Category Archives: Meet Vision

Meet Vision. Meet Stacey Ornstein.

My name is Stacey Ornstein, and I think I hold a lot of titles. I’m president of the Astoria CSA, or community supported agriculture. We connect our farm to the local community and we do a lot of educational programming, free to the community. In my professional life, I teach cooking to elementary school kids at an after-school program and through a couple of non-profits in the city.

I’m originally from the Chicago area and I came to New York City, oh, a lot of years ago. I came to New York City to go to school and now I live in Astoria, Queens. So I’ve been here for about fourteen years now.

Astoria is my favorite neighborhood. I do a culinary food tour as a little fun side project in Astoria. The tour that I do is a wider Mediterranean; we do Bosnian, Italian, Greek, and Egyptian, which I think is really cool because they’re some of the lesser-known ethnicities in Astoria. You have to love Queens for its ethnic diversity and food culture.

I have my masters in education, and I worked on art education predominantly in my studies. When I graduated, I was working in a couple of art education non-profits.

I worked with high school students, and I watched the foods that they were bringing in as snacks, and what they were calling their lunches, and it scared me.

Growing up, I loved junk food. But when I started spending my own money on food and realizing that I wasn’t getting full off of that, I started making healthier food choices on my own. When I saw that kids were not doing the same, it scared me. That was my ‘Aha!’ moment.

I love kids because they’re really not afraid to tell you what’s on their minds. They are really honest with you, and if they don’t like something or they think something is boring, they’re going to tell you or they literally go to sleep on the table in front of you.

They’re much more likely to try good food when they know where it comes from, when they’ve had a hand in making it. Something green isn’t as scary when you pull it apart and understand its components.

Beet gnocchi is really cool because it’s a hot pink fuchsia color. Kids love it because I talk to them about beets. If you can’t get your kid to eat beets, you tell them that they will pee pink and potentially miss school if they eat enough beets. Every kid will be chowing down on the beets.

My favorite is anything that has a gross-out factor tagging along with it. I like working with yeast a lot, and doing breads, because they love the science of the yeast. They say they can hear it burping and see all of the gasses coming out. You sort of wish you had that child’s vision, watching bread rise, and being able to hear it burp.

I was leading a green market tour for some fourth graders a couple years back. There was one student who told me he had never had an apple before, a fresh apple. That was a scary moment. It made me realize that things still need to be done.

I’m obsessed with food, and there are so many foods that are all about New York. I support my farm in a winter share and a summer share, so I’m eating local about 90% of the time.

Eating locally, there’s so many different ethnicities that you can play around with, and cook and eat.

Mustard is an awesome, cross-cultural thing. In my community garden, we’ve got people from so many different countries who have different food memories associated with it. We have a Bangladeshi family who talks about having a mustard farm back in their home country. My grandmother was Latvian and she talks about making mustard, which is just vodka and mustard seeds, and maybe some horseradish for spice. However, once you add vodka and mustard seeds together, I don’t know if you need any extra spice. But it definitely clears your sinuses.

Something that drives me everyday is hearing children’s attitudes change. In the beginning of the year, they see something green on the table and they pretend to convulse because they don’t want to eat the green thing. This week, we’re making a green soup with peas and asparagus and they think it’s awesome and they’re coming back for seconds and thirds. That definitely motivates me to keep going, when they’re no longer putting up a fight to eat something green.

The connections that you can make working locally and when you get involved with a community are really amazing. You start to hear people’s stories and you really start to understand people. It makes the city seem smaller and more comfortable.

I have this cantaloupe that was originally in some heirloom seeds that I bought. That cantaloupe crossed with another cantaloupe. It’s turned into the most amazing cantaloupe ever. Every year, I collect seeds from one of the cantaloupes. I take those seeds and packet them, and give some of these cantaloupe seeds to people in the garden. It’s really exciting to have something that you’ve created, pass it along to another gardener or another member of the community, and that they are then going to take the plant and sustain themselves with it. It’s an amazing cycle, saving the seeds and passing the seeds on.

Allergic to Salad is my newer blog that chronicles my life working with elementary school kids, teaching them cooking. It came about because earlier in the year we were making something that involved spinach and green things, and I set out a platter of things that we were working on in class. So there was a lot of green stuff that we were working with, and I had a student who convulsed on the floor and said that she was allergic. I said, “You haven’t even eaten anything and you haven’t even touched anything.” And she stood up and said, “I’m allergic to salad, so I can’t eat anything today.” So I said to her, “I’m really disappointed, because next week we’re making a chocolate salad. Looks like you’ll have to sit that one out also.” She said, “Oh, no, I’m not allergic to salad anymore. Just this kind of salad.” So that’s where the name comes from, Allergic to Salad. It’s a combination of ‘Kids Say the Darndest Things’ and my life working with elementary school students.

There was another instance where we were working with butternut squash and I talked about how butternut squash is like the brother to the pumpkin. As we started cutting up the squash, one of my students started crying because he said that we were killing the brother. But later he said that eating the brother was pretty good. I have some twisted kids, I guess, and that makes it more fun to cook.

I hope one of my biggest contributions was helping to save my community garden, which was on the brink of being turned into—well, I don’t know what it was on the brink of being turned into. That was a scary moment. So, in my own community, that’s something that I’ve held onto and have made a connection with.

There are so many amazing community gardeners and local activists around the city that are really inspiring. I think that all of those little projects are really inspiring when you hear about them and when they come to light. Every day, I’m re-inspired by people around the city when I hear some of the projects that people are working on. It’s not necessarily anything in the food world. Anything that really connects people to their community and to each other is amazing. That’s inspiring to me.

