Wednesday, February 6, 2013

New York City as a Living Lab: Gun Control Rallies and Scavenger Hunts, Bike Generators and Community Gardening adventures in an effort to build a better city and not be sanctimonious (among other updates from activist log January 21 to Feb 4).

Most days, I wake and hope to do involve my day with something useful or fun, and hopefully a combination thereof. In the days since Hurricane Sandy devastated coasts of New York, NJ and Connecticut, we've all tried to think of ways to live our lives in smarter ways, in ways which do not simply reinforce the same old habits.  It's been an amazing few weeks of trying to do so -  supporting biking, community gardening, sustainable energy, creativity, and gun control - all while looking at the city as if seeing it for the very first time, even after its dawns on me sometimes that I have been here for longer than I have been anywhere in my entire life. 

Tats Crew mural in the LESC, with a child in matching jacket. 

 Finding a new world a midst the ashes of New York's pasts, the ghosts and policies of mayors, politicians, activists, and community members, most days it is fascinating and dynamic.  Occasionally, one stumbles into the piety of the old testament prophets, those who seem to know the future with a certainly which betrays history.  Yet, I try to avoid them if I can, tuning away if I have to be in the same room with them. But it is not always easy.  You never know what is going to happen with history, Pete Seeger reminds us.  None of us know the future. Those dour activists, doctors, and preachers who seem to imply they do fall into an all too familiar category.   

My friend Bob Kohler, who was a member of Congress on Racial Equality and Gay Liberation front, used to argue that before the late 1960s there was “no humor in the old leftist movement.”  Abbie Hoffman made the same point. Years before, the Situationists had clearly explained that the ‘militants’ as they referred to dour political activists from the hair shirt left, made the process of organizing and   political involvement unappealing. For the militant, “politics” is delineated from pleasure, fun, and personal desires. As such, the ends of politics – a free socialist utopia – were clearly separated from the means, which many felt to be undemocratic, hierarchical, top-down, and routinized. Thus, the Situationists suggested that boring politics had made activism into a form of “alienated labor,” giving rise to the expression, "Boredom is always counter-revolutionary."

Its not that all activism has to be a form of entertainment or that we should not take the threats to our livelihood seriously, we should.  But the shrill screams of those who profess to know the future, of those who say we are killing ourselves with nukes, cold war, or environmental catastrophe all start to sound the same.  And they are often demobilizing.  Larry Kramer invited those who feared the looming aids catastrophe to join in a movement organized around creative direct action, produced like a piece of theater.  While he sometimes sounded condescending, he generally pointed us toward  a way to participate in a theatrical performance in civil disobedience, one organized around joy, justice, and survival.  Part of the appeal of direct action is that it invites us into a means of participation, rather than a reductive discourse divorced from engagement. 

When Pete Seeger joined anti- fracking activists in Albany a few weeks back he was not telling anyone what to do.  He was asking the Governor to rethink things.  His means, a chorus singing to Governor, who he hoped would change his mind.  Later, he sent the governor a note, pointing out that he hoped he had the opportunity to add a new verse to a song he was writing.

 Through acts of  creative direct action such as this, we are all invited to take part in a gesture of care, a brush stroke on the canvas of an ever changing, ever mutable city, a public art project in which we all hold a spray can, ready to make our own tag.

Through the bike rides and garden workshops, the excursions and the classes, and meals I take part in, the paella and gumbo we cook, hopefully we all find our way to pick our own flavors, our own ingredients in such an effort.  Cooking paella last night, Louis brought some chorizo.  It added just the space we needed. 

moms for gun control UPI NEWS

The day after staying up all night to draft a blog before MLK day, the gals and I met friends for the Million Moms for Gun Control Walk Across the Brooklyn Bridge.  Like Mothers against Drunk Driving, thjs movement hopes to impact discourse and policy around gun violence.  We loved the action, because they invited us to make our own signs, bring our own art highlighting the need for gun control.  The gals painted their own signs.

Handmade signs before the big rally. 

Meeting friends along the way, the even became more and more of a celebration of our opposition, a way to connect with comrades, and enjoy our city.

Unable to stand listening to speeches in the cold, we went for Vietnamese food, once the speeches started.

Strolled through the city and grabbed a subway home.

Some of the afternoon I slept.  The rest we watched Obama's inauguration, and hung out.

