In the face of exclusion and displacement, how do communities mobilize urban space for mental health and collective wellbeing?
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On a normal day, the New York Public Library’s 42nd Street flagship hosts a steady stream of tourists quietly taking photographs of the marble staircases and taking in historic objects on display. Tapping keyboards and whirring microfilm readers echo throughout the reading rooms, punctuated by the intermittent squeak of a chair. Later in the evening, the building might host a reading with a bestselling literary novelist, or a gala featuring champagne and string quartets. But on one night in June each year, the building is enlivened by the “Anti-Prom,” organized for, and designed with, queer and trans teens, or any teens that feel prom is not for them. At Anti-Prom, teens dance the night away in the grand Astor Hall. Reading rooms are transformed into activity spaces where attendees create art using markers and colored pencils. The long marble staircase becomes a runway where teen designers and models show off freshly-created fashions — celebrating identities and bodies that fall outside a traditional heterosexual tuxedo/ballgown binary.
Being a teenager is never easy, and in recent years high schoolers have had to contend with the social isolation of the pandemic, gun violence, and an uncertain political future. For queer and trans youth, things are even harder. Recent violence around many library programs across the country is just one reminder of the hostile, dangerous climate queer youth face. In June, a gunman approached a Nevada library hosting a reading with a drag performer, leaving frightened families and young children sheltering inside and keeping away from windows. Over the course of a few weeks in September and October 2022 here in New York City, protesters tried to intimidate attendees at Drag Queen Story Hour events at the Elmhurst Branch of the Queens Library and NYPL’s Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library; at NYPL’s Morrisania Branch, two events with a well-known teen drag performer were cancelled after threats of violence.
In the face of a national culture war and social isolation, events like Anti-Prom give teens the opportunity to transform institutions into supportive spaces where they can celebrate the unapologetically queer versions of themselves. Below, Helena Najm and Friederike Windel speak with NYPL’s Caitlyn Colman-McGaw, recent high school graduates and Anti-Prom fashion club presidents Nikol Rafailova and Bryanna Ohene Kari-Kari, and Mindscapes artist-in-residence Christine Wong Yap about their collaboration to create a joyful night that models a more accepting city.
Prom provides the opportunity to shine in front of your peers. Walking into the room in lavish garb, with a date on your arm, pop music blaring, and taking a cheesy photo together is the stuff of beautiful memories. But while it’s often imagined as a universal experience filtered through a warm John Hughes lens, prom is steeped in outdated traditions and conventional expressions of gender that can exclude students who don’t conform to this restrictive norm.
What would prom look like if it celebrated different gender expressions and rejected the heteronormativity inherent in its traditional form? Anti-Prom, an annual event since 2004 at the New York Public Library (NYPL), provides one answer. With an expansive interpretation of what it means to come together as a community, it invites teens from all over the city to participate in creating the inclusive, celebratory prom of their dreams.
Anti-Prom 2022 returned in-person to the NYPL’s marble-lioned Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on 42nd Street in the context of ongoing political threats to queer people and the freedom of gender expression, and increased youth isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic. After two digital versions, this Anti-Prom’s magical “Sweet Dreams” theme offered a space to embrace joy and imagine what a better, kinder future for youth looks like.
Since its inception, Anti-Prom has focused on building a creative environment by and for young people. The NYPL and the Anti-Prom Fashion Club at the High School of Fashion Industries (HSFI) — a public school that prepares students from across the city for careers in the fashion industry — collaborate over nine months to produce the two-and-a-half hour event. The 2022 Anti-Prom’s student-run fashion show featured 15 designs by 14 young designers and modeled by their peers. It’s followed by a dance party for teens from across New York City.
Now first-year students at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Nikol Rafailova and Bryanna Ohene Kari-Kari participated in the Anti-Prom Fashion Club since their first year of high school and served as co-presidents in their senior year.
This year opened our eyes to the journey of creating a fashion show and collaborating with inspiring individuals. It showed us how everyone’s self expression can come together and how when working with a group of people, your designs are yours but the success created from them also goes to the people behind the scenes and everyone involved in the processes that took place.
Anti-Prom is a club meant for individuals who feel like they aren’t able to expand their imagination beyond the classroom, so they seek a more accepting and creative environment to let their fashion juices flow, no matter their major. In my four years of being a member of Anti-Prom I have worked with themes such as Duality (2019), 90s movies (2020), Royalty (2021), and Sweet Dreams. In total, I have designed five garments, three of which got to walk the stage at the Bryant Park Library.
The process of Anti-Prom goes in this order: deciding on a theme, making a moodboard, creating illustrations, and creating flats. After that is done we go to Mood Fabrics to shop for fabrics and supplies with the money given to us by the Library. The sewing takes up most of the time, as it’s what is actually presented at the event.
Collaboration was central to the planning process. Club members worked with their advisor, Ionia Dunn Lee Cisse, a professional in the fashion industry for over 30 years, whom Rafailova and Kari-Kari described as “the most kind, caring, understanding woman in the world,” and with Caitlyn Colman-McGaw, the Manager of Young Adult Programming at the NYPL. Students also received fabrics from Proenza Schouler, a luxury womenswear and accessories brand. With these partners’ help, the Anti-Prom Club became a space for learning and growth.
