If anyone doubted that the North Shore harbors an active art scene, there was proof Tuesday behind the fog-coated windows of a gallery just yards from the Narrows. On a raw and rainy March night, the Design Trust for Public Space and Staten Island Arts managed to pack a good-sized room as it unveiled a strategy for strengthening the area’s unique cultural mix amid a host of changes slated for this shoulder of Staten Island.
The most significant of those is the potential rezoning of the Bay Street corridor, one of 10 neighborhood redevelopment initiatives the de Blasio administration is incubating in line with the mayor’s affordable-housing plan. (A 10th neighborhood, East New York, has already been rezoned.)
There are artists and cultural assets in and around each of those neighborhoods. The North Shore is singular, however, as a crossroads for history, culture and water—the latter a source of blue-collar jobs, artistic inspiration and ecological value—that is poorly understood by outsiders.
“The North Shore generates more cultural activity than some small cities,” said Ben Margolis, a policy expert. “I’m not sure everyone knows that who comes to Staten Island.”
Future Culture is the Trust’s effort to protect that mix and the people who live in it, largely by steering investments and tourism to do as much good and as little harm as possible.
The recommendations grew out of a series of meetings with a small group of local stakeholders as well as a survey of the broader community. They include efforts to “foster and identify local culture” through steps like developing “identifiable cultural clusters and destinations” and establishing high-profile and regular cultural events. Promoting exploration of the area is a key thrust of the recommendations, which propose everything from a cultural marketing post within the borough president’s office to a wayfinding infrastructure to draw people out of the ferry terminal and into the local arts scene.
Another recommendation is to “broaden and deepen support” by developing a shared advocacy voice of cultural contributors and creating a fund to sustain key cultural projects. Fostering resiliency, forming connections between artists and social workers, adding art to the broadening transportation infrastructure in the area and promoting bike use are on the list as well.
Jessica Encarnacion, a fashion designer and watercolor painter who was born and raised in the area, was in the crowd. She supports the Future Culture effort, though she stresses the importance of getting word out about the effort to the broader community. (She works at a nearby school but heard nothing of it there and was lucky, she says, to get word via email.)
Encarnacion says there has always been a cultural hub in the area, especially in the Stapleton neighborhood. “I’d say it has been underground,” she says, until recently, when the emergence of key art spaces took the local movement into the spotlight.
The final Future Culture plan will be out this fall and is expected to dovetail with a larger city cultural plan the Department of Cultural Affairs is preparing. As early as next month, the Design Trust and Staten Island Arts will issue a request for proposals for pilot projects to implement some of the recommendation in the draft released this week. Two will be selected, each offering a $15,000 artist fee and $30,000 for program expenses.
When it comes to the pending rezoning, the hope, according to Design Trust executive director Susan Chin, is to serve as a compliment to the land-use plan — to influence it, and to present to local officials and community board members an assessment of what the local cultural scene is and the potential it has.
In some neighborhoods, a widely-known art scene has been its own undoing. Artists find a place that offers cheap space and abundant inspiration, create great work, attract tourists who become residents, see rents rise and find themselves (along with other incumbent residents) priced out. That threat exists for the North Shore; community district 1 in Staten Island presently has some of the most reasonable rents, and the highest vacancy rate, of any place in the city.
“That’s always a concern,” Chin says of the displacement risk. “At the same time, I feel strongly that residents here deserve to understand what rich cultural resources are here as well. By engaging the community, you’re helping to preserve that vitality.”
Future Culture’s authors acknowledged the threat by proposing steps to preserve artists’ space, improve physical connections between NYCHA developments and the community, support affordable housing via land trusts and respect the fact that the coastline is not just a potential subject for sketch and sculpture but a workplace as well.
Allan Avidano, a social worker and artist who first moved to the area when he was six, does worry about the side effects of a higher profile. “I am afraid about a lot of people with money coming in and pushing people out,” he says. Like some other artists in the area, he owns his residence, giving him a measure of security.
Despite those concerns, he’s excited about the coming of age that seems to have arrived for the local arts scene. “I would say it’s vibrant,” he says. There is inspiration. There is momentum now.” He is especially excited about ideas for getting some of the people who right now arrive via ferry only to turn around and sail out again to instead stay and see what the area has to offer.
Avidano does paper cutting and woodblock prints. He uses paper and office supplies to make tree sculptures that look like bonsai. The area itself is inspiration. “It’s very Staten Island-centric,” he says of his art, some of which includes a ferry motif. He draws energy from the mix of ethnicities—Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Liberian, Syrian—that have settled nearby.
“A lot of my work is based on amalgamation,” he says — of nature, the waterfront, culture. “All these people coming together and making a home.”
City Limits’ coverage of the intersection of art and policy is supported by the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund. The Fund does not determine what we cover or how we cover it.