Throughout the week, I joined Geoff and Keegan for the TImes Up! radio hour where we revel in what had happened and what is coming up next in our lives. 

We celebrated Dodi's tenth birthday, sung.  Caroline took the mic and owned Wednesday nigh karaoke.   I sung Mandy, Can't Smile without You, and Rainy Days and Mondays.  

Freddie singing Don't Stop Me Now. 

Caroline sung Don't Stop me Now, channeling her best Freddie Mercury.   Everyone in  the place sang along to Fun's We Are Young.  The most fun part of Karaoke is it helps everyone to join in the chorus.  Here, everyone is a star. 

By the weekend, it was back to my lifeblood cycling and gardening with the Times Up! up gang. "This weekend, i invite my buddies to join me for two great environmental actions," I wrote on facebook.   "The fist is SPIN AWAY AIDS ON TIMES UP ENERGY BIKES Saturday, January 26th, 1-3pm NYSC 232 Mercer StreetThe second is mulch fest at Siempre Verde Community Garden at 181 Stanton Street, Sunday starting at 10 AM. See you there."    Dodi and I met everyone to help bring the Times Up! energy bikes to power the Spin Away AIDS event.  While I tend to think of GMHC as part of AIDS Inc, "Gay Men Helping the CDC" we used to argue back when GMHC supported names reporting.  "Gay Men's Health Compromise."  But I was glad to see they were open to thinking in new ways.  Every gym in New York hook up their own energy bikes. 

Top energy bikes at Spin Away AIDS.  Middle and bottom.
 Keegan with energy bikes in Zuccotti Park by Mason Meisch.
The versatile bikes work anywhere.

Creating power on the energy bikes with the Times UP! gang at Spin Away AIDS. 

After surviving a night with some eight ten year olds staying over for a sleepover, Scarlet and I rose the next morning to head to Judson and then to do some gardening at Siempre Verde. romping around, and finishing the weekend.

Dropping off bags of dirt and hanging out at Siempre Verde Community Garden. 

It was a quiet enough of a week that I decided not to blog, prepping for classes and writing instead.

13th anniversary of the the Stop the Mayor action from January 27th, 2000 when I happened to run into Caroline at the demo.  We've been romping around ever since. 

After a fun first week of classes, I joined some of my colleagues from school to talk about the idea of living in New York City as a living lab.

We started the scavenger hunt looking for means of communication.
Photo Jason Montgomery, AIA.

We reveled in comparing means of transportation, living things, and historical sites, caught in between the alleys and side streets of our campus at the intersections of Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene, and Fulton Mall.

Saturday, the walking tours through the streets of New York's history continued.  After years of leading groups through garden rides and street actions around the community gardens, I was scheduled to lead a tour through the the Lower East Side Community Gardens for the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space.  The rationale for all of our events and BBQ's at community gardens through the years is the best public spaces are well used public spaces.  So we want people to understand the way people fought to create these spaces, through organizing, creative direct action, squatting, and guerilla gardening.  The tour was to begin at MORUS, the new radical museum which has already done so much to help us recall and build on that history.

Scenes from the Times UP! roving garden parade of 2007.
We ended at El Jardin del Paraiso
Photos by S Sparkles.
Preparing for these tours is an extensive process.  One is forced to wade through memories, histories, and ways of thinking about the history of New York.  Which is more relevant - political or ecological perspectives, the history of gardening or the process?  Bill Times Up! offers so much knowledge about how to run a garden, while I know a bit about the history.  But what of the balance?

Procrastinating prepping for the event, I read several of the obits on Ed Koch.  While his AIDS record was abysmal, his record on the gardens, the green thumb program, was more than laudable, but also mixed.  With the city just coming out of a fiscal crisis, he opened a space for people to live and enjoy public spaces, yet he also set curfews in Tompkins Square Park, cracking down on this convergence space. He called for an unsuccessful ban on cyclists in mid-town but also promoted a ban on cars in Central Park. He laid out a map of bike lanes and then pulled them back.  He offered things and pulled things when implementing them became inconvenient.  But he still left a city with a little soul.  He is often credited with starting the Green Thumb Program, which began under his watch in 1978 after a generation of activists pushed to transform the vacant lots of New York's Lower East SideThe New York Parks Department  notes: "Mayor of New York from 1978 to 1989, Mr. Ed Koch presided over the greatest expansion of community gardens by far; and as a result leaves GreenThumb as the largest network of community gardens in the nation."  Yet, with every step forward, there seemed to be step backward in terms of the management of public space in New York.

