Arts Council Looks for Leaders Among Public-Housing Residents

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Ryan Gilliam, the executive director of FABnyc.

Two neighborhood arts organizations have teamed up to launch an arts and culture council that will be led by public housing residents — in an effort to direct arts programming opportunities to the very people who are often excluded from these spaces, organizers said.

Ryan Gilliam, the executive director of FABnyc, which partnered with University Settlement for the project, first started handing out applications at the Nov. 27 Community Board 3 meeting. Gilliam, 60, said University Settlement is distributing applications in its community centers located throughout the neighborhood’s public housing developments and that the last day to apply is Jan. 21, 2019. (An information session will be held January 16 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Rafael Hernandez Community Center, 189 Allen Street in Manhattan.)

Gilliam said the group is looking for 10 public housing residents to serve on the council, in hopes of preventing long-time community members from being shut out amid a spate of luxury redevelopment in the neighborhood.

“Arts and culture should be involved with addressing gentrification like everything else,” said Gilliam.

Alison Fleminger, University Settlement’s arts director and the council’s co-founder, said neighborhood public housing residents have been feeling increasingly displaced in recent years.

Fleminger, 44, said the disappearance of familiar neighborhood mainstays like bodegas, laundromats, and restaurants that serve home-cooked meals has disoriented long-time residents.

“There’s a real sense of, ‘Oh, there’s all these new buildings and people here who we don’t see so much,'” Fleminger said. “A sense that there’s a neighborhood on top of a neighborhood.”

The Lower East Side council is based on the Intergenerational Community Arts Council that University Settlement established with BRIC, a Brooklyn-based arts organization, in July 2017.

Once formed, Fleminger said, the BRIC council worked with their selected artist in residence, Najee Omar, for several months to plan a block party event that took place in Downtown Brooklyn on August 4.

Sukanya Fairweather, 20, one of the council members, said the block party consisted of artist-led workshops like mural painting and printmaking and a series of performances by singers, rappers and poets. The event was a success because it allowed the neighborhood’s old and new residents to put aside bitter feelings around gentrification and come together around arts programming, Fairweather said.

Fairweather, who lives in public housing, said serving on the BRIC council empowered her by sharpening her own artistic skills and teaching her how to develop the works of other artists.

“It’s been really life-changing,” said Fairweather.

The Lower East Side council will also focus on teaching cultural organizing skills to the council members, so meetings will be supplemented with workshops where council-members will be taught how to work with a budget and organize arts events, Gilliam and Fleminger said.

“We’re making visible the infrastructure that is needed to have quality arts experiences,” said Fleminger.

The LES Community Culture Council application asks applicants to describe why art and culture matters to them and how they define their community. The form also asks for the applicant’s gender, race and ethnic identification.

“Between being able to understand a little about their background, experience, and way of thinking, we will be able to put together a pretty diverse group of people,” said Gilliam.


City Limits’ reporting on the intersection of art and policy is supported by the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund. City Limits is solely responsible for all content.

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