Meet Vision. Meet Tom Finkelpearl.

Tom Finkelpearl, a self described ‘Public and Cooperative Art Guy,’ is the Executive Director of the Queens Museum of Art. Here he discusses the power that artists have to draw a crowd and the Queen’s Museum’s work towards expanding and deepening social networking in the surrounding community.


About a hundred years ago, Marcel Duchamp took a urinal and he put it on a pedestal in a museum and called it art. The idea was, if you take something out of the flow of life and put it in a museum, which is out of the flow of life, it becomes art.

 

An artist who we are working with, Tania Brugara, said it is time to symbolically restore Marcel Duchamp’s urinal to the bathroom. To make it useful again. We actually did that. We have Marcel Duchamp’s urinal in our bathroom. It’s a urinal again. It has been repatriated. So she is having a meeting that we are sponsoring about useful art. There are environmental aspects of it.
Mel Chin has done a series of environmental works. He is a legendary guy. His most famous is one called Revival Fields, where he worked with a scientist from the US Department of Agriculture with certain kinds of plants which are hyper accumulators of cadmium and lead and planted them in some toxic waste sites in order to suck the toxics out of the soil and then burn the plants and mine them for cadmium and lead to pay for the process. So it’s a sustainable model of bioremediation.

 

He’s working on a huge project right now in New Orleans which is called the Fundred Project, that project is based around the idea of getting kids particularly, but also other people, to draw each person one $100 dollar bill. The idea of it is to raise enough money to deal with lead poisoning in New Orleans. This is a sort of post Katrina project. Already over 320 thousand people have participated in the project making individual works of art. And he’s going to go to Washington and try to redeem the money for bioremediation of the toxic wastes and lead poisoning in New Orleans. We were a Fundred site. We collected a lot of fundreds. He came by with an armored car.

 

Rick Lowe is this absolute visionary down in Houston Texas who has reclaimed a whole neighborhood. He now has a campus in a low-income African American community. He is an African American guy, grew up very poor on a farm in Mississippi. He has reclaimed a whole neighborhood as an art project.

 

It includes everything. He is building housing. He has revitalized several blocks of old row houses. They have community gardening. They are collaborating with Rice Architecture School on designing and building housing. He is a visionary of useful art.

We’ve been working off-site in Corona, at a particular part of Corona which is a low income mostly Latin American community in Queens, on a series of projects with artists (and some without artists). The major components have been public space and health and immigration. Part of the idea is that it’s all linked in together. You can’t separate the health outcomes from the community network outcomes from the environmental outcomes. So we’ve been doing big community festivals, often times based around big art projects.

 

Artists can draw a crowd. And when the crowd is there you test people for diabetes and high blood pressure, etc. When John Leonardo did a project as a Lucho Libre thousands of people were there and you say, “Okay, they’re here. Let’s see who has insurance.” Thousands of people signed up for low-cost insurance, which is like the public option if there were one — Metro Health Plus. Thousands of people got screened for various problems and they got immigration information.

 

This whole idea of cooperative art — that’s what I’m interested in, the idea that in the history of art the idea that the artist was this lonely person sitting in his studio is a very new idea. It’s only in the last thousand years that people have been isolated in their studios, before that, art was part of the collective.

We did a “social network map” of Corona and we had it mapped by this Center for Creative Community Development at Williams (C3D). The idea of social network mapping is to say that it is demonstrable that there are better social outcomes in communities with denser social networks, especially multi-layer social networks. So that if you are on the PTA and you’re also a member of the church and you’re also the member of a business association, and your neighbors are on those things too, and you have multilayered relationships and, for example, you show up at the Community Board meeting, and your friend who you talked to at the PTA doesn’t show up, you might call them and they might be lying on the floor waiting for someone to call and they answer and say “take me to the hospital!” The idea is to get more mutual surveillance.

 

So what we’ve done is one test of the social network map to understand both how dense the maps are and to understand how central the Queens Museum is to those maps, because the more central we are, the more important our role is.

 

We’re hoping is that we can demonstrate that the second time we do it, the map is denser, and The Queens Museum is more central. That’s the hope. If we’re actually helping our community, we’ve helped our community have denser social networks, we’ve brought people from the edges of the community more into the flow of interaction.
A good neighbor is someone who is active in the community. There are other communities I’m a part of besides my residential community, the art community, the school community. There are all these ways that actually having a kid ties you to a community — PTA, sports, etc.

 

I think privacy is overrated. It’s not associated with happiness. It is this protective sheen that Americans try to put around themselves which is unhealthy socially, physically, personally.

 

Every one of the happiness books says that being a member of a community, being active in your community is associated with happiness. All of these things that are counter intuitive to Americans are based on this idea of the individual, which is unhealthy.

 

There are very few animals that are as cooperative as human beings. We are aggressive and territorial, but we are also insanely cooperative. There are only four animals that have social units over a hundred thousand, and we’re one of them. So it’s ants, and bees, and I don’t know, bats, and us! And that’s amazing! So we have these social units, cities, and 8 million people are living together, and for the most part we cooperate. Then there is this question: why are we so fixated on the fact that we don’t cooperate?

 

I’m really rooting for our species to make it through all these problems we have, and the only way I can do it is by being cooperative. Not by being more competitive.

 

I had one experience with an artist, Merl Euchilles, not long ago and she did this project about this Jewish principle “tikkun olam” and it has to do with repairing the shattered world. She did a performance of it at the Center for Jewish History and the idea was for people to make some sort of pledge on the basis of that principle, it could be anything from being nicer to people, there is a whole wide range of what it could mean, she had this sort of performance and ritual. It was kind of hokey and I didn’t think it was one of her best pieces, but it actually changed my life.