There is so much history there, so many skirmishes which linger in history.  
Frank Morales cautions that the crack down on the 1991 crackdown on the band shell was a harbinger of things to come.   Over and over, places where regular people meet to build civil society are shut down once they become vital meeting places.  The community gardens born of this era helped people create meaningful spaces for social interaction. Yet, when spaces such as Chico Mendez and Esperanza gardens became spaces where people met, talking, and share ideas, the city moved in to crack down on these gathering spaces. 

Over the years to come, activists fought back to defend the gardens.  They released crickets in auctions where gardens were sold.  They used creative direct action and after the loss of Chico Mendez garden, ignited community wide organizing campaigns to save the gardens. This is a story of squats, gardens, cyclists, mayors such as Ed Koch, whose police stirred the Tompkins square park riot.  It is the story of creative people, artists, who saw the sustainable city as a work of art.  They are the people who thought of means for community preservation, as a means of sustainable urbanism in the Post Sandy world of New York City.

These ideas percolated through my mind as I prepared for our tour of the gardens, and along the twenty-five minute ride from Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn, over the Manhattan Bridge, through Chinatown, to the Lower East Side to MORUS.  It was twenty degrees out but still a small group of folks was there ready for the tour.  Bill was there with keys, along with several folks from MORUS and those ready to embark on the tour.

We began at  La Plaza Cultural, with Bill walking us through the some of the composting process, introducing us to the turtles. 

Scenes from La Plaza. 

 The history of the garden is rich, with struggles against encroaching developers, heros, and losses.  According to their their website:

                                                                                                                     A Brief History of La Plaza
La Plaza Cultural was founded in 1976 by local residents and greening activists who took over what were then a series of vacant city lots piled high with rubble and trash. Determined to reclaim the neighborhood from a downward spiral of arson, drugs and abandonment, members of the Latino group CHARAS cleared out truckloads of refuse.
Working with maverick architect Buckminster Fuller, they built a geodesic dome in the open “plaza” and began staging cultural events.
Green Guerillas pioneer Liz Christy seeded the turf with “seed bombs” and planted what are now our towering weeping willows and linden trees.
Artist Gordon Matta-Clark helped construct La Plaza’s amphitheater using railroad ties and materials reclaimed from abandoned buildings. Later, block residents tilled the western portion and planted vegetables, flowers and fruit trees.
During the 1980s, the garden came under attack by developers seeking to build on the space. After numerous court battles, La Plaza was finally preserved in 2002 as part of a landmark legal settlement that saved scores of gardens across New York City.
In 2003, La Plaza was renamed after Armando Perez, a CHARAS founder and former District Leader of the Lower East Side who was brutally murdered in 1999. Armando recognized the power of gardens to bring communities together. We are honored to bear his name.

Standing outside the gate, we enjoyed the re purposed art adorning it, made of objects once seen as garbage, now offering another way of looking at the city as a work of art in itself.

From there, we walked across the street to Green Oasis,  E. 8th between C and D, enjoying Bill's stories about the workdays and bees kept there. 

Bill said goodbye and we walked down to Sixth and B, where I recalled stories about the 65 foot tower, which stood at the edge of the community garden at Sixth Street and Avenue B, built by Eddie Boros, a nearby resident.  When Dodi must have been one years old, we walked down Ave B and she stumbled, pumping her knee on the sidewalk.  Crying I pointed up to the tower and a baby doll hanging from it.  Look I said to Dodi, "a doll."  Tears stopped and she looked in wonderment at the tower and the doll, saw the baby hanging there and started to smile, her aching knee forgotten.  This was art which inspires and helps us mend the bruises of urban life. Later, we visited the turtles inside.

