Hester Street Collaborative (HSC) — a community design organization that works with underserved communities to empower them to shape their built environments — is one of the core members of the Lower East Side Waterfront Alliance, a coalition of neighborhood organizations that works with local groups and residents to advocate for “the human, sociocultural, economic, and environmental sustainability” of the Lower East Side waterfront. In 2008, responding to neighborhood residents’ concerns about new high-end development proposals for the already rapidly gentrifying Lower East Side, the Alliance began working with community members to envision what they felt would be a more equitable future for the local waterfront. The result of that process was a proposal to turn Pier 42, a vacant and unused stretch of waterfront between the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges that had been Manhattan’s last working cargo pier until its closure in 1987, into public parkland. With strong community support and the backing of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, State Senator Daniel Squadron, and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, the proposal was approved and the renovation of Pier 42 was set in motion.
Acknowledging that the formal masterplanning process for the pier would take years, the LES Waterfront Alliance and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) launched an interim strategy to activate the unused space while plans for the permanent park are in development: Paths to Pier 42. The project uses a series of temporary art and design installations to create a public space that both transforms the abandoned pier and provides waterfront access for local residents, while also encouraging community involvement in the long-term renovation project. By doing so, Paths to Pier 42 creates an asset for the neighborhood while building momentum for and informing the design of the future permanent park.
We sat down with Hester Street Collaborative Executive Director Anne Frederick and Community Design Director Dylan House to talk about Paths to Pier 42, strategies for activating underutilized space for public good, and the potential for “community master planning” to address local need. — D.R.
Tell me about Hester Street Collaborative (HSC). How does the Pier 42 project fit into what you do?
Hester Street Collaborative is a community design organization. Our mission is to give citizens a hand and a voice in how their local built environment is shaped. Much of how we do this is through the creation of public spaces. Each of these projects is initiated when a local stakeholder identifies a land-use need in the neighborhood, which might be a playground renovation, a school garden, or a waterfront space that responds to community needs. HSC brings participatory design tools to meet these locally identified needs.
Since 2007, Hester Street Collaborative has been working as part of the Lower East Side Waterfront Alliance — along with CAAAV:Organizing Asian Communities, Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), Lower East Side Ecology Center, and Two Bridges Neighborhood Council — to engage residents in the neighborhood around issues of what the waterfront should be and how it can be more responsive to community needs. The first aspect of this community engagement process has involved visioning, the second has been advocating for capital funding for the ultimate renovation of Pier 42, which is a long-term Parks Department project being designed by Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, and the third has been working to ensure interim access to Pier 42 for the public during the 5-10 years it could take for the permanent park to be built. Paths to Pier 42, which is a project of the Alliance and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC), is a temporary pop-up park to provide that public access.
To give some geographical and historical context, this pier is nestled in between the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges. Since the FDR Drive was built, starting in the 1930s, the adjacent residential neighborhood of the Lower East Side has been cut off from the waterfront. Pier 42 is right at the juncture where the FDR switches from an at-grade highway to an elevated structure. The area is only accessible either from the East River Greenway, if you’re already on it, or by pedestrian bridges that cross the FDR, which aren’t very pleasant to cross, or by passing under the elevated highway. That stretch of waterfront used to be primarily industrial use, and Pier 42 used to be known as the Banana Pier because it was where all tropical fruit came into the city. That pier was in operation until the late 1980s, at which point it was more or less abandoned.
More recently, the Economic Development Corporation has been tasked with redeveloping the waterfront from the Staten Island Ferry Terminal all the way to East River Park, including Pier 42. One of the objectives of the Waterfront Alliance is to ensure that the redevelopment of Pier 42, which has the largest potential open space on the East River waterfront, includes publicly accessible space rather than being developed exclusively to be an “economic driver,” which would come with various real estate development goals.
Many of the groups in our coalition were responding to what they saw in some of the EDC’s waterfront developments in other parts of the city that emphasize spaces for high-end retail, restaurants, and high-rise condominiums. There was a lot of resistance to that kind of development happening in the Lower East Side, which has already seen a lot of luxury development and gentrification over the last decade.
