Creative Placemaking at Astor Place, New York City by William Lewis

This article about Creative Placemaking at Astor Place was my submission for the 2018/19 American Planning Association (APA) Writing Competition about Creative Placemaking. My piece was selected as one of ten national finalists, being published in print and online across various APA publications, it was also featured at the 2019 APA annual conference.

In New York City, the eclectic East Village, Greenwich Village, and NoHo neighborhoods converge at Astor

Place.

Its history is a rich tapestry of stories. Once the Vauxhall Gardens country resort, it became a wealthy and

fashionable urban enclave owned and developed by fur trade magnate, John Jacob Astor. In 1847, the deadly Astor Place riots occurred at the Astor Opera House, a stigma that scarred the neighborhood, causing many residents to move uptown. By the early 1900’s the neighborhood fell into a state of disrepair, becoming a shabby warehouse and manufacturing district.

It took until the mid-1960’s for Astor Place to reinvent itself, beginning in 1967 with the installation of the now iconic Alamo sculpture, “the Cube”, for the Sculpture in Environment festival. It was New York City’s first piece of outdoor public art.

Creativity Cubed 2018. Photo: Bernadetta Serafin

Creativity Cubed 2018. Photo: Bernadetta Serafin

Also in 1967, Joseph Papp’s visionary Public Theater opened in the former Astor Library, a building painstakingly restored from dereliction. Two years later the Astor Place Theater opened and the neighborhood rapidly became the center of the downtown arts scene, and a hub for off-Broadway theater. Since then it has been a symbol of cultural and socially progressive change, at the nexus of a vibrant arts community.

In 2016, New York City redeveloped Astor Place as part it’s Public Plaza Program, creating 10,000 square feet of new public space, with the Village Alliance Business Improvement District becoming custodians of the space.

As Director of Marketing & Events for the Village Alliance, I am responsible for activating the plazas through developing a program of creative placemaking complimentary to the space, and representative of the East Village’s diverse culture.

Activations include performing arts festivals, poetry fetes, and silent discos. My ethos for creative placemaking is to ensure activations sympathetically enhance a space, and actuate human emotions of social connectivity, identity, and belonging, while being open to all and free of prejudice.

Of the many activations I have developed, Creativity Cubed most exemplifies the values and principles of creative placemaking. Creativity Cubed (named in homage to the Alamo sculpture) leverages the versatility of revitalized public space to integrate arts and culture into the community.

Creativity Cubed 2018. Photo: Bernadetta Serafin

Creativity Cubed 2018. Photo: Bernadetta Serafin

The recurring daylong outdoor workshops celebrate the arts movement of Astor Place and the East Village by bringing together East Village arts organizations, community groups, and residents at free participatory arts workshops.

At Creativity Cubed 2017, residents and passers-by created and designed miniature spinning Alamo ”cubes” with folding card, collaging them with hundreds of printed images featuring symbolic neighborhood places, faces, and traces.

Creativity Cubed 2018 honored the East Village’s iconic street-art and murals. A huge wood cube was constructed, and free spray paints and markers provided. People were then free to graffiti, draw, and design on the blank cube, creating a new piece of collaborative public art. An exhibit telling the stories and history of famous local murals also formed part of the event.

The power and success of the Astor Place activations are their ability to unite people through creativity in public space. Bringing together people from all backgrounds, to share their stories and experiences, bonding through the influence of creative placemaking.

Transforming Excess Street Capacity into Vibrant Public Spaces by William Lewis

in June 2008, the New York City Department of Transportation launched the New York City Public Plaza Program, part of then Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to ensure all New Yorkers have access to livable open-space within ten minutes of home.

While ambitious in scale, the strategy was simple — convert the excess capacity of underused streets and inefficiently designed intersections into lively and social public plazas.

Since 2008, dozens of bland and subdued streets have been transformed into vibrant new public spaces teeming with life. These new spaces range from the icons of Times Square and Astor Place, to smaller neighborhood plazas like Hillel Place at Flatbush Junction, Brooklyn, completed in August 2018.

