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.