Eco City Pageant will celebrate wide array of local green efforts

BY SARAH FERGUSON | For artist Felicia Young, the process of making art is as important as the outcome.

Twenty-seven years ago, she envisioned a pageant to help save the Lower East Side’s community gardens. The annual “Rites of Spring Procession to Save Our Gardens,” which wended its way around the neighborhood from 1991 to 2005, helped tell the story of these communally-tilled spaces, at a time when the city, under Mayor Giuliani, was seeking to auction garden lots for private development.

By bringing together the area’s disparate gardeners and greening activists, that pageant helped spark the creation of the Lower East Side Community Garden Preservation Coalition, which in turn became a catalyst for the citywide New York City Garden Coalition — a grassroots trajectory that succeeded in preserving more than 400 garden sites.

Now Young is hard at work on another community pageant, this one built around the theme of the “Ecological City.”

Artist Michele Brody, above, is incorporating live grasses and plants into her designs for the giant puppets and “ceremonial totems” to be carried during the Ecological City Pageant.  Photo by Felicia Young

The six-hour event, which takes place Sat., May 12, will showcase the various climate resiliency projects that have sprung up in the East Village and Lower East Side in the wake of Hurricane Sandy — everything from bioswales that are being installed in community gardens to absorb storm runoff, to the solar grid that’s being erected at Village East Towers on Avenue C, and the “living berm” / “Big U” seawall that will line the East River to fend off rising tides.

“I don’t think there’s any other neighborhood — certainly not in New York City — where you could find all these different sites where climate solutions are happening,” Young said.

“It’s easy to feel helpless with the Trump administration and their willful political assault on the environment,” she pointed out. “But communities are envisioning pathways to an ecologically sustainable future. It’s happening right here on the Lower East Side; so, this pageant is a way to connect the dots between the solutions that exist now and what’s being proposed.

“The idea is we’re not just creating an art project. It’s also a form of organizing and mobilizing through the arts,” explained Young.

Her past projects include the Hudson River Pageant — held annually from 2009 to 2012 — to honor water restoration efforts on the West Side, and another one she staged in 2015 in Madurai, India, to address the pollution crisis in the sacred Vaigai River.

Young first pitched the concept of the Ecological City Pageant to the LES community during the LUNGS Harvest Festival last September. Since then more than 50 local organizations have come on board.

“The planning meeting we had in February was packed,” she said. “It’s bringing together the old crew of all the people I knew from the gardens and that struggle. It’s really nice to see everyone committed again and moving together.”

A sketch of a “Climate Consequences” character designed by artist Michele Brody. Volunteers will be helping Brody construct this character and other puppets and costumes for the Ecological City pageant, from now until May 9.  Photo by Felicia Young

The shape of the event is all still very much in process, and Young said she welcomes input. She and her nonprofit group, Earth Celebrations, are holding a series of free workshops where adults and teens can collaborate with artists Lucrecia Novoa and Michele Brody to craft the giant puppets, costumes and props for the pageant. Workshops are happening Wednesdays, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., and Saturdays, from noon to 4 p.m., at the Loisaida Inc. Center, at 710 E. Ninth St., between Avenues C and D.

The plan is to parade to 15 sites in the East Village / LES, including a “mythic battle between climate consequences versus climate solutions” to be staged at La Plaza Cultural, on E. Ninth St. (Young is still searching for a spoken-word poet to help out with the script.) There will also be an elaborate closing ceremony on the East River, where a giant Gaia sculpture created from bio-remediating mud balls will be “sacrificed” to the water gods, accompanied by Butoh dance and a choir performance by Theater for the New City. 

The Lower Eastside Girls Club is creating solar-energy bike floats.

Dancer Jody Sperling — who has performed on ice floes in Antarctica — is choreographing a piece about water quality with local youth to honor the gray-water system that is going in at the LES Ecology Center.

Earth Celebrations’ “Procession to Save Our Gardens” was held annually from 1991 to 2005 on the Lower East Side. The eight-hour procession visited 47 gardens with performances and ceremonies telling the history and struggle to save the community gardens from slated development plans. Photo by Vince Eng

 

Local children are crafting butterfly and bee costumes to celebrate the Sixth St. Community Center’s new bee farm and the Earth School’s rooftop veggie garden.

And theater director Drew Vanderburg is working with public housing residents to create a short play about rising floodwaters to be staged beneath the Williamsburg Bridge.

“It’s all about engaging people who wouldn’t ordinarily be involved, or who wouldn’t consider themselves as activists,” Young explained, “and yet they do find an entry point for engaging on this issue — whether it’s kids and parents creating art projects to illustrate the impacts of climate change or groups like GOLES and LES Ready!, who are trying to work with NYCHA tenants living along the East River on disaster preparedness.

“It’s pretty hard to get people excited about disaster preparedness,” she noted. “Most people don’t even want to think about it. But you can engage them through performance, and with something that’s fun, and which you can take part in at all different levels.”

Young concedes she’ll need an army to pull off this event. She’s hoping to recruit hundreds of volunteers to help with everything from sewing sprite costumes to marshaling the parade, distributing postcards, and videotaping and promoting the event on social media.

Ultimately, Young hopes the Ecological City Pageant will illustrate the cumulative value of local actions to strengthen our environment — both to reinforce those efforts and to put pressure on City Hall and Albany to do more.

“Both Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo have pledged to meet the carbon-reduction goals outlined in the Paris Climate Accord, even though [President] Trump pulled out of it,” Young noted.

“So they’re financing all these sustainability projects — even though the mayor is doing things like working to destroy the Elizabeth St. Garden [in Nolita].

“It doesn’t make sense,” she said. “So this is about looking at the larger impact of what it means for the city and state to meet our climate goals, so we can can have this model to look at and reaffirm it.”

For information or to register for the free puppet and costume workshops, visit www.earthcelebrations.com.

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