 

There was this mirror, a two-sided mirror. You looked in the mirror and saw yourself, so it had to do with self-examination. So I made this pledge to repair stuff. These shoes have been resoled three times and I started to not just throw things out automatically. I did a renovation of my loft based on things I found on the street. I stopped using a dryer, cause you don’t have to, just hang things up and they will dry (Americans waste an amazing amount of energy on dryers). I just became much more conscious. I stopped buying stuff. It’s been a year and a half now and I’ve continued all this stuff. It was an amazing performance and it sort of crystallized what I was already thinking in a way, and it gave me motivation to make this commitment.

 

There is a lot of underlying spiritualism in artists’ work that doesn’t get acknowledged because it’s kind of embarrassing. The only artists who will say it are Buddhist, because they’re not afraid to say it.

Meet Vision. Meet Ahmed Tigani.

 

​Ahmed Tigani, a sound and light designer/technician, full time urban studies graduate student, and Vice President of the Manhattan Young Democrats, talks about the arts as a common denominator for organizing, the importance of persistence, and learning to live without all the answers.
 
 
I’m from Ethiopia. My mother is Ethiopian and my father is Sudanese and Dutch. I was born in the Bronx. I grew up in public housing in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and lived there until I moved to Manhattan as an undergrad at Hunter College. Now I am a resident of Astoria, Queens.
 
I like the individual aspect of New York, the feeling that I can walk from one part of the city to another part of the city and feel like I’m walking from one country to a whole different one. The walkability and livability and cultural immersion, it’s just fantastic.
 
The spot where I feel the most comfortable is 5th Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. It reminds me the most of growing up, which is always a good feeling. My favorite spot is Owl’s Head Park in Bay Ridge. I hung out there a lot when I was a kid. Astoria, hands-down, is the most fantastic place to get fresh produce and food, and, for me, cheeses. When I want to be quiet, and just want to think, the water by 23rd St and 1st Ave is a great place to just go and relax, sit down, and read a book in the summer. 
 
I love the train. The train disconnects me from all cellular technology. I get to turn off, and just read a book. It’s also the most awesome place to view people, to examine your fellow citizens. You can see people interact in different way. This is my theater side coming out. It’s useful when you’re an organizer and you want to be able to relate your message to specific people. When you’re talking and writing about specific policy issues it’s important that the initiation and the desire is ignited by your own desire to see change. On the train I try to watch and see what people are feeling. The train is a great place to learn about other people.
 
I went to college to get my Bachelor’s in Theater and Political Science, because I wanted to be able to be Stephen Colbert when I grew up. But I realized that was much harder than I’d originally anticipated. 
 
I started to get involved in a lot of student organizing when I was an undergrad — student government, etc. I worked with a lot of different ethnic groups that had their own clubs to create cultural events that spoke about their traditions. I thought that was very interesting. I tried to get a job with the Department of Cultural Affairs, and I succeeded. That was fantastic. I ended up working for a program called Materials for the Arts, a 32-year-old support network.
 
The purpose of Materials for the Arts is to divert gently used and new material from the waste stream and into the hands of artists who can use it to prop up art programs around the five boroughs. There’s a sustainability and reuse aspect, where we’re trying to help the environment. We’re trying to prevent things from becoming trash. And there’s an art component to it: we encourage the rebirth of these items into any kind of art manifestation you could think of. 
 
The arts are a great common denominator for learning about all different kinds of issues. I think they allow people a universal language in which to express how they feel about what’s going on in current events. It tells personal stories in ways that people can digest without feeling awkward or embarrassed, or tell stories without feeling awkward or embarrassed. I think that good or bad art becomes a benchmark for us. It becomes a great indicator of where we are as a community when we’re able to show how appreciative we are of different styles that emerge. The diversity of our art is like the diversity of our community.
 
I remember one after school computer room project that kept twelve computers out of the waste stream, preventing harmful effects to our water. Another project had us redirecting seven floors of office furniture to about fifteen different schools, government agencies, and non-profits. 
 
Trash is necessary, but we can always do more to reduce it. I think as a society, we’re becoming more and more open to considering reuse as an option before buying new. 
 
We all worry so much about money, having money, buying things with money. There would be more money in our pockets if we reused things. I find that one of the best ways to get people’s foot in the door about trash and the importance of reuse is to talk about something that relates to their everyday pressures. They might not have all the time in the world to think about the environment, but they do have time to think about saving money.
 
There’s a good group that provides a good example of it is the Madagascar Institute, located in Brooklyn. They take pieces of metal, old machinery, and discarded wood, and create these fantastic objects that just come to life. They built something called the “Miracle Wheel” out of leftover metal parts. It spits fire. It’s amazing. It runs on bike power. It’s operated out of a Brownstone in Brooklyn. 
 
These are the kind of groups that we work with — groups that give rebirth to things that would otherwise be thrown out. Now these things have a whole new life and take tours around the world. We help these organizations stay alive by providing them resources like desks, office supplies, and computers. That way they can take their money and not spend it on administrative materials. Instead they can put it towards programs or hiring more teachers or expanding their offerings. 
 
I started working on political campaigns because I love talking to people…and because I’m a glutton for punishment. My first big one was in Queens, working for Mel Gagarin. A really good guy. A really young guy too. He was running for City Council. I was a staffer and field coordinator. It was a very eye-opening experience. I learned how to take all of this information about environmental policy, school education policy, housing policy, and boil it down into the 30 seconds that people were willing to give me in order to talk about these issues. So I learned very quickly about formulating messages that are clear and concise. 
 