Walking up the street, we stopped at Creative Little Garden  on 520 E. 6th Street.  Throughout the late 1990's, early 2000's, the garden was an organizing hub for the Lower East Side Collective.  In 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, who passed in October 2003.  "Tout alors we all hate these skinking 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 churned through my head walked East toward another garden, 6BC

Why '6BC'? notes the garden's website:
Our name --6BC--tells you where we are: on 6th Street in Manhattan's lively East Village, between Avenues B and C. But there's more to it:
'B' for Botanical
We call it a botanical garden because that's the traditional name for a garden where visitors come to learn about lots of plants from lots of places. Our garden includes hundreds of plants, native plants as well as many that were immigrants to New York-- and that makes our garden a lot like our community.
'C' for Community
Unlike many other botanical gardens, 6BC is also a community garden: East Villagers, all volunteers, started building it on a rubble-strewn empty lot in the early 1980s.
Since then, our garden's story, like our neighborhood's, has been one of constant challenge and change.
Today, after a period in which 6BC's survival, like that of other New York community gardens, was threatened by the city's exploding development, our garden's land has been permanently set aside for public use as part of the New York City Parks system.
Even so, the garden is still completely cared for and run by community members, all volunteers. We are a Green Thumb garden, and we work with a variety of community garden coalitions and environmental groups to ensure the continued health of all community gardens--and a greener future for all of the gardens.

Walking over to El Jardin del Paraiso, its always a happy moment.  I'm so grateful its been there for us through all these years, for pleasure, for peace, for solace.

I love the trees, the pasture, and tree house, even after Sandy.

Scenes from El Jardin del Paraiso

EVGrieve offers a lovely history of the garden and the Willow Trees planted by Liz Christy in the garden in  the garden in 1973.  It offers a short chronology of the garden in relation to the neighborhood, its buildings, and the garden movement:
1900-1980 — Ten tenement buildings were destroyed in the area that would become El Jardín del Paraíso.
1960s-1970s — The stage is set for the reemergence of community gardens during this time due to three factors: a large influx of immigrants, predominantly from agrarian cultures; the movement of many city-dwellers to the suburbs; and the deactivation of many fire houses due to dwindling city budgets. The result of the is a dramatic increase in burned-out vacant lots. These empty lots become the territory of drug dealers and the dumping grounds for rubble and toxic wastes and yet they bring a new openness to this area of Manhattan. Two movements worked to bring green spaces to the neighborhood of the Lower East Side: the homesteading and the gardening movements. Homesteaders work to rehabilitate buildings. Gardeners removed the rubble and turn the soil, reclaiming the vacant lots. El Jardín del Paraíso is founded by these two groups who were inspired by the idea that the space was large enough to be a park and a community garden.
1973 — Liz Christy founds the Green Guerillas, a grass-roots organization dedicated to aiding neighborhoods and providing guidance and education in the creation of new community gardens. The organization recognizes the need for city involvement and lobbies for formal recognition. It is believed that Liz planted El Jardín del Paraíso's existing two Weeping Willow trees.
1978 — Mayor Koch establishes the Green Thumb program, whose function is to regulate the unofficial use of land by issuing leases for abandoned lots; and to supply tools, seeds and chain link fencing for enclosing community gardens.
1981 — El Jardín del Paraíso is created as a green space for use by the surrounding Neighborhood. It begins with the leasing of 9 contiguous city owned lots from Green Thumb. A process to make El Jardín del Paraíso a permanent park begins with the petitioning of Community Board #3. Homesteaders, religious leaders, the Junior League, and the principal of P.S. 15 are among community supporters.

1999 it becomes part of parks department.

Over the years, JK, Ariane, Catherine, and the other gardeners in the space have helped open the space up for garden defense actions, bbqs, and street parades.  In 2010, the garden was a location on the way to a ride to Michael Bloomberg’s house to call for him to update parks rules preserving the community gardens after end of the 2002 Spitzer agreement. Later that fall, it was the location of a memorial party for Michael Shenker,  one of the founders of the More Gardens Coalition, and architect of the garden defense.  A tree fell in the garden the day he left.  It still sits there reminding us of his creative passion.

Peter walked us through a few of the details, the ecology, the history and took us to say hi to some of the chickens, greeting us.

Finishing the tour, we agreed, two hours into this, it was ok to skip planned stops at
Liz Christy Garden on Bowery and Houston, Petit Versailles at 346 Houston St. @ Ave C., Children's Magical Garden, and the newest community garden in the Lower East Side, Siempre Verde at 181 Stanton.

Finishing the tour we walked to Third Street, where we stopped by Bullet Space, a collective and gallery. It was one of the initial  squats turned over to its residents.   
Maggie was there to greet us.