The Astor Place plaza with the iconic Alamo sculpture “the Cube”. In the background is new plaza furniture and kiosk retailing, run by a small business.

Once constructed each new plaza needed bringing to life, animating in its own unique way with programming to reflect the diverse cultural tapestry of New York City. In most cases Business Improvement Districts (BID’s) took on these responsibilities.

In addition to basic functions, which include providing street furniture, sanitation, and public safety, BID’s have developed extensive plaza activation programs. Astor Place, managed by the Village Alliance BID is one such example, where 10,000 square feet of new plaza space opened in 2016.

Astor Place, at the crossroads of Greenwich Village and the East Village remains close to the heart of many generations of New Yorkers. Punks, artists, skaters, among others would meet around the iconic spinning “Cube”, often participating in spontaneous urban rituals, community gatherings, creative flash mobs, yarn bombings, and more!

Temporary public art installations at Astor Place have included “The Last Three” sculpture which launched a global campaign for wildlife preservation

Not surprisingly, the redevelopment of Astor Place, and reclamation of under used streets into new plazas ignited debate about gentrification, and the erasure of the neighborhoods soul. Recognizing this, the Village Alliance BID developed programming to reflect the cultural, artistic, and ethnic diversity of the neighborhoods heart and soul, working closely with community partners. Free public events include performing arts festivals, collaborative and participatory arts eventssilent discospublic art, community resource fairs, and much more.

The creation of large plazas like Astor Place and smaller plazas like Hillel Place demonstrate the unleashed potential existing within underused streets and urban spaces. Through reasonably simple reconfiguration and development, these spaces of excess capacity can be transformed into vibrant public spaces, providing social, economic, and health benefits to neighborhoods and communities.

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The Sights, Sounds, and Meanings of Pride 2018 by William Lewis

Last Sunday I visited for the New York City Pride March, despite having lived  and worked in the city for almost five years, it was my first Pride in NYC! I don't know what took me so long either.

This year's Pride March was the 48th such occasion it electrified the streets of Greenwich Village with vibrant color, pulsating music, performance, and costume. Of course I could not resist taking dozens of photos! I upload my favorites onto my company gallery, you can check them out here

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The Moment I Fell In Love With Public Space by William Lewis

The moment occurred at Astor Place under the heaviest of skies on April 22, 2017. Along with many others, I was saturated by relentless rain, buffeted by bitter wind, shaking with coldness. We were standing, listening to the soaring voices of the Bowery Poetry Slam Team, the power of their words stopping strangers, friends, and passers-by to listen and watch. I intensely observed this diverse group of cold, wet people, fascinated by how spontaneously they interacted and bonded, brought together by a poetry performance, facilitated by a well-designed public space.

This was the moment when I realized the power and social value of well-planned urban spaces and parks to connect people, from all social and ethnic spectrums, without boundaries. I sensed the capacity of public spaces to aid social cohesion and improve quality of life. So began my fascination with public spaces and parks, and my quest to understand the critical importance of urban planning and design.

In my role as Marketing and Events Director for the Village Alliance Business Improvement District, I create public and community programming to activate public spaces in Greenwich Village and Astor Place. These projects bring me immense personal satisfaction.

The underlying principles, ethos, and spirit with which I approach the Astor Place plaza activation projects fundamentally changed on that cold, wet April afternoon. With my new sense of the importance and power of public spaces, also came a heightened sense of responsibility to activate the plazas sympathetically. It became my mission to ensure they were places of true social value and sustainability, places for community engagement and inclusion, with programs that celebrated the rich character of the local East Village neighborhood.

Astor Place. Image courtesy of WXY Associates

Astor Place. Image courtesy of WXY Associates

Understanding the nuances of how the plazas worked, I developed a summer of successful community plaza activations, which included silent discos with hundreds of people dancing into the night, daytime family arts and crafts workshops, music and performing arts festivals, story sharing platforms, and much more.