Anti-Prom gave me the ability to think without restrictions and more cohesively because it’s such an inclusive club with a lot of people on different creative journeys. It’s now easier for me to think in terms of collections since I gained the experience of making sure that everyone’s garments matched the theme but also had their own individuality, which is a challenge of its own.
Over the course of the school year, we were able to connect with the club members on an individual level through their struggles, ideas, and creativity. We were able to connect with each other during the fashion show and really celebrate all of our success as a club.
On the night of the event, the fashion students also received guidance from Project Runway’s Tim Gunn, a longtime supporter of the NYPL and Anti-Prom.
Gunn spoke to all of the teen designers, one by one. He gave them all feedback. One of the teen designers was there, and I watched her eyes light up and she was just, “I’m in shock, like, oh my God, it’s Tim Gunn.” They were enthralled. That’s a very specific kind of celebration, of validation.
Early on, Colman-McGaw provided students resources to grow as artists, helping them use the library’s picture collection. Colman-McGaw has worked on Anti-Prom for about seven years, and observed how the event creates a continuity of community-building that extends beyond one evening within the walls of the Schwarzman Building.
We crown Royalty at Anti-Prom. We don’t call them King and Queen, we just call them Royalty, and we give them capes and boas. One of the Royalty from a previous year ended up becoming employed at the library. It builds a little bit of a relationship for some of those teens, which is a nice long-term effect. And then, when you post online, people from previous years comment, “I miss this, I’m so glad. When are you doing the next one?”
I think there’s something really special about the library. The Stephen A. Schwarzman building is really grand. It’s for everyone, but it often seems like it can be for adults, or for tourists. So, having a night where it is just for teens is really special, because it just shows them that space is for them. They deserve to be there just as much as anyone else. Part of it is just changing how the space is seen by young people.
On the night of the Anti-Prom, teens rushed through the library’s front doors, the Astor Hall buzzing with anticipation. Lights dimmed, the music started playing, and one by one, models dressed in the students’ fashion creations floated into the room, the fabric catching the colored lights. Once the show concluded, it was time to dance to DJ Carol C’s playlist featuring : Olivia Rodrigo, Beyoncé, Bad Bunny, Lizzo, and requested “throwbacks” like Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl.”
The Beaux-Arts structure of the Stephen A. Schwarzman building can feel intimidating or inaccessible for many, especially young people. A hot spot for tourists, it is among the most surveilled NYPL buildings. Entering the building involves bag checks and security guards, and constant reminders of all that is not allowed. In some ways, this is a continuation of what high school students experience every day: surveillance and policing of their bodies and activities in their schools, at parks, and at local businesses. Anti-Prom is a night of departure: Queer teens occupy the library, present their most expressive clothing and show their most iconic dance moves. Showcasing the library’s highest potential for fostering open, inviting spaces is central to the event’s mission.
I think the library is a space where teens can go, they can be themselves, they can find plenty of trusted adults. That’s the secondary message. It’s also a place they can go for free. So, if they just want to go charge their phone, use the bathroom, be in the air conditioning, we’re really excited to have them do that. And I think it’s setting that precedent, that the library is there for them, in a way that I don’t think many other institutions are. It’s something that we just want everyone to leave with, that sense that we’re excited that they use the library, but it’s also like we wouldn’t exist without them.
Anti-Prom offers a space where teens, according to Colman-McGaw, “can be who they are, whatever their identity is, and feel very supported in that. After two tough years, it’s even better to have an outlet and a night to come together, and just not be thinking about some of that and take a break from it.”
In the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, the NYPL’s administration responded to Orlando by recommending the installation of metal detectors at Anti-Prom.
I was like, “I don’t think we should do that.” Because these teens are already policed. That’s not going to make anyone feel safer. It’s going to make them feel like it’s school. We did not have metal detectors even though the leadership recommended it. The cops were outside on the street and thankfully not in the dance party itself.
The NYPD sends their Anti-Terrorism Unit sometimes, which we can’t help. So, there’s the cops with machine guns outside, and it’s like, well, that’s not going to make teens feel safe. So, we went and gave them all glowsticks, but we also hired a social worker to have on hand for that specific event.
Following the Pulse shooting, Anti-Prom created opportunities to express solidarity with young people in Orlando.
We created a section where teens could write Post-Its to Orlando teens. And so, then we sent them to the Orlando Public Library, and they were like messages of support and hope. That was really tough, because it was a moment where this really horrific thing happened in our community. And how do we acknowledge it while still making space for that to be a night of fun?
The Anti-Prom offered a similar activity in 2022.
We did a wall of boards in a hallway leading to the coat check, and teens could write messages to their future self. What would you tell your past self? What’s something that brings you joy? How do you de-stress? I’m just realizing now that they were very funny, like teens being teens. The responses to “What would you tell your past self?” were like, “Break up with him.” “He’s not worth it.”
Creating a space of collaboration, belonging, and safety is important for the NYPL staff and teens.
