involved in several artist activist groups, I started feeling isolated. I had a friend from Paraguay who was very politically active with Latin American causes and our anti-intervention politics of the US in Central America coincided. One day I was griping to him about the lonely existence of the artist when he pointed out to me that only Americans and Europeans viewed the life of the artist this way. He opened me up to making art for and with the community in Latin America. So I started looking around for arts groups in NYC who were doing community work. I was reading a copy of a Spanish community magazine called “Ajá” and saw an open call for muralists. My friend, Robin Michals and I decided to contact the group “Artmakers” who was organizing the project and write up a proposal for “La Lucha Continua in Latin America, South Africa and The Lower East Side”. Artmakers is an artist-run, politically oriented community mural organization established in 1983.
What inspired you to make community art and what drew you to Loisaida?
The “La Lucha” project was to put multiple individual murals on this theme and one large group-produced mural in a large area where buildings had tumbled or been demolished between East 8th and East 9th Streets and between Avenue B and Avenue C. A park had been constructed by community residents there but it was a mess—full of weeds, used hypodermic needles and garbage. It was hard to keep the junkies out. Artmakers accepted our proposal and we collaborated with the group of involved artists to clean out the garbage and weeds, prime the walls of the canyon of surrounding buildings and get to work creating a riot of color on the walls. The bleak lot was transformed into a playground, outdoor performance space and a clean, safe place for the community to hang.
I spent the summer of 1985 making a public work which involved community members and was very popular in the neighborhood. Our wall was called “The Last Judgement” and depicted a jury of twelve overlooking a scene of grizzly looking white businessmen with missile toys at their feet in an abstract color field. For the jury we selected six leaders from Central America and South Africa: Daniel Ortega, Ruth First, Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta Menchú, Archbishop Oscar Romero and Winnie Mandela. And six community members who were recommended by the people who lived in the area. They ranged from the street mechanic who worked right next to the wall, a homeless man who inhabited the block, an elderly woman who had single-handedly started a thriving community garden around the corner and three other colorful and well-liked neighborhood people.
Our mural generated much publicity and interest. Our piece was written about in “In These Times” by art critic Lucy Lippard and I was interviewed by Jimmy Breslin for the New York Post. The highlight was when Rigoberta Menchú from Guatemala came to New York to give a speech at the United Nations. One day there she was smiling in front of our mural. Word had gotten to her somehow and she came down to see it and meet us in full Quiché dress.
The following summer Robin and I raised the funds for another much larger mural on East 4th Street and Avenue D. We used the same concept to get the community involved and chose a site where a lot between two buildings had been made into a park by the priest from the church next door. He created a brightly colored gazebo, brick pathways, put in a swing set and planted a garden for children from the community to play in. Unfortunately the drug trade had reclaimed the lot and not many children played there. We invited people to recommend neighborhood children to portray and then selected eleven kids. We spent the summer of 1986 practically living on a scaffold on East 4th Street. At first there was suspicion that two white girls were cleaning up the neighborhood to make it nice for a gentrification that would push them out. But our friends and allies from 8th Street let everyone know that we were cool. The drug dealers caused a dilemma when one of them insisted that his son and his toy gun be painted on the wall. After meeting with community members we decided to comply in order to keep us and others safe during the project. Then one day our friends told us not to come around for a few days. The word was that several busts had occurred in the yard and the “big” off-site drug guy was sure we were narcs planted there and that there would be a reprisal. So we laid low until we got the word to come back. There had been a negotiation on our behalf by community members to clear the way. Another day when we rode our bikes to the site and locked them on a parking sign, turning our backs on them as we frequently did while working—they disappeared. But the word went out among our friends and the bikes mysteriously returned the next day. We had the feeling that a force field of community support surrounded us.
After the mural had been completed for a few months we received a call that someone had tagged the mural with spray paint. We spent a day researching how to remove Krylon from oil paint and hurried down to remedy the situation. A tag can be the kiss of death. It’s an invitation for others to do the same—one tag being the catalyst for a free-for-all. But when we arrived ready to remove it—it was gone. Someone from the neighborhood was faster then we were. By doing this kind of work, I made many friends in the community and with other artists that I cherish to this day.
What was the neighborhood like then?
When I arrived at the site for Artmakers La Lucha project it was the summer of 1985 and it was a blighted no-man’s-land. There were many abandoned buildings, empty lots where buildings had tumbled down. Drug selling frenzies were commonplace. Someone would walk out on the street with aluminum packages in his hands and the addicts would swarm with money held high in their fists. Cops just didn’t seem to care. There were blocks where the landscape was fallen brick, debris, graffiti and boarded-up buildings.
But it was an exciting time and many interesting community gardens and casitas were created. It was an invigorating nexus of politics, art and music.
What do murals do for a community?
The creation of a public work of art generates pride. Most people want to live in a nice place but can be overwhelmed by the degradation of things falling apart. When someone starts the ball rolling it is contagious. Colorful paintings that are relevant to the people who live there give a sense of hope and pride. But to make the magic happen it helps to involve the community, be open to their input and ask for and accept their help in the way they want to give it.
What inspired you to became an artist?
My father was an artist, as was his mother and he had me painting by the time I was four. At age six he enrolled me in art classes at the Museum of Modern Art. I thought I would be taught how to draw and paint the world around me. But it was the late 50s and Abstract Expressionism was in its heyday. The teacher had us make mini Jackson Pollacks by squirting paint from plastic ketchup bottles. I was thouroughly disappointed.
What are you currently working on?
In 2005 I became certified as a Reiki Master/Teacher and began doing energy healing work (www.HealingReikiBrooklyn.com). After this, my work changed drastically and I began making abstract work with geometric shapes and lines. I have a studio at the Brooklyn Army Terminal in Sunset Park Brooklyn through chashama.org and am currently showing twelve new paintings in “The Gallery At First” which is in the First Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue and 12th Street in the Village. The work will be there until the end of June and can be seen during the week and on Sundays at 12 West 12th Street.
I continue to work on projects with Artmakers. In 2005 I worked on “When Women Pursue Justice” with Artmakers in Bedstuy, Brooklyn. It’s a 3,300 sq. ft. mural that can be seen at 498 Greene Ave. at the corner of Nostrand directed by Janet Braun-Reinitz and Jane Weisman. It depicts 90 women activists, both historical and contemporary. My contribution was a 6-ft. portrait of Fanny Lou Hamer.
In 2008 I ran into you on East 3rd Street while helping to restore an R.I.P. mural created in 2002 for Eva Cockcroft, founder of Artmakers. You and I had met originally while I was working on the Enchanted Garden mural on your block in 1986.
In June I expect to be working on a mural with Artmakers led by Camille Perrotet at PS 94 in Sunset Park Brooklyn.
This is Kristin’s website: www.kristinreed.com