Rethinking culture and community in New York City

Via Theatre of the Oppressed New York Facebook page

Theatre of the Oppressed New York at National Black Theater. Image via Theatre of the Oppressed Facebook page.

Cultural organizer Caron Atlas, director of Arts & Democracy and co-director of Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts New York (NOCD-NY), has spent decades working at the intersection of art, culture, and community change. We asked her a few questions in advance of her presentation at our upcoming issue launch party later this month.

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What do you feel are common misunderstandings about culture in New York?

I think a big misperception is that arts and culture are elitist. They tend to be defined so narrowly that they’re seen as belonging to only one group, when in fact everybody engages in culture, and should have the right to engage in creativity and art. So I really fight against that perception, as well as against the ways that the art community can sometimes in reality make itself very separate from the larger community.

I’m interested in how to support art everywhere, how to nurture it in the communities where it grows. I want to raise questions when we talk about art being something that you have to go to school to do, or say that if you have talent you have it and if you don’t you don’t. I recognize that artists work to develop their skills, and that’s a wonderful thing—like any other area of work, people can get better at what they do—but what I’m really interested in is the creativity that is everywhere.

Another thing that I have a hard time with is this paradigm of a middle-class white artist going into a community of color to bring something to it. A lot of times people will look at that and say it’s the beginning of gentrification. There are artists in all communities, and we shouldn’t assume that when there’s art in the community it’s because someone else came in and brought it. So my group Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts New York focuses on the art that’s already in communities, then works with those communities to develop support systems and policy that can support that art and culture.

Let’s imagine that Joe Schmo doesn’t care about art but is concerned about the future of city. Why should he care about this issue?

Well, the word art is pretty charged for some people. So Joe Schmo may say that, but he may sing in his church choir, or his kids may get art at school. I think when you start not using the word art sometimes it makes it more obvious how it’s present in your life.

And we can see in lots of communities that cultural spaces are often meeting spaces for more than just art. They’re part of social networks that people can draw on during hard times; they’re places where people who are different can come together in creative ways. People talk about how cultural activity saved their lives or gave their lives meaning. It’s one thing to survive—and New York can be a hard city to survive in—but arts and culture can get you beyond survival.

Art can also give you a reason to care about your neighborhood. I think there are a lot of people who would say, “I don’t know about this art stuff, but I love where I live, I love my neighborhood.” And when you start asking why they love their neighborhood, a lot of it has to do with culture and creativity.

Can you give an example of where you think culture is working really well in the five boroughs?

A great one is the El Puente Green Light District, which is in south Williamsburg. When a lot of people think of Williamsburg they think of the hipsters—although now it’s even probably too expensive for hipsters. But there was, and still is, a very strong Latino community there. It had artists and galleries and cultural spaces long before it became the hip place to go.

So El Puente is a community cultural center that’s been there a very long time. Although really it’s a campus—they have several different sites. They started the Green Light District to help retain the identity of that community while at the same time not freezing it in time. They recognize that the community is changing and they welcome everybody to be part of what they’re doing. But what they’re doing is a lot about making sure that the Latino culture remains a key part of the area’s identity. And the Green Light District does that in such a smart, visionary way by saying, “We’re going to look at all these indicators of health in this community, whether it’s about the air you breathe or about sustainability, health, education, and we’re going to make a deliberate effort to shift that over 10 years. And we’re going to do that in a self-determined way, and art and culture’s going to run through all of it.”

Día de Los Tres Reyes. Foto por Joe Matunis #elpuentearts #threekingsday

A photo posted by El Puente (@elpuentepresente) on

There are a lot of exciting examples. I was recently at the Legislative Theatre festival, which was put on by Theatre of the Oppressed NYC. They’ve been making plays around issues in criminal justice and what happens to people when they get out of prison, working with the the Center for Court Innovation and other groups dealing with these issues. They created these plays in communities, then at the festival they showed these plays. They had a group of policy people and some elected officials there. After the plays were done, people in the audience could write recommendations on cards and turn them in. The policy people then filtered the suggestions down into things that were actionable, and then the audience voted for them and the elected officials were asked if they would commit to them. It was a really exciting, very participatory event.

If you could be king of New York, what would be the first thing you’d do in terms of improving issues of culture in the city?

I would never be king of New York because I believe in participatory democracy! [laughs]

Well, I would actually try to democratize government a lot more. I’m very involved in participatory budgeting, and instead of it being limited to City Council Members and their discretionary money I would turn it into something that was fully embraced by the city government so that people in the city have more of a say in how public money is spent. I know that isn’t specifically about culture, but I think that democracy and culture go together.

The other thing I would really like to see is more recognition of the role of arts and culture in everything that city government does. Every city agency would fully embrace arts and culture as part of how it does its work. One of NOCD-NY’s policy recommendations is that each city agency have a cultural liaison. But even beyond that—because the liaison would just be the one who makes it happen—there would be all kinds of connections between grassroots cultural efforts and city policy as a way to fully engage New Yorkers in that policy.

The other thing is that there should be a recognition of all that community cultural centers do, that they really are a hub and a place where people come together, and that they keep communities as communities. These are some of the most underfinanced groups in the city, and it’s very hard for some of them to navigate city bureaucracy. So I would look at an initiative that’s about strengthening community cultural centers and recognizing all that they do in the city.

Interview edited and condensed.