In late March, New York-based artist Lucrecia Novoa started a livestream to capture her process of creating papier-mâché puppets. The puppets, she explained to the camera, are designed as characters who represent climate solutions, including carbon sequestration and zero waste.
In prior years, Novoa designed and built these 10-foot-tall puppets during community workshops to be displayed as part of Ecological City, an environmental arts and climate action project based out of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Now in its third year, the collaborative process engages local residents, youth and community organizations to create visual art and performances of dance, music, theater and poetry inspired by local climate solutions and sustainability initiatives. The process culminates with a day-long pageant that weaves through the community gardens, blocks and waterfront of the Lower East Side.
This year, COVID-19 forced the process to quickly transition to remote collaboration and digital streaming. But organizers still emphasize the importance of artistic practices in telling the story of climate solutions in this community, while cultivating collaboration and engagement during the social distancing of COVID-19.
“By creating a cultural pageant, you pull in many more people,” explains Ecological City’s founder and director Felicia Young. “It’s through the arts that people build an emotional connection to a thing, and then it’s from a very deep place that they respond.”
Young has been a pioneer of community-engaged art for over 30 years; she wrote her college thesis on the African practice of mbari, a communal art process in response to social calamity.
She has also been a longtime advocate of community gardens in the Lower East Side, planted in response to blight and vacant lots that once dominated the neighborhood.
In 1991, Young founded the nonprofit Earth Celebrations and began formalizing the process of engaging communities and through the arts to push for ecological and social change. Throughout the 90s, when New York City’s community gardens were under threat of development, she organized annual theatrical pageants for 15 years that successfully fought for the preservation of hundreds of community gardens across the city.
In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy struck and flooded Lower Manhattan, community gardens emerged as a kind of “green infrastructure” to help absorb rain and stormwater runoff. (Post-hurricane, the city came to see the gardens as a key part of its future storm defense.) In the 90s, Young recalls, “we thought we were preserving open space — but what we ended up preserving is an amazing urban climate solution.”
That experience inspired her to create a pageant to explore and amplify the neighborhood’s climate vulnerabilities and solutions. The resulting Ecological City theatrical pageant events span nine months of researching, gathering data on local sites and their climate solution initiatives, and creatively reinterpreting this data into artistic works. Through “a ceremonial procession,” as Young calls it, the pageant visits over 20 sites throughout the neighborhood over the course of one day.
Each pageant responds to evolving concerns within the community. “Every year it has to engage the current story,” Young explains. In creating the first pageant, local public housing residents still felt the effects of Hurricane Sandy. GOLES, a housing justice organization, collaborated with an Earth Celebrations theater director and youth living in public housing for a dance performance about surviving the hurricane and confronting the city’s lingering neglect. In 2019, nonprofit Infinite Movement worked with youth on a dance piece addressing a controversial East Side flood protection plan.
2020’s pageant is focused on concepts of zero waste, carbon sequestration, and connecting local climate solutions to the global Sustainable Development Goals released by the United Nations.
Due to COVID-19, participating artists transitioned their public workshops to home live-stream sessions to capture their practice and collaborate remotely. Over 20 workshops with artists and volunteers working on parts of projects have been posted on Earth Celebrations’ Facebook page.
Lucrecia Novoa livestreams from her studio, making papier-mâché puppets for what will be Ecological City's first virtual climate pageant. (Photo courtesy Lucrecia Novoa)
The culminating six-hour pageant will take place virtually on Saturday, May 9th, with gardeners, artists and community participants contributing selfie videos of the gardens and neighborhood sites as well as visual art, puppets, mobile sculptures, costumes, dance, music, theater and poetry celebrating climate solutions. A live-stream Facebook video the day-of will feature a walk past the 20 sites on the Lower East Side.
In past Ecological City events, artist Dee Dee Maucher traveled to the Rockaways to gather reeds for a sculpture that floated in the East River as the finale. This year, she presented a streaming video session growing kombucha leather from a basement. The “leather” will be used for pageant costumes, as part of the “zero waste” theme.
“Climate change is such a big concept,” Maucher says. “So what can we do as a local community? Here, we can help the East River, we can help the soil around our houses, we can change our lifestyle.”
Indeed, the goal of each pageant is to engage diverse sectors of the community — gardeners, artists, organizations, schools, youth and residents — to build collaboration and action and inspire them with local solutions underway. “It’s not just looking at the solution of a gardener at one community garden site,” Young says, “But seeing how their site connects to this larger ecosystem.”
This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.