I got to know more people in the political world, specifically young people, and I wanted to meet more young people, because I thought that it was interesting that we couldn’t get many activated during the City Council campaign. It was very much that we were speaking to an older crowd, which I thought was ridiculous because a lot of the issues we were talking about were going to affect us in ten to 15 years. 
 
I think the most effective way of bringing about change is by showing up in person and being persistent. 
 
People assume that you’ll give “one ask” — tell them about something that you want and then fade away. But if you say, “I want a tenant organization started in this building and you, in 2A, need to help me do it,” and then you come back a week later and ask about it again, they think, “this person might be interested.” If I come back a third time, then they know that either you’re crazy, or the issue is important enough for you to give your time to. If you really care about something and you want to see change happen, you have to be willing to dedicate time and effort. Through that you can inspire others to give their own time and effort. 
 
Being a good neighbor is really about being helpful when asked, and also being helpful when you’re not asked to be so. When people ask you to do things, you’re there for them. When people say “participate in the public planning situation,” you go, and you give your comments. But when you see that no one has asked for the public’s opinion, you also give your comments, and you tell you tell other people that our collective comments aren’t being asked for. You do both.
 
One of the biggest things that people who organize do is that they put a lot of pressure on themselves to always have all of the answers. The reason why you’re organizing is because you’re trying to get other people involved. The reason why you organize is because you believe in grassroots. In a grassroots situation you’re all supportive of each other. So as an organizer, you don’t have to have all of the answers. You just have enough to get another person with you. And then the two of you have to have enough answers to get the third person with you, and so on and so forth. And at some point, collectively, you’ll have a cumulative knowledge to push forward the issue.

Meet Vision. Meet David Bragdon.

David Bragdon, Director of Long Term Planning and Sustainability for the City of New York, talks about the importance of big visions and small actors in his native NYC, and moving beyond regulatory convention to promote the common good.

I’m from New York City. I was born in New York Hospital and lived there until I was about five years old. Then we moved to Chelsea and I lived there until I was twelve.
Then I went away for 39 years. I came back in the fall of 2010. Now I live on the edge of Fort Greene and Downtown Brooklyn.
As a little kid, Central Park was a big part of my life. We lived between First and Second Avenue, but we would walk to the park just about every day. It was a feature of most afternoons of my life.
It’s hard to find a spot in New York City that’s overlooked by other people. But every individual has a different experience of a common space. You can have multiple experiences of a singular place.
My sentimental favorite spot in the city isn’t really a spot. It’s the ride between Whitehall Street and St. George on the ferry because of the air, the wind, the water, and the view of all the different surrounding shorelines and skylines. It’s a combination of what the natural setting is and what the built environment is.
I’ve always just been interested in how things move around. My dad would take me to school on the 2nd avenue bus and we kept a journal listing every bus we rode. Every single day we would write down which bus it was. It was the same route but we would write down the number of the bus. We had pages and pages. I’ve always been interested in how cities work.
New York has a history of bold visionary plans. The Dutch had a plan for a global trading network in the 16th and 17th centuries. Or you think about the commissioner’s plan for the grid network in the early 19th century. Then there were Robert Moses’ plans in the mid-twentieth century. And a lot of different smaller project plans: Forest Hills, Lincoln Center, and others.
New York’s success is a combination of these big intentional projects and lots random factors — the organic forms of growth that come from individuals.
I see my job as defining those bigger visions—investing in the larger long term infrastructure needs of the city—and simultaneously fostering an atmosphere where the smaller, organic stuff happens a block at a time. That is, enabling people to do the stuff that really makes the city great
So how do we as a government enable that to happen? The levers aren’t in our hands. It’s really up to the ingenuity and initiative of the people who live here.
I think that one recipe for change is to unleash a lot of individual as well as collective random genius and innovation. That really can just come out of nowhere. For individuals, the first steps are to figure out what you’re interested in and what needs to get done.
Traditionally, the government regulates stuff and funds stuff. The government builds stuff and taxes stuff. This influence over all of these things is immediate and direct. You regulate some things, and you don’t regulate others. If you fund roads and you don’t fund subways this is what you get. If you tax consumption, you get less consumption. If you tax saving, you get less saving.
To me, the challenge now in government is about how to look past this. How do you supplement the traditional things that government does — regulation and taxation and funding — and think about how can government also be a convener and a coach? How can the government be an inspiration in terms of its personal behaviors or development practices or lifestyle? How do you work with other people to make good things happen? This is different from a purely regulatory approach that just prevents bad things from happening. Regulation is really important, you have to keep doing that, but if you want to do more than just prevent bad things form happening, you have to do more than regulate…you have to help cause good things to happen.
Livability is about professional opportunities, and being able to support yourself and have a good career. But also, using the fruits of that to have a really vibrant cultural environment and good public services. And the ability to get around. The feeling of safety on the streets. It includes some connection to nature as well.
I like to walk. I mean, I’m a big transit rider too, but I like to be able to walk places. I’m just a city kid I guess. I’m not a nature boy at all, even though I can appreciate that. I’ve probably slept outside maybe two or three times in my life.
Environmentalism is actually an extension of being a good neighbor. Environmental stewardship that springs from somebody caring about their immediate surroundings is a very important motivator. You try to expand the concentric rings form there, like, ‘Oh okay I care about my block,’ well ultimately you have to care about the glaciers melting. But starting by caring about your block is a more meaningful place to start rather than some abstraction.
There’s this myth that says ‘Oh, New Yorkers don’t care about nature or the environment.’ I just think that they probably define it somewhat differently. But I think that there’s actually a very strong sentiment here. There is a core of people that are really dedicated on those issues. I’ve been inspired — having been back in New York for the last six months — by just how widespread the commitment to natural restoration and environmental stewardship is in the densest city in the country. There are people who are very dedicated to nature and to restoration, and to water quality, things that people would have thought of was sort of beyond hope, twenty or thirty years ago.
There’s currently a lot of vocal backlash about biking. I think there are real challenges to biking in New York, particularly because of the way the streets are designed to the 20th century standard. But I actually think underlying all of that there is a lot of potential for biking here. I don’t know if it will ever be the 35% road share of Copenhagen, but, you know, we’re a relatively dense city, a lot of the city has a grid system, and it’s fairly flat. We have a fairly vigorous population that does a lot of walking. New York is far more conducive to biking than most people realize. If it were safer and more accessible to the average person, I think we would be surprised at how much rider-ship there would be. But I think we have to give it a chance, and we have to really, really work at it.
Another part of my vision is about the restoration of some of the natural function of the Gowanus creek. The restoration of and connection to rivers, and inlets and creeks, is a very compelling vision to me.
I wake up before my alarm goes off. It’s just the energy of New York, I think. Looking at the skyline or looking at the river. I just find it a very motivating. There’s something about having been born here and having been a kid here, and just feeling like it’s a really important place. It’s really one of a kind. It’s hard to talk about without resorting to clichés. But it’s true if you can do something here…if you can change things here, there’s a national or international implication for whatever lessons could be learned. That’s probably some variation of that Frank Sinatra song — trying to state it without plagiarism, or without rhyming.

