Back in high school, I don’t remember History being everyone’s (or was that anyone’s?) favorite subject … but around the neighborhood lately, it definitely is. When a call went out to individuals and organizations in the East Village, Little Italy, Chinatown, and surrounds, to participate in the first-ever Lower East Side History Month, the response grew and grew. (Maybe being freed from “The American Pageant” textbook has that effect.) The month of May is now chockablock with a rich array of homegrown events scheduled to revel in our past — whether recent or distant — via workshops, discussions, tours, drama, painting, music, celebrations and more.
The leaders of two downtown arts organizations became the co-chairs of the LESHM Steering Committee; FABnyc executive director Tamara Greenfield and Downtown Art executive director Ryan Gilliam led planning meetings every few weeks for any participant who wanted to come. The impressive results can be seen on this calendar (use the Agenda view): a festival of many rare films about or set on The Bowery, curated by Bowery Alliance of Neighbors chair David Mulkins and presented at Anthology Film Archives; a zine-style history, beginning in the 1800’s, of “C-Squat,” which until now has only been known for its 20th-century story; twelve new plays of “East Side Stories” at the Metropolitan Playhouse; and, among many others, GVSHP’s own event, a discussion — with live music — of the famed jazz club the Five Spot and how it compares to the downtown jazz scene today.
Greenfield and Gilliam see LESHM as a way to create a more cohesive community among the area’s countless cultural groups, as well as to respond to gentrification and change. Says Gilliam: “I hope that by making the character and identity of the Lower East Side more visible, more celebrated, that we will win more support to sustaining a diverse community here. The Lower East Side has a unique history because of its diversity — and if we lose that economic, cultural, racial, and ethnic diversity, we will lose a great deal of our character. I know many people feel that it’s too late, but I still think there are ways to bring people together around what they love about this community … and I hope that LESHM helps us all articulate what we care about in our shared past and what we want for our shared future.”
Greenfield says the month includes over 80 events presented by more than 60 partners. “We’re excited to see what kind of new partnerships emerge out of this year and into future projects,” she said. “We’re really hoping that LES History Month can become a platform for ongoing collaboration and collective action to make sure the LES continues to encompass the values we are celebrating — diversity, activism, affordability, creativity.”
It’s also an endorsement of the very concept of the “Lower East Side” by two leaders whose own organizations on East 4th Street lie within an area that many would call by another name. “Not long after I started working at Fourth Arts Block (FABnyc) in 2006, I was ‘schooled’ about the proper terms to use when referring to the East Village and Lower East Side,” Greenfield recalled. “For a lot of folks from the neighborhood, the East Village was a name coined only to distinguish the upper part of the LES from the lower half, helping to sell this part of the neighborhood as more affluent or hip. For old-timers and traditionalists, the LES was and will always be from 14th Street south. I generally look at the East Village as a part of the LES, just like Chinatown or Alphabet City or Little Italy can be used to provide more specificity.”
The month opens with a weekend of everyone chalking their sidewalks — whether with personal and family memories, or history with a capital H — from Friday May 2 through Sunday May 4, as well as a picnic on Sunday the 4th from 1:30-4 pm. Here, too, the goal is recognition and inclusiveness, as the picnic will be held at a wonderful place no one knows how to get to: Pier 42 of East River Park. Just follow the chalk arrows to a public space that’s being “re-activated” so that we all can enjoy this part of the LES more this summer.