This project was initiated by grassroots community organizations that wanted what they thought would be a more equitable waterfront — both the waterfront overall and, more recently, Pier 42 in particular — for the large contingent of public housing residents that live directly adjacent to this site. The Lower East Side has one of the largest concentrations of public housing in Manhattan, with thousands of residents in NYCHA buildings on the waterfront. Our work has always been to support the local organizations’ alternative vision for the site’s development and campaign for it through its various phases.
How have you gone about doing that?
Since our founding, we’ve been doing work around open spaces – including the creation of temporary art and design installations to activate sites during periods of transformation – and we have worked closely with the Parks Department. Pier 42 is the largest site and the most extensive interim space that we’ve worked on. We see it as another opportunity for grassroots activists to be able to claim space in their neighborhood and for designers to partner with community-based organizations to address local needs and aspirations. We hope that it’ll be a model for these kinds of projects city-wide, so we are always looking for aspects of the process that can create new modes of participation.
Another aspect of our programming at Hester Street Collaborative is working with youth in schools on community design and participatory planning projects. With the Paths to Pier 42 project, we’re combining our neighborhood-based and school-based programs by bringing the kids we work with out to the site to use and work on it.
One of the many tools and activities for participatory planning that we’ve created is a called the Waterfront on Wheels. It’s a mobile, physical model of the site hooked to a bike trailer that we use as an interactive planning tool. We bike the model around the neighborhood to meet people where they are, whether that’s a school or a community meeting or in the park. We can engage young people with a model-making activity that envisions alternative futures for the park or we can use it in a more formal workshop setting with adults in order to demystify the planning process.
Who else has been involved in Paths to Pier 42?
The architecture firm Leroy Street Studio and the landscape design firm dlandstudio are doing the overall site strategy and have implemented the context that the temporary installations fit into.
We’ve also been working very closely with the office of our state senator Daniel Squadron, who has been an important supporter of the project, Community Board 3, and with the NYC Parks Department, which owns the site and is now responsible for developing the master plan for the renovation of Pier 42.
We assembled an advisory committee composed of tenant association leaders from the different nearby NYCHA developments, public art administrators, architects, artists, ecologists — a mix of people with local knowledge of the community and people with relevant expertise. With members of the Waterfront Alliance, the advisory committee worked with dlandstudio and Leroy Street Studio to develop the master plan for the interim use of the pier, and also served as a jury to select five artists and designers who would create a set of temporary installations on the pier as part of the Parks Department’s Public Arts program.
The Waterfront Alliance and LMCC put out what we called an RFPP, a Request for Participation in the Process, for artists, architects, and designers to get involved. We framed it that way because we didn’t want the artists to come with a formal proposal or a preconceived notion of what their installations would be. We really wanted it to be a collaborative process where the artists that were chosen worked with local residents and community members and drew on local knowledge.
Who are the selected artists, and what projects did they ultimately present?
Chat Travieso is an architect and a designer with a history of working on the East River waterfront. He engaged the chain link fence that separates the East River Greenway from the Pier 42 site. It’s in bad condition, so he created a structure that embraces the fence. On the outside it has a beautiful graphic pattern that from far away looks like an arrow but up close fades into an abstract design. On the inside he created a vertical park, in which each area is programmed for a different activity, like seating, a stage, and even a sandbox.
Jennifer Wen Ma is an artist based in Chinatown. She created a garden along the waterside using a process in which she paints plants with ink as a metaphor for how we’re stressed in our daily lives. The ink stresses the plants but it doesn’t kill them, in fact it often causes them to grow. When they do, these green shoots emerge from the inked plant, which look very beautiful in contrast to the black. Once the installation is done she wants the plants to go back into the community, either in local gardens or given to individuals. Much like Chat, Jennifer engaged a problem on the site. That section of the fence doesn’t look secure and her garden creates a buffer to the water. Many of the artists took a problem on the site and addressed it through their project.
Nanna Debois Buhl is a Danish artist who was interested in the pier’s history as the “Banana Pier” and the memories of people in the community. She created what she calls a painted herbarium, botanical illustrations of different tropical fruits that were processed at the pier on the asphalt of the site. She also collected stories from different residents that have been here long enough that they have a memory of the previous life of the pier, more than 20 years ago, and stitched them together in a poem that’s also on the site.