 

 

Meet Vision. Meet Jessie Singer.

Meet Jessie Singer.

Jessie Singer, founding member of the New York City Ghost Bike project, gives us her Ratso-style lesson in urban planning, breaks down Robert Moses, redefines livability and engenders a need for activism. 

Photo by Andrew Hinderaker.

I think that an open mind is really important to an eventual destination of a livable city.  
 
I was born in Brooklyn, I live in the Clinton Hill area, which is where I was from when I was a little kid and where I’ve always lived as an adult. Almost always, I lived in Red Hook for a minute, which is lovely, very aquatic. 
 
Robert Moses thought he was fucking everyone over in Red Hook, putting them into this corner, isolating them by the BQE. Really what happened is that Red Hook became a neighborhood into itself. It really did survive in a way that areas of the Bronx that got split by the Cross Bronx Expressway really didn’t. 
 
In New York, a good neighbor, in a lot of scenarios, is one you never see, and in another, a good neighbor is one you see all the time. 
 
Cities are inherently livable. Cities are the great product of human existence. We gravitate towards each other. We want to live in crowds piled on top of each other. Making that city more livable? It can probably be boiled down to making things personal over impersonal. Cars are always going to be impersonal; subways are always going to be personal. You have to look at your neighbor, or the guy who just pushed you, or people who don’t live in your neighborhood who have been on this train for an hour before you. 
 
Streets and sidewalks are 80% of the city.  It’s public space, 80% of the city is public space. Streets and sidewalks, that’s huge! 
 
I think it’s important for people to open to reimagining. Be constantly willing to look at their home, and their street, and their commute and their leisure time as something that’s malleable, and can be better and can be whatever they want it to be. I mean, isn’t that the advantage of cities? 
 
Be an active New Yorker. Whether that’s going to your community board and representing yourself there or being a sensible, vocal citizen that listens to your neighbors.  Being active is the only way that anything ever gets done. 
 
Don’t move to the block and not be the first person to host a barbeque and invite everyone over. That is your job: You’re new, meet your neighbors, get to know them, understand what their lives are like. 
 
Represent your neighbors where you can. When populations are gentrifying neighborhoods, the gentrifying population has access to more resources, whether it’s wealth, or legal aid, or education.  That’s not something to be embarrassed about, that’s something to use. 
 
 
I helped start this small street art collective called Visual Resistance, and we started before the RNC to organize artists to resist the RNC. We were all bike riders because we were poor and it was fun, simply, and that was it. And then in 2005, one member was riding his bike and came upon a crash. A cyclist had been hit by a car. It had happened just moments before. It was a woman named Liz Padilla killed on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope. We had heard about a project going on in St. Louis that people were painting white bikes at the sites of bicyclist crashes. And we said, “Hey, let’s do it, just this one time.”
 
A strange thing happened when we did it. Something about taking this bike from a working, functioning bike, pulling off all of the working parts, watching the color change, watching the color of this bike disappear and just become this stark, entirely solid, white object, was jarring and emotional in a way that I don’t think any of us expected when we walked into the yard and opened a paint can that day. 
 
What was so jarring about it was suddenly thinking about someone who was a stranger to all of us. We didn’t know Liz Padilla, but we were building this thing in her memorial and suddenly we felt this relationship with a stranger and called attention to that death. And we put up the bike, we made a plaque, we locked it to the corner nearest to where she was killed, and we all turned to each other and said, “Wow, that was so hard, let’s never ever do that again.”
 
And then a week passed, and on Houston Street, another young woman named Brandie Bailey was killed. We all looked at each other and said, “How could we not?” And so we made a bike for Brandie Bailey and it was even more emotional.  And we installed it, and again, we said to each other, “Let’s never do this again.”
 
And then a week passed and a young man named Andrew Ross Morgan was killed, also on Houston Street, a block away.  And we built a bike for him and then we couldn’t stop. And now its 80 bikes and 6 years later, the ghost bike project hasn’t changed much.  It’s just a venue to make a death — that would otherwise disappear — be public and noticeable and present for a long time after the city’s new cycles have rolled. And that’s how the project started. 
 
