By Sabina Mollot
On Saturday, hundreds of costumed revelers walked, marched and danced their way through the East Village and the Lower East Side for a day-long event aimed at celebrating local green spaces, the East River and sustainability efforts.
The event was organized by Lower East Sider, artist and activist Felicia Young, who has a long history of similar events aimed at (successfully) saving community gardens, through her organization Earth Celebrations. Participants in the event, which was modeled after pageants in India, where hundreds of celebrants from multiple communities take part, made 20 stops throughout the neighborhood.
A few included Campos Garden on East 12th Street between Avenues B and C, El Sol Brilliante Garden an avenue to the west, the Earth School on East 6th Street and by the day’s end, East River Park for oyster planting and a river cleansing dance.
Young later said that she’d personally been in communication with 500 people in different organizations who were involved in the event somehow, and that it was the culmination of two years’ work. But unlike the previous costume parades she’s organized since the 90s that were aimed at keeping community gardens from getting bulldozed by developers, this time, it was more about connecting local environmental activists and drawing attention to their projects from rooftop beehives to vertical farming (food grown on sides of buildings) to a rickshaw-driven compost collective. Along with interpretive dances, other participants sang songs or read poems that were specific to the East Village procession’s stops.
Young said she was also inspired by communal art projects in a Nigerian community she’d learned about as an art history student at Skidmore College, in which residents would build large-scale works, usually in response to a social calamity.
“It’s not art as decoration. They commit to it as a community process,” said Young. “Like an elaborate mud hut representing a god. Then they leave it to decay. I said, ‘That’s exactly the kind of thing we needed.’ Ephemeral and in response to some social problem. I don’t know if I believe the magic of it, like all of a sudden malaria or drought goes away, but I do feel that the solidarity is what strengthens the community.”
Her first procession was in response to the AIDS crisis in 1988. She was a gallery coordinator in Tribeca and got sick of what felt like preaching to the choir with politically-charged installations that would only reach arts scene insiders. So she suggested doing a Dio de Los Muertos-style procession to City Hall, working with homeless shelters and poets. She wound up using that type of event over the years to draw attention to the fact that gardens maintained by Lower East Side volunteers were at risk of being reclaimed by the city. After getting gardeners involved in processions she wound up, without really intending to, becoming a community organizer, warning the gardeners she knew whenever their green spaces were on the agenda for redevelopment at local community board meetings. While many of those gardens ended up being saved by an unexpected ally — Mayor Michael Bloomberg — Young said she is once again concerned about the future of those spaces – this time because of natural disasters.
“The wakeup call came from Hurricane Sandy,” she said. “On this side of Manhattan, you have a much more vulnerable community.”
Correction: The print version of this article incorrectly stated that Young was in coordination with 50 people, while the correct number is 500. Additionally, Young wanted to clarify that she is still more concerned about the community gardens being redeveloped for market-rate housing than being destroyed by flooding.