Watching the plazas successfully host these events, working as vibrant public spaces, connecting people in happy interactions that celebrated their community, the city, and life, made me realize how much I love public space. It was the moment I fell in love.

The Astor Alive Festival. Photo: Ian Douglas

The Astor Alive Festival. Photo: Ian Douglas

Made on 8th Street - Don Borelli and the Arts & Crafts Beer Parlor by William Lewis

For Arts & Crafts Beer Parlor co-owner, Don Borelli, bad guys and bad beer have two things in common, the world is not big enough for either, let alone both. So, he made it his life’s mission to deal with both!

After twenty-five years as an FBI agent hunting down international criminals, terrorists and other (redacted!) individuals across the U.S. and Middle East, then security consulting; it was time for some good guys, time for something different, “less hostility, more hospitality”, Don explained. It was time to open a craft beer bar!

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A Coffee & Literary Icon - Stumptown Coffee; Greenwich Village by William Lewis

In the 1950s, Greenwich Village was the epicenter of the “Beat Generation,” the literary movement led by novelists Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, and poet Allen Ginsberg. The Beats debated and created in Greenwich Village’s coffee houses and bookshops, including the iconic Eighth Street Bookshop where Allen Ginsberg first met Bob Dylan. That space is today home to Stumptown Coffee.

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Storm Chasers at the Arts & Crafts Beer Parlor - Greenwich Village by William Lewis

There’s two types of “storm chaser”, those that go headlong into powerful, awe-inspiring weather systems and those who appreciate the power of abstract art, creativity and eclecticism. On a calm and warm mid-October evening, it was the latter type of storm chaser, which converged on West 8th Street's Arts & Crafts Beer Parlor, to celebrate the launch of their latest art exhibit, created by Storm Ritter!

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The Magic of West 8th Street is Alive! by William Lewis

“I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring” said David Bowie who recorded his first No1 U.S. single, “Fame”, at the legendary Electric Lady Studios on West 8th Street.

If West 8th Street could express itself in words, it would perhaps choose ones similar to Bowie’s to reflect upon its own journey and destiny. There are, of course, many forms of expression and West 8th Street remains one of New York City’s most inventive streets, from its rich cultural history to the energetic, hugely talented people who today own and run the street's thriving independent businesses, and who keep the street’s magic very much alive!! To understand 8th Street’s journey, and far from boring destiny, it is important to understand its recent times.

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Thousands "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out" at Astor Alive! by William Lewis

“Turn on, tune in, drop out”, was the phrase that came to symbolize the counterculture movement of musicians, actors, and activists which emerged during the 1967 “Summer of Love”. That same year, the iconic “Alamo” sculpture, “the Cube”, arrived at Astor Place, the revolutionary Public Theater opened, and St. Mark’s Place became New York’s epicenter of counterculture. Sensing the ripening mood, a February 1967 Daily News headline screamed “East Village Theme Is Now Love and Let Love”, and the East Village was born!

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Why I Agree with Today's Wall Street Journal Editorial, Yet find it Insensitive by William Lewis

Today's The Wall Street Journal blistering editorial really bothers me.

It's assertions are absolutely correct. However, given the President lost his brother to alcoholism I have a real issue with this line...

"Yet the President clings to his assertion like a drunk to an empty gin bottle".

It is well documented that Trump was significantly affected by his brothers alcoholism and death, and because of what he witnessed, is tee-total. They were very close.

I am deeply troubled by every aspect of the Trump presidency, and the very low standards of decency and ethics it displays, which were prevalent from the moment Trump began his campaign.

However, it is exceptionally important that standards of decency and respect are upheld in journalism and society if we're to rise back up. It all too often seems we're casually losing those standards. So it worries me to see an editorial board such as the Wall Street Journal display such crass insensitivity, even if the context of the editorial is correct. In this case, Trump can be afforded the right to be angry and upset with this piece of insensitve journalism. 

It sets a poor lead for the rest of us to follow. The mantra of "when they go low, we go high", too often seems to have been easily forgotten.