 
What we need are people to fight red-light running and failing to yield like they fight the subway fare going up. 
 
The intended effect of ghost bikes is to look at a city that’s constantly moving and is full of death and horrible things are happening all the time on very small bits of pavement. And mark just one. 
 
Houston Street is creepy. There’s three ghost bikes on Houston Street. 
 
Audrey Anderson. Her son Andre was killed out in the Rockaways. I think he was 13. A young boy killed riding his BMX bike. And then Andre’s mom became an activist. A woman who never had anything to do with politics before — especially not the politics of how our streets work — became a vocal champion of how we can do better. 
 
There’s no justice in the Ghost Bike project, and there’s no happy endings. And you’re never going to win, which is kind of, in a way, makes it not activism.  
 
We can have a streetscape that doesn’t have casualties to it. 
 
You know in Midnight Cowboy. “I’m walking here!” I think a true New Yorker considers themself as self-righteously deserving of everything they want. And that’s an important part of being a pedestrian, because pedestrians are the smallest, weakest part of how our streets function. What we need a pedestrian to do is say, “Fuck you, I’m going to walk here.” That “fuck you” aimed at a disrespectful driver or a cyclist who doesn’t yield or a cop that fails to enforce the traffic laws around them.
 
New Yorkers constantly feel like they're competing for the public turf. Because there’s not enough of it.  
 
A New Yorker is the person who, when you’re waiting off the curb, comes and stands in front of you off the curb to be the first one to cross the street. 
 
I remember the first time I rode Critical Mass. This was a long time ago, this was critical mass before the crackdowns, this was back when NYPD used to send a motorcade to marshal critical mass through. I rode then this rusty old ‘70s Ross cruiser, it was blue, it had a white seat and white grips, and it was cute. We met on the North Side of Union Square, and then we went up Park Avenue and through Grand Central Terminal. Through the car driving tunnel of Grand Central Terminal, you get this echo. And then we rode through Times Square, and in the middle of Times Square, with another 500 bikers around us, we all stopped and lifted our bikes above our heads. And what a view.  
 
Riding down the West Side Highway with 500 bikers gives you a real understanding of how much space is there. And the inevitable conclusion after that is, “Oh, look how much space we’re giving to cars.”
 
“I want this to be different” is the biggest leap of faith involved in the process of change. Everything after that is paperwork. 
 
If I wanted to tell people who care about their streets to help; find the nearest ghost bike and take care of it. Pull flowers off of it if they’ve died, decorate it anew, paint it, if parts are missing get in touch with us and let us know. I hope that communities and neighborhoods, feel it when a ghost bike gets put on their street. That they understand it as a mark on them, as a scar on them, that their street is unsafe, and to take care of that ghost bike, and to keep that marker. 
 
The New York City Street Memorials Project is always in need of volunteers.  To find out more about the project and how to volunteer, visit: http://ghostbikes.org/new-york-city. Jessie Singer can be reached jessiegraysinger@gmail.com
 

Meet Vision. Meet Karen Washington.

 

Food justice and farming advocate Karen Washington shares some history of urban agriculture, favorite moments from her garden, what it means to be part of a community and what it means to be a New Yorker.

I grow food, I feed people, body and mind.

I’m from New York City, born and raised. I grew up on the Lower East Side, then I moved to Harlem, and now I live in the Bronx. “The other B,” I tell people.

In my quiet time I go to my garden and spend time with my chickens, and that’s incredible for me.

There are two things that a community can do: They can stay and let the garbage accumulate, or they can do something and take back that piece of land. And that’s what we did. We took back that piece of land, we threw out all of the garbage, and started growing vegetables and fruit and people and community.

That’s why it’s called the Garden of Happiness. Because when you’re there, you feel happy.

I try to tell people that we’ve been here from the beginning, so urban agriculture is not this new thing.

Yes, 22 years ago. I remember a little green truck, stopping in front of this empty lot and saying, “We’re the Botanical Gardens, and we’re here to help.”

Food is the equalizer. Food has no interpretation when it comes to color, race, religion. We all need it; we all must have it. However, the powers that be tend to use food to discriminate, so you have the haves and the have-nots.

In this country, in this great nation of ours, how can we really look at ourselves in the mirror, knowing that there are people who are hungry? That makes me really sad and it makes me really upset, because we have the means. Food should not be an item that has a price tag on it. There should be a way for everyone to get healthy, accessible, culturally-appropriate food.

I chose to ask the question, “Where are the Black farmers?”

Even though it was black people that came to this country not by choice but by chains and fed this country and yet it is the black farmer now that is losing land and is losing the ability to farm. As a person of color I felt it was my duty, as a human being, as an American, as a person in this country, to find out what is the cause, why is it. And I went to people and I asked that question and it was told to me because black people don’t want to go into farming.

And so the black farmers conference is something I personally have taken to heart to see doors open, to shut down and expose the racism that exists in the food system and across agriculture, and for people to start having dialogues and allow all people of all ethnic backgrounds into this food movement.

There was an inscription on the black liberation bookstore in Harlem and that read, “If you don’t know, learn. If you do know, teach.” And I’ve always kept that, that if you have the knowledge and you’ve been a leader in this movement, you must teach, you must teach others.

I think New Yorkers, in my experience, are the type of people that are so blessed, each of us feel because the city has been so good to us, that it’s part of being a New Yorker to give back and to share resources and ideas and food and housing and money and whatever we can do.