Mary Mattingly creates self-supporting, sustainable living environments. Her installation, “Triple Island,” is made up of three hexagonal pads that are solar powered, collect rainwater, and have a greenhouse, a garden, and a live-work environment for an artist in residency to occupy the site during the day for the duration of the installation. She’s very interested in the site’s relationship with the water. In the past she’s created floating environments — her installation can actually float if the site was flooded, as it was during Hurricane Sandy.
This neighborhood was hit hard by Sandy and most of the housing adjacent to the site was heavily flooded. The storm came after this project was originally planned for, but it’s something that we really want to continue to integrate into our thinking about the waterfront.
Interboro Partners is an architecture and design firm in Brooklyn that has a great history, in their more temporary project, of finding ways to use the materials or products of the installations to give back to the community. On Pier 42, they created a grove of trees to provide shade and a place to rest, called “Rest Stop.” The trees are provided by the New York Restoration Project as part of a post-Sandy recovery effort to replace trees lost during the storm in NYCHA developments along the waterfront. The Lower East Side Ecology Center has a tree stewardship program with NYCHA youth, which is caring for the trees over the summer.
What do you see as the relationship between the temporary park and the long term master plan?
We see the interim strategy as a very important way of informing the master planning process and advocating for community engagement in that process. Keeping residents engaged over the long term is very challenging. By doing something that was very hands on, we felt we could create a real asset for the neighborhood that was also an important part of this larger campaign.
In terms of the interim strategy our role has been to coordinate the overall effort between the City and Mathews Nielsen, the advisory committee, the artists, and the community based organizations. We have been working closely with Mathews Nielsen during the temporary planning process, to ensure there is a conduit for this work to feed into their planning and design and to think about whether there are aspects of the interim project that can stick around for the longer term.
The teams at Mathews Nielsen and the Parks Department have been very supportive of the interim use. I think all the parties involved realize that a sustained community engagement effort is necessary for the park to actually happen and be successful. Activating the site, getting people out there, and reconnecting people with their waterfront are all part of that process.
What are some of the plans for programming the space?
There are a number of youth groups and local organizations that will be using the pier for meetings and programs this summer, such as Local Spokes’ Youth Ambassadors and Two Bridges Neighborhood Council’s summer youth camp. There will also be a series of events over the course of the summer. Each of the Alliance organizations is doing something on the site. GOLES is having their annual neighborhood SummerFest, Two Bridges is planning a kite festival, which sounds really fun. We hosted a Public Space Potluck with the Design Trust for Public Space recently, which made us want to add more events that take advantage of the space in the evening.
Programming is really important in order to bring people out there and make them aware that the space even exists. Our hope is that over time people will begin to recognize it as a space they can utilize on their own.
Over the past few years there has been a huge shift in how people think about the potential of temporary activation of underutilized space. How has that affected your work and people’s interest in or receptiveness to your approach?
When we first started working with the Parks Department in 2004, the Pier 42 project would have been a radical idea. The first interim project we did was a series of little street signs that indicated different sites of immigration history in the neighborhood. That took two years to get approval for. I remember it seemed to simple to me: there is already a method the city uses to attach signs to lampposts, and it’s just kids learning about local history in the neighborhood — big deal. But there was so much hesitancy from people in the Parks Department and DOT. We’ve come a long way.
Part of it for us is that we now have a strong track record of working with DOT and the Parks Department. But there are all sorts of public art programs that didn’t exist when we first started that have helped pave the way as well. Ten years ago there wasn’t even a real formalized process for approving temporary public art. A lot of things have changed. Whether it’s due to the prevalence of pop-up spaces and tactical urbanism, or administration-driven initiatives, or how our credibility with the city has evolved over time, or a combination of all of those, it’s a radically different climate.
I’m excited that we can help advance a version of this that responds to community-driven need, that’s not just a cool project that uses a neighborhood as a blank canvas. Resident stakeholder participation is really what drives our work.