I think this is a place where listening to the teens themselves is really helpful. At the very basics, making sure we don’t gender anything. Don’t make any assumptions. We have a lot of pronoun buttons. Many of the staff are very visibly queer as well, which I think helps, because they can see adults wearing different flags and buttons. There’s rainbows and stuff like that, trans flags.
More than anything, it’s just being a judgment-free space, which seems very straightforward. We normally have gendered bathrooms at the library, but we make them just bathrooms, and it’s really just nice to see everyone complimenting each other in the bathroom. We give away a lot of books, and so making sure almost all the books are LGBTQ-centric. I think it’s just subtle stuff. I don’t even know if they notice, which is probably the best thing.
Within NYPL’s administration, there was some initial hesitance to view teen participants as full partners in the event, but Colman believed in the importance of having teens in decision-making positions.
I think that there’s always a little bit of nervousness on the part of the institution. Like, oh, it’s a big teen event, they’re going to act up.
This event has gone a long way towards changing their perception of teens, because the staff — not only the young adult staff, but all of the other library staff — get to see teens in this sort of wholesome way.
The library has had a youth services team for like a hundred years. You look back at some of the documents from the sixties, and it’s so funny because the complaints that adults are making about teens, it’s exactly the same. Like they’re noisy, they’re hippies, and it’s like, that’s never going to change. But institutionally speaking, this event really syncs with our vision for teen support and the way that we want teens to see themselves at the library.
This was one of the first years we brought some of our teen volunteers into the planning process, so that they were making decisions, creating activities, and then, the night of, they were almost like audience plants. They were roaming and taking photos and encouraging teens to go do activities, which was a nice connection.
Anti-Prom also provides opportunities for reflection away from the dance floor. Students could look through anxiety workbooks and a selection of LGBTQ-focused books that were available to take home.
This year, social practice artist Christine Wong Yap was embedded as artist in residence at Anti-Prom as part of Wellcome’s Mindscapes program. She led a paper doll-making workshop during the event and will compile the designs in a forthcoming zine. Wong Yap’s artistic work uses participatory research methods to guide people in activities that help them express and increase their sense of belonging and well-being. Paper dolls were “a way to tie in existing teens’ fashion designs, but in a new way that other teens can interact with.”
Participants were given cutouts of the Anti-Prom fashion designers’ clothing to color, cut, and reshape to their liking. Christine made sure to design the clothing and body shapes to depart from an antiquated beauty standard.
I was thinking about the process of design and doing an illustration before you sew a garment. Somehow, it naturally made me think of paper dolls as illustrations. And then realizing that paper dolls are kind of this Victorian thing; it’s highly gendered, it’s usually skinny white women who are depicted, who have the model-type bodies so that the outfits can be interchangeable. I realized paper dolls are ripe for rethinking, for teens who just have more consciousness around different body sizes, and shapes, and gender, and sexual identities.
Christine also was really interested in fashion bodies, and what different bodies say. And so, making sure that the dolls were a range of bodies, because obviously the teens are also a range. I think that the ability to see themselves reflected in what is traditionally a white, skinny format, I think they might not have even noticed how special it was.
Anti-Prom remains a rare inclusive event for teens that creates openings for them to refashion a prominent institution in their image. It showcases what Colman, her team, Wong Yap, and the Anti-Prom Fashion Club know about the power of youth: they are active participants in city life by virtue of being in it, and when their creative agency is valued, they bring fresh, crucial perspectives. Prominent figures and media outlets have noticed, too: Teen Vogue, which reported on the event in the past, also covered this year’s event and staged a photoshoot with the young designers and their models.
Colman-McGaw and her team have worked to ensure that this type of celebration is more accessible to everyone who wishes to attend throughout New York City. In 2020 and 2021, digital iterations of Anti-Prom reached participants while the Manhattan event was dormant. The NYPL organizes similar events in the Bronx and Staten Island, which also center youth organizers and participants as core to the success of these ventures. And beyond NYPL, other institutions are creating spaces for teens to express what they want and need from them.
This year we had the Bronx Anti-Prom at the Belmont Library, in Little Italy. When you walk into the branch, there’s a big, open atrium that we turned into the dance floor. It is a smaller-scale event, but because it’s in a branch, there’s a lot more activity spaces. The Manhattan event is focused on the dance party, activities, fashion show, and the Bronx Prom is a little bit more about doing some cool activities, dancing if you want to, hanging out with your friends upstairs and playing video games.
What makes Anti-Prom special is that it’s an inclusive space for LGBTQ teens, but what makes it really special is that it’s free, because proms are so expensive. And you can hang out with friends from other schools. It has a little bit more flexibility, in addition to being really explicitly supporting queer teens.
I have seen a lot of other libraries start their own Anti-Proms. There was the People’s Ball at Brooklyn. They did a whole ballroom event, not just for teens, and that was the first time I had seen a big dance party run by the Brooklyn Public Library. I’m glad other institutions are doing similar things.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.
In the face of exclusion and displacement, how do communities mobilize urban space for mental health and collective wellbeing?