Parade-goers at the Hudson River Pageant. Image courtesy William Bourassa
Artists, educators, and community activists crowded into a meeting room on the ground floor of the Loisaida Center in Alphabet City to discuss the Ecological City Project, a multi-faceted sustainability effort launching February 24 with a series of workshops. The project is organized by Earth Celebrations, an arts-based organization founded in 1991 by self-described “social action artist” Felicia Young that aims to promote sustainability and ecological harmony at a community level from its base on the Lower East Side.
Speaking to the Center for Artistic Activism in late 2016, Young elaborated on her perspective on art and its role in the community. “When you look at most cultures throughout history, art isn’t separate, it’s integrated into the life of a community. It’s part of culture, ceremony, healing,” Young said.
To that end, Ecological City aims to bring together gardeners, students, environmental activists and concerned residents of the East Village and Lower East Side for six months of arts-based workshops culminating in the Ecological City Pageant on May 12. Featuring giant, hand-crafted puppets and nature-oriented costumes, the Pageant will be a Carnivalesque procession along the myriad community gardens and green spaces of the Lower East Side and East River waterfront, stopping at fifteen spaces to highlight the various sustainability efforts undertaken there by community groups.
The Ecological City Project hinges on “gardens, neighborhoods, and the arts,” Young said. Earth Celebrations has been active in fighting to preserve community gardens across the Lower East Side against encroaching development while also promoting sustainability and urban resiliency projects. Far from a starry-eyed paean to going green, Wednesday’s meeting took full view of the implications of climate change and the challenges facing coastal metropolises.
Young and others put the Ecological City project in the context of ongoing efforts to ready New York for rising seas and increasingly volatile weather events, including the proposed seawall— “The Big U” – intended to wrap Lower Manhattan in a protective berm. As for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s climate readiness strategy as a whole, “the gardens are a boon to the whole initiative going forward,” Young said. While they may not attract the attention of starchitects or elite design firms, Young said the gardens and green spaces are the sinews of the community and an important bulwark against coming environmental challenges.
In the meantime, the months between now and the pageant will turn the Loisaida Center into a hive of activity as volunteers construct the fabulously intricate puppets and costumes that will adorn marchers on May 12. Among the ideas being floated so far? Alternate energy spirits with wind turbine headdresses alongside avatars of climate change and pollution sporting gas masks and wild-fire inspired garb. To what extent our future is characterized by one or the other likely lies in the hands of governments. Even so, groups like Earth Celebrations are a reminder that sustainability is just as important — and all the more attainable — at the street level.
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