For a neighborhood that’s home to almost 30 ethnic groups and with dozens of languages spoken on its streets, Kensington has a real scarcity of outdoor space.
But since early June, neighbors have been planting roots at the Avenue C Plaza, a new public mini-park sitting directly across from the MTA’s signal relay building. And for the month of June, the plaza is home to an ArtBuilt mobile studio, a movable public art space that community members are using to paint color and life to the once-drab intersection of McDonald and Avenue C.
ArtBuilt is a non-profit arts organization in Gowanus that builds temporary structures in under-used public spaces, to host community events or artist residences. The idea is to put public space back into community hands. “Mobile studios are small and human-scale interventions,” Esther Robinson, executive director of ArtBuilt, told me from inside the tiny studio. “There are many layers to this project and it’s all experiential. We start offering programs, then open up the space to local groups. People see the space and say ‘oh, I could…’ fill in the blank.”
Funding for the plaza’s mobile studio was chosen through the 39th district participatory budgeting process in 2016.
To kick off the month of programs, which includes Bangla singing and language classes, ArtBuilt hosted the Creative Impact Portrait studio, a day of free portraits for anyone in the neighborhood. Each participant completed their portrait with a phrase about the contribution they offer to their community.
On Saturday, Esther Robinson and Guy, executive directors at ArtBuilt, decorated the plaza with a vinyl mosaic of portraits and messages, giving passersby a glimpse into the faces of their neighbors. “These are the people who live here,” Esther said. It’s a powerful message meant to transform a dormant space into a hub for community empowerment. The banners also drape the metal enclosures that protect the plaza from traffic.
“This neighborhood is so diverse,” said Robinson, “and with this visual portrait we can begin to capture it.”
Prints of the photos were available at the mobile studio for everyone to take home, and throughout the day people came trickling in to proudly claim their portraits and talk about their families.
I was surprised by the artistry in each one—these weren’t just your average awkward school-photo poses. The photographers, who were teenage artists from the Village of Arts program in Philadelphia, captured a story in each portrait.
Mohammed Mahab, who speaks five languages, has been living and working in Kensington for over 20 years and teaches kids with autism. “This project reflects how we can work together as a community,” said Mahab.
The portrait exhibit wasn’t the only arts program on the docket for Saturday. Jill Reiner, parent co-odinator at PS 230, joyfully helped kids make wind chimes out of bamboo, beads, string, and plastic bottles at the Singing Winds craft table. Singing Winds is an organization founded by PS 230 parents to provide low-cost, local arts events and a venue for school families to share their cultures with each other. Kids entering the plaza ran directly to Reiner’s craft table, with its colorful bowls of beads and paint.
One girl held up her dangling windchime and exclaimed, “The cars are slowing down to look!” pointing out at McDonald Ave.
Last week, members of the Kensington Stewards, the Neighborhood Plaza Association, the directors of ArtBuilt, Community Board 12 members, and Council Member Brad Lander gathered for the ribbon cutting on this tiny island of reclaimed public space.
The mobile studio will host evens all month long, but the plaza is here to stay, thanks in large part to the caring volunteers. “At the heart of this project is the Kensington Stewards,” said council member Brad Lander during the ribbon cutting ceremony. The Stewards have “grown up as a set of people pushing for open space in Kensington, and taking care of these spaces.”
At the ceremony, the plaza didn’t look like much—just a few staggered umbrellas and some orange fold-up tables teetering on the pock-marked concrete. But the optimism and energy of the community leaders electrified the square, and not even the dark rain clouds could dampen the excitement.
This is just the beginning for our little plaza; in the fall, the Neighborhood Plaza Partnership and the DOT will be repaving the surface and erecting boundaries to protect the plaza from the McDonald avenue traffic. For now, visitors will have to take extra precautions when approaching the street. “This is a complicated site because it’s close to the surface of the subway tunnel,” said Emily Weidenhof of the DOT. The DOT will also be working closely with the NYPD to prevent cars from parking there, says the Weidenhof. And the neighborhood faces lining the plaza’s edges will be a great start to that effort.
Robinson hopes the space will flourish into a permanent community center, even after the mobile studio has packed up and moved on. “It takes a while for habits to change,” she said. But she hopes the art installation will transform this space from a bleak corridor for cars and trains, into a space to sit and talk.