By Paloma McGregor
It felt overwhelming in July to reflect on our work, because so much happened. But now I feel more equipped.
In July, 10 artists – writers, musicians, dancers, interdisciplinary performers and a photographer – spent a week walking, mapping, playing, learning, interacting and making. It was a great way to test the creative potentials in the concepts and practices that Damian, Becky and I have been developing. Among the group were two Bronx residents, including Charles, our beloved photographer/philosopher/grandfather, who brought his grandson one of the days and wrote the following in an email at the end of the week: “I don’t have the language arts skill to adequately express the awesomeness of last week’s experience, just loved the group, loved the experience, learned a lot & I’m left with a great sense of hope for the future.” Wow.
Among the most striking community engagement aspects of our work this week:
AMPLIFYING WHAT IS THERE
We got passersby – from toddlers to grandparents – to stop and use sidewalk chalk to map and amplify the micro-ecologies creeping through sidewalks outside the Hispanos Unidos Garden, a thriving community garden that sits between the top of the watershed and the Bronx River. More than half of the people walking by stopped to join us, some even coming back and one teen emailing me to say how much she enjoyed it and wanting to know when she could work with us again. The shift that happened in all of our bodies – both in terms of level and speed, as well as in terms of delight and play – was significant; my favorite example: a father was barking “walk” at the younger of his two boys, who was trailing behind him, as he approached our drawing. I asked if the boy wanted to join, then eventually we encouraged the older brother and dad to draw (he drew a great cartoon face). When they walked away less than 10 minutes later, the dad was holding the boy’s hand and his pace had slowed to accommodate the child. Perhaps as we continue collaborating, we can begin mapping the area in such a way, block-by-block, with the communities that live there.
PRACTICING AGENCY IN THE BODY AND LANDSCAPE
It was a delight to further explore what it means to use the body to measure public space (i.e. measuring the width of a sidewalk using leapfrogs, cartwheels, the sound of a voice). It is an idea rooted in one of our first walks in East Tremont, when Damian commented that a sidewalk that was 16 feet wide could be converted into a sidewalk-green space-bike path (I immediately translated the measurement into terms I could understand with the body: three adults standing fingertip to fingertip). So the group spent a half-hour measuring the wide sidewalk on the busy intersection in the shadow of the elevated subway at Boston Road. We remarked that changing our sense of how we can move in public spaces was empowering, and we wondered aloud how changing our movement, collectively, could be transformative in other ways. Even as I observed, I noticed how passersby shifted their pace, focus and carriage because of what we were doing. We had transformed the space for that moment, and perhaps some who witnessed us will never walk down that sidewalk again without remembering that feeling. The agency implicit in deciding how a space could be perceived, captured and reflected brought up ideas about the practice of shaping our own perspectives and perceptions of the spaces we move through.
MOVING TOWARD CONNECTIONS
There was the threat of rain when we arrived at 9 a.m. Saturday to prepare for our work at River Park. But that was shortlived. And the steady stream of families arriving at the park gave me confidence that things would clear up. They also taught me a very interesting lesson in mapping and boundaries in our daily practice. As the park filled, families who were having gatherings found makeshift ways to cordon off sections of the park as their own, using masking tape and chairs, spools of twine and party streamers. It was a fascinating example of the compulsion to measure, define and claim spaces as our own, one I am looking forward to considering more in my artistic and engagement work. It is strikingly juxtaposed with the human need to connect, one that became clear as we gathered, a bit like Pied Pipers, a collection of youth and adults to walk the park with us to consider its landscape, ask questions, measure, talk and move together. By the end of our loop, it was amazing to see the ways people engaged – two men who began leaning in as a dancer performed on the bench between them, a young girl who learned the choreography and began performing with us, and a senior who stood slowly to echo the movement in her own way.
THE POWER OF BEING THERE
Finally, our time reinforced the value of simply spending time getting to know a place and community. Because of the investment of time, Hispanos Unidos Garden invited us to come anytime and to bring groups of people. And, importantly, we were able to reconnect with Mary Mitchell Community Center, which happened to be touring Hispanos Unidos during one of our visits. I connected with the teacher and gave her a postcard about the project, and we were able to hire 2 of the artists who participated in the weeklong intensive to lead 2 workshops for a small group of children. We are building the project as we build community, two things that take time. I am grateful for having the resources from iLAND to spend the time that is needed to deeply engage in collaboration with a community in responsive and responsible ways.