I’ve been interviewed and people have asked me, “Is urban agriculture a phase?” A phase for who? This is who we are. This is not new and trendy.

The bottom line is that these community gardens and urban farms exist because people needed ways to feed themselves, to grow food that was culturally appropriate, to grow food that had a connection to history and people’s culture, and to grow food that didn’t have chemicals and was fresh.

This urban agriculture movement is being made an elitist movement because if you talk about rooftop farming, then who has the access to it? Rooftop farming is very expensive. And if you think rooftops on 59th Street and Lexington Avenue are going to have a bunch of Latino and Black people from Brooklyn and the Bronx come and start growing food on their rooftops, it’s not happening. So let’s be real when we talk about rooftop gardens.

Vertical gardens are good, but we can do vertical gardens by planting fruiting trees. The original rooftop garden.

I stayed in the Bronx because there’s this community building and these people who may not have a lot of money, but they have rich stories and the history and they can cook a good meal without it being fancy and there’s an air of being comfortable, being comfortable within their own skin.

What I like about my community is what you see is what you get. You know, if you’re driving a raggedy car, you’re driving a raggedy car.

So you have different economics, but in essence, that community garden puts us on the same loving, level playing field. That community garden has brought us all together so that on a Saturday when it’s hot, and we’re in there barbecuing, anyone can walk in and break bread and get something to eat. And I think that’s so important, and that’s what community is all about, and food is the key ingredient.

Community gardens are now a part of the landscape of New York City.

I always tell people that if it’s a community garden, it belongs to the community. It’s a gift that we have for a very short time and then we give that gift to somebody else.

First of all, I remember when there was a glimpse of a hope that Obama would be president. As an African American, I never honestly thought there would be a Black president when I was alive. When you’re around your family, and you talk about my parents, grandparents, my grandparents, we talked about there never being a black president. We once thought it would be Martin Luther King, if it would be anyone, but when he got assassinated, it was an afterthought. All of a sudden this person, Barack Obama, with this funny name, and no one knew who he was. And then I started listening, and I said, “Wait a second, he’s a community organizer, he knows what community is all about. He might have a chance.” I remember when the votes were coming in, and I said, “Look, we’re going to 125th Street, the heart of Harlem, and we’re going to wait there for the votes to come in.” And I called my son and said, “Come on, Brian.” So many people of color gravitated towards 125th Street, and they had big screens. We were there listening to the votes, counting them, and all of a sudden, and when the electoral votes were counted in, and he had the majority votes… oh my God. The elation that I felt, the tears, the hugs, the kisses, the screams, I wondered if it was real, if we really had a Black president. It was the most unbelievable feeling as a Black person, to feel, “Finally, we have arrived.” When Martin Luther King said, “I might not be there with you, but we as a people will get to the promised land.” I always had those words in my head… and we arrived at the promised land.

And so, to get this phone call from the Botanical Gardens, and have them tell me that they’ve been nominated for an award from the Institute of Museums and Libraries, and that they have to pick a community member who has made a difference, and that they had chosen me, I was speechless, crazy speechless. And when we found out that we were going to the White House, and that Michelle Obama was going to give the award, it made me shake. I was shaking and shaking. Going to meet her, I literally felt all of my ancestors, all of my family, in that room—my parents who are deceased, my brother who is deceased, all of my family—just applauding. I could just feel their spirit, just applauding that I was there, and that they were there to see it. I can’t explain it, but it was the most amazing thing, something that I will take with me for the rest of my life. I just felt my whole family in that room, just clapping and clapping. The spirits and the ancestors were definitely there that day. I really feel honored and I will take that with me. That made me feel that I had finally arrived.

The Bronx got its name because it was farmland at one time. Yeah, Jonas Bronx was the family. See, there’s a little tidbit, a little history.

Hopefully, this city won’t be based only on concrete and steel, but based on greenery and the environment. That’s my vision for New York City, that it’s a metropolis for greenery, that it will have gone back to the beginning, and that is the Earth, with our hands in the dirt, where everything begins, where New York finds its roots.

La Familia Verde is our community garden coalition, and I have this elder group there. I love them so much. And they’ve been doing this for seven years. Twenty-two weeks, from July to November, rain, hail, sleet, or snow, those women are at that market each and every week.

We were told farmers didn’t want to come to our markets  because we were in the Bronx and farmers were fearful of the Bronx or they said it was too far. I remember telling them, “You have to pass through the Bronx and Harlem to get to 14th Street!” Instead of just throwing our hands up in the air and saying, “Well, they don’t want to come;” we said, “We grow the food, let’s start our own farmers’ market.”

The chickens. Chickens! The chickens get me up early, I love those chickens. I have 15 gallenas. Let me tell you, those chickens are so great. Chickens, that’s what gets us up in the morning!

If you start early in the spring and you manage, get all the hard work done, then come June and July you can sit back and just weed and water, weed and water.

Something about the bees is spiritual. Something about them — I don’t know what it is — the sound they make, the fact that they work cohesively together. I didn’t keep them for the honey; I cared about providing a place for the bees, a place where they could feel safe. I looked at them as part of the ecosystem, as pollinating my fruits and vegetables, to provide a safe haven for them. When they left I cried like a baby, but then I figured that was their nature, and it was best for them to do that if they had to do that.

Sometimes I think, when I was maybe an egg or a spirit, God said, “Okay, it’s time for you to go to Earth,” and I said, “Okay.” He said, “You have a chance now, Karen, choose your parents, and choose where you want to live. Choose your neighborhood.” I must have said to God, “I want these parents, I want this sibling, I want to live here, I want to do these things.” I’ve lived a great life. I wouldn’t trade places with anyone in the world.