She told us stories of the garden across the street

And walked us inside, showing us the re purposed materials, various colored bottles and police barricade in the entrance.

Walking us through the space, she talked about the generation of kids who have grown up in the space, the ups and downs, the collective DIY spirit of building low income housing for the community.

She showed us the backyard and the relics of the Lower East Side found there.

Thanking Maggie we walked back to MORUS, a space gaining increasing recognition for its radical history tours such as this. The good folks at MORUS greeted us again, giving us tea to warm up.

Riding back home, my body was aching in the cold, yet my heart warmed by the wonderful people and spades we'd toured.  The next day we would be building on this history, supporting the new garden, Siempre  Verde at 118 Stanton. 

As Ilyse wrote supporters for the garden:

Hi everyone!
Today we will be unloading many 30-pound bags of soil from a truck into 
the garden, at 11:30 a.m. We need your help!!!
Application of soil on the 181 Stanton Street lot is necessary to 
prepare the space for our first season of gardening and other activities 
and Spring is on its way soon.
  We hope to unload the whole truck in about 1/2 hour -- please come! 
Bring a friend! If you can come please call Claire to let her know: 
Hope to see you there ...

Riding back to Stanton Street, I loved seeing the snow sprinkled along the route, past my old home in the Lower East Side.  

Standing waiting for the truck carrying the soil, we noted the rat prints outside the garden.

Over the next hour, we transferred thousands of pounds of dirt into the garden. Its going to be wonderful to watch that soil grow in the spring.

We took down the sukkah, which had stood there since the fall.

  Finishing the drop off, Ilyse wrote supporters for the garden:

Hi everyone! 

An amazing team came together today to move more than 9,000 pounds of bagged-up soil into the garden. No, that is not a typo --really, 9,000 pounds. We rented a U-Haul truck and did two runs out to Queens to relieve our craigslist friend Louis of some more of the soil he had excavated from his back garden. We are repeating this act next Sunday Feb. 10, and will advise you of details soon. Please mark your calendars and come out to help unload sometime around noon. OK, "noonish." We'll nail that down as we approach Sunday. And prepare to 
get covered in good old honest earth!!

Some pics from today:

Back at Stanton Street we formed a bucket brigade (sans buckets) to pass the bags from the truck into our lot:
That afternoon, I cooked paella with friends, watched football and enjoyed the quiet comradary of cooking together.

Meeting with Times Up! we talked about so many of these plans to create more gardens and fight the bike backlash. 

Earlier in the day, the letters to the Daily News about Dennis Hamill's obnoxious anti bike editorial were finding their way into the letters sections.  Surprisingly, my letter was listed first:

Times Up! soil and composting bike.  Innovations from bike power take countless forms beginning with the imagination. 

Throughout that night's Times Up! meeting we talked about battling fracking, succeding, losing, fighting the bike crashes, and organizing for our valentine's day party. 

Photo by Brennan Cavanaugh

Love and anti War, the event celebrates a generation of anti war activism, activism, the fights we've had, the joy of our time together, the fighting on the dance floor, even in the troubles, as well as our hopes for another world, a world without war, open to more gardens, better housing and much more creative direct action.  It is all part of our experience, the time we spent building something more meaningful of our experience. 

Party starts at 10 PM. 

Please join us:

Thursday, February 14, 2012, 10 PM
The Living Theater 
21 Clinton Street
between Houston & Stanton Streets 
Lower East Side, Manhattan
$20 Sliding Scale

Music by No Way Josie, DJ Fake Money, and more...
Cheetas on the Loose
Heelz On Wheelz
Big Dance Floor
Chocolate Body Painting
Beer, Wine, and Love Potion 69!
All (off-set) powered by Energy Bikes!

*Ten years after the largest protest in history, Feb 15, 2003, Times Up! is hosting LOVE AND (anti-) WAR!: A Celebration of Peace, Protest, non-polluting transportation and dancing. 

Bring your friends, make-up with your enemies, kiss your lovers and dedicate this dance to your big time love - your bicycle. Get ready to spread the bike love and support your community. Lots of sweets, strawberries, chocolate body painting! 

GREAT Valentine's Ride and After-party Promo Video:

Photos from 2011 and 12 Valentine's Parties:

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