On the Lower East Side, art and activism have been intertwined for many generations. A new project, Perfect City, is drawing on that historic relationship to respond to the current wave of gentrification in New York City.
The idea was initiated by Aaron Landsman, playright-in-residence at Abrons Arts Center. He’s been developing the concept over the past couple of years and has been working with a group of young people, many of them from the neighborhood, to come up with a grass roots and creative answer to neighborhood change. Together, they have formed a collective in support of a more equitable city. A public launch is planned at Abrons in October.
Here’s a description of the project from Perfect City’s website:
We are a think tank, an arts collective, a mix of activism and creativity. We are creating long-term creative strategies to respond to displacement and gentrification, so that the people who have been living here for generations have a say in how our city evolves. Perfect City projects are created by theater, music, literary and visual artists, activists, planners, students and other Lower East Siders… People who grow up in cities are natural born urban planners. We have to be. We ride public transit before we are even born; we use creative strategies to navigate invisible and visible boundaries as we go through our days. Somehow, though, our needs and our narratives are not at the table when decisions are being made about zoning, planning and what neighborhood is in the crosshairs of development. Perfect City is bringing our own chairs, making a new table, whatever it takes.
The group meets twice a week, and its members are paid. They have staged roundtable performances that include conversations, multilingual dialogues and song. Group member Haruka Sakaguchi has been working on a photo and text series, Original New Yorkers, which explores real-life experiences with displacement. They have also developed a workshop called Avoidance Mapping, an exercise looking at where we go and where we avoid in our travels through the neighborhood. You can read more about the Avoidance Mapping concept in this Urban Omnibus story.
Perfect City has been supported by several foundations and it just wrapped up a Kickstarter that raised more than $11,000. Here’s a bit more from Landsman about the project:
Maybe our more radical proposition is that Perfect City is a 20-year project — meaning the issues we are addressing are not solvable in a year or two (the timeline for a lot of art projects), and we want to make real change. On one hand, our conversations are wide-ranging, from aesthetics to zoning; on the other, we have a set of long-term goals that are very concrete. We’ve been trying to find ways to engage people who are both like us and different from us, with a goal of having more of a voice in the evolution of our city.
We’ll have more details as the fall launch of Perfect City approaches.