That’s my life, to give back, to give to the new leadership that’s coming up.

Meet Vision: Clarence Eckerson, Jr.

Arguably the brawniest man in New York City’s environmental movement, Eckerson, Director of Film Production at Streetfilms, shares biketales, bus stats and his personal wisdom on walking. Streetfilms is a vlog of 50-80 films a year on cycling, pedestrians life, transit, and green space, and has a project on ioby to raise money to produce a film on NYC’s Pop-Up Cafés.

 

It all boils down to this: We give cars too much space and we don’t give alternatives enough space.

I always have some kind of recording device with me. I’m always looking for the newest interesting thing in transportation that one city has that another doesn’t that I can bring to our viewers.

I have family members that think I’m nuts for living in the city. I try to convince them all the time that it’s just a wonderful place, that the expense of living in the city brings you so much more reward than you can get sitting at home watching television in the suburbs.

I lived in Brooklyn for 20 years and just recently moved to Jackson Heights. I have an 11-mile bike commute on my 52-pound Dutch bike to work. I love my commute. It’s safe, it’s wonderful, I see so many people, I see the NYC skyline, I ride over the Manhattan Bridge.

In Copenhagen, 38% of people ride bikes. It’s incredible. You see every kind of person on a bike. You see a four-year-old kid. You see an older woman. You see a guy with his business suit on. You’re there videoing and taking pictures, and people look at you like, “What are you doing?” It’s like taking pictures of cars going by in New York City.

I’ve been riding since 1993. I can remember riding over the Brooklyn Bridge alone.

Buses carry a lot of people. They really deserve their own lanes. I ride over all of the bridges, and especially when I ride over the Queensboro, I look down and see how unfair it is for a bus to be stuck in traffic. There’s 40 or 50 people stuck behind one single person taking up almost as much space.

When you’re riding around there’s so much to see. It’s so thrilling to see a street one day and then the next day notice that they planted four trees! The city is changing so fast, and I think people in cars don’t see it.

In New York, pedestrians are the kings.

Below 59th Street only six percent of people do their shopping by car, and only another six percent do their shopping by taxi or other hired car. The rest are doing their shopping by transit, foot and by bicycle. You look at the street, and the street is 75% or more devoted to cars. That’s got to change.

We got to document the Ciclovia, which is probably StreetFilm’s biggest success story. We did a film that we posted in December of 2007. Every Sunday from 6 am to 2 pm, they have 80-90 miles of streets that are just closed off for people to do whatever they want, not just bike, but walk, run, have a picnic, play tic-tac-toe… you see everything. We did this film because it was not really a known commodity outside of South America. We put the film up, and it was like wildfire. I don’t want to say we caused summer streets in New York, or Sunday streets in San Francisco, or Chicago, or Boston… but none of them had them before we did that video.

People used to say that streets are closed to cars, but now you hear more people saying that they are open to people. It’s a big change. It’s not often in New York City that we get to be in a space where we don’t have to worry about what a car could do to us.

There’s so many people now who are like mini Jane Jacobses.

Moveable seating is so important in a public space. A lot of times I’m sitting there filming, and I see these people just pull up a chair, even if it’s only a few inches—it’s so important that they’re able to do that. “If I turn it this way I can avoid the sun, if I angle it this way I can be more comfortable, if I turn it this way I can see a lot of sexy or interesting people walking by!”

I think it all starts with the sidewalk. It starts with a beautiful walking environment. Wide enough sidewalks where people can stop and talk to each other.

I just ride with a camera in my hand, riding my bike. I don’t have the time or the money for someone to do a perfect dolly shot. That’s one of the main reasons I started lifting weights back in the mid-90s: so I could ride and hold a camera steady.

You need to take care of cyclists, because they’re a growing population. It only requires extremely cheap infrastructure. Even a painted bike lane says a lot to a cyclist.

In the late ‘90s, the New York Times did a long story article on how incredibly dangerous traffic at the Lincoln Center was for pedestrians. It was a great story, but it only had one photo. It was just a photo of two people about to cross the street. It didn’t look dangerous. It didn’t capture the danger. There was no impetus to change anything, and nothing did happen after that story. 

My favorite place to go on a bike in the summer is the Rockaways. Coney Island is crowded and a little dirty. Long Island is a little too uppity; you have to pay to get on the beach. You can ride your bike to the Rockaways and not run into anybody, even in the middle of the summer. With a bike, you can go anywhere.

I would install bus rapid transit everywhere. In a traditional city, I would say the subway is the way to go. But we’ve already maxed out our capacity for the subway, so we have to support the buses. They’re pitiful. Some of them average three or four miles an hour.

I am inspired by the DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. She is accomplishing change that no city in America has every seen. I’ve been trying to change the city on my own, in my own little way, for so long, since I started riding a bike in the mid-90s. We had so little change happen until about 2005. We’d get a bike lane here, or a pocket park there, but the scale of what Sadik-Khan is doing is not only inspiring change in people in New York, but people all over the country.

Thank goodness I’ve only had three accidents since I moved to New York, and none of them had to do with filming.

There was a woman on 57th Street that I’ll never forget—this was about a year ago. I was on foot that day. It was 90 degrees. There was a woman in full professional clothes, probably in her 70s. She pulled up to the light, all smiles, and then just rolled away and I thought, “I’m in love with that lady right now. I wasn’t brave enough to ride a bike today, and here she is, doing her business, almost twice my age, sweating, and there she is smiling through the haze of the day.”

I fall in love every day when I’m riding a bicycle.