Video made of First Street Green Day 9/10/11 in the BMW Guggenheim Lab at First Park by Penn State School of Visual Art Grad Students. Production/editing team: Ian Brill, Michael Collins, and Ee Ching Ng.

First Street Green (FSG) is a group of community residents that came together in 2008 to transform a New York City Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR)-owned vacant lot at 33 East First Street in Manhattan from a rat habitat into a maintainable plaza and cultural space/art park, as captured in the accompanying videos. I have been living on the block since the early eighties. There used to be children's art classes and seasonal installations in the lot before the rat population exploded. Mattie Bloomberg, the lot's unofficial groundskeeper who lived next door, created a series of tableaux made of found materials for the site beginning in the eighties until his death in 2002. With hundreds of burrows breaking through the pavement, it became so unsafe that the city insisted it be kept locked.

John Bowman and I first met with Namshik Yoon, DPR chief of operations, in 2006 to discuss what could be done about a variety of problems affecting the neighborhood caused by the poor condition of their lot. Mr. Yoon explained that when the DPR took down a recreation building on the lot in 1937, they let the rubble fall into the basement and paved over it, making it an ideal rat warren. The city put poison in the lot, but the only way to solve the problem was to dig up all of the rubble below the pavement and fill it in with dirt. He said the DPR had no budget for that and had no plan for or interest in putting a park in such a small, dark space. He suggested that we try to raise funds and interest from the community to do the work ourselves.

The advent of new luxury buildings such as the Avalon and high-end businesses such as Whole Foods nearby disrupted the rat population, pushing many of them into our small lot. Adding to the problem, rich people throw away more food than poor people, and there is a huge dumpster at Whole Foods. In 2008, I wrote letters about the lot to every public official I could think of. The only response I received was from Susan Stetzer, district manager of Community Board 3 (CB3). She agreed it was a terrible health and safety problem but said that no one had ever had a suitable idea for the lot.

I suggested it become a cultural park. She asked how soon I could get a proposal to CB3. Research and discussions with neighbors and advisers followed. Before presenting our ideas to the CB3 Parks and Recreation Committee, we won the support of the First Street Block Association, whose president, Robert Graf, had been a key figure in developing First Park at the other end of the block, with a playground and handball court. He became a valued adviser and remains an active member of our group. The Lower Eastside Girls Club is also on the block. It's director, Lyn Pentecost, has become a mentor to FSG and served as an early fiscal sponsor. City Parks Foundation currently serves as our fiscal sponsor while we await 501(c)(3) status. The Girls Club made an art installation, You Can't Spell ART without RAT, on the fence along 33 East First Street for our first community event in 2010 and continues to be a close collaborator. Last year, FSG and LESGC split the cost of a much-needed new iron fence for a community garden on the block.

We met Robert McLean, DPR district manager for our area, at our first presentation to CB3 Parks and Recreation Committee. He suggested that the strip along the adjacent Houston Street, where the ground was safe, unlike the lot, be developed first. DPR did so, working with community volunteers in spring 2011. Mr. McLean spends his vacation and other free time developing parks with volunteers. At our first community event, in summer 2010, he pledged to help us transform the problematic lot as part of his legacy.

CB3 Parks and Recreation Committee had many tough questions for us, and we realized we had further work to do in our community. We saw that when people felt their voices were heard regarding the park's design and purpose, they were more likely to become park users whose involvement helps the park thrive. Community participation in the process not only makes parks more responsive to park users but also serves as a jumping-off point for ongoing stewardship. When we next presented our plans to CB3 in July 2010, we were met with a positive response. We had received several grants, held community events, and earned DPR's trust.

On Earth Day in April 2007, New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg had unveiled PlaNYC, an ambitious 127-point vision to strengthen the city's urban environment and make New York a model twenty-first-century metropolis by creating a more sustainable city by the year 2030. Our proposal was compatible with Bloomberg's "greening" initiatives. The lot's location across from Sara Delano Roosevelt Park and adjacent to a strip of undeveloped DPR-owned land, which connects with First Park on the other end of the block, and its proximity to many community and cultural assets that already exist in the area (Fourth Arts Block [FAB], the New Museum, and many Lower East Side art galleries), gave it great potential as a community space that would attract an audience for cultural programming, with high use and visibility. FAB attracts an annual audience of 250,000, serves 1,500 artists, and provides more square feet of active cultural use than any other block in New York. Some of our theater events in the park have been in collaboration with FAB, which is home to more than a dozen arts groups, 10 cultural facilities, and 17 performances and rehearsal venues. There are many talented and committed people to draw from on the block and in the community. Our most active members and collaborators are in the arts. An art park was a missing piece in the First Park footprint.

Images showing history of the lot, development into a park, and cultural programming in the new Open Art Park.
Images courtesy of First Street Green (FSG) and TODO DA (To Do Architecture and Design)

Contributors and Supporting Agencies

First Street Green (FSG) Co-Directors: Silva Ajemian, John Bowman, Jorge Prado, Ann Shostrom; core group includes: Robert Graf, Scott Pfaffman, David Bergman, Carol Crump, Eleanor Duncan, Justin Luke.

First Street Green provides cultural programming in First Park at 33 E. 1st Street in Manhattan. Through the efforts of many, First Park has become an open art park that serves the Lower East Side community by engaging with contemporary artists, designers, architects, community groups and cultural institutions through a series of programs that activate this public space.

FSG receives generous support from: NYC Parks and Recreation (DPR), Manhattan Commissioner William Castro, District Manager, Robert McLean, Chief of Operations, Namshik Yoon, Director of Art and Antiquities, Jonathan Kuhn, Public Art Coordinator, Jennifer Lantzas; Partnership for Parks, Kirsti Bambridge, Outreach Coordinator; City Parks Foundation, First Street Block Association, Robert Graf, President; The Lower Eastside Girls Club, Lyn Pentecost, Director; Penn State Institute for the Arts and Humanities, College of Art and Architecture, and School of Visual Art Grad Student Video Production team: Ian Brill, Michael Collins, and Ee Ching Ng; Citizens Committee of New York City, Director of Communications & Outreach, Saleen Shah; Crosby Street Gallery, 1st Street Restaurants: Joe Doe, Prune, Tuck Shop, Veselka, Juicy Lucy. Our collaborators include: AIAS New Jersey Institute of Technology College of Architecture and Design, Akio Suzuki, Audio Visual Arts, Alec Taylor, Amina Henry, Bowery Babes, CCNY Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture, Ciotat Studio, Centre-fuge Public Art Project, Cre8tive YOUTH*ink, Cooper Union, desigNYC, Downtown Art, Eleanor Smith, Eryn Rosenthal, expoTENtial, Fourth Arts Block (FAB), Green Map System, Imagining America, James Day Group, James Rojas, Make Music New York, Michal Samama, Molly Lieber, Movement Research, Osmos, Random Access Theatre, Robert Sestok, Ray Smith, Sheryo & the Yok, Sofia Maldonado, Soto Velez Clemente, Superfront, Sunshine Cinema,The Drawing Center, Terreform 1, Time's Up, World Policy Institute.

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