The Laundromat Project is a nonprofit that was started by Rise Wilson is 2004. The goal of The LP is to highlight the relationship between art/culture and community development. Through their program, Create Change, The LP connects artists to communities, specifically Harlem, Hunts Point, and Bed Stuy. The goal of this is to help support socially-engaged artists who can help to catalyze the innate creativity within each of these culturally vibrant communities. Along with their Create Change program The LP hosts community wide arts workshops within local laundromats or community centers in the area. One community that they have been heavily involved with is Kelly Street.
The LP hosts an internship program where they allow college students to come and be “artist assistants” for their Create Change artists. I was connected with the Kelly Street Community Garden through this internship program.
Ask anyone from the Bronx about “Banana Kelly” and I guarantee that they will have a story for you. Kelly Street has always been an essential aspect of the story of the South Bronx. Unfortunately it’s reputation has revolved around a history of drug use or gang violence. Yet, my experience on the block was anything but that. I spent my summer interning at the Kelly Street Garden, a community 1200 square foot garden in the courtyard of an apartment building on Kelly Street. The Garden is run by a group of 6 women known as the “Kelly Street Garden Committee” who devote their time to growing, making, and giving out healthy food as a path to creating a stronger, healthier community. The garden hosts summer youth programs, weekly cooking classes, and a weekly farmers market. Many residents of the block have lived there for most of their lives and there is a sense of dedication to the block which is hard in most other urban areas. Kelly Street is one of the most loving, welcoming communities that I have ever seen, especially in New York. It is people like Hopey, who have been on the block for several decades, or like Rosalba, the Kelly Street Garden Coordinator, that help to make the place so special.
Rosalba Lopez Ramirez lives on Kelly Street as the Kelly Street Garden Coordinator. She works with the Garden Committee to grow food, give out vegetables, and host community cooking classes. I spoke to Rosalba about how she got to Kelly Street, her thoughts about the block, and the role that art can play in community development.
A little about Rosalba and what she does on Kelly Street:
“I work with residents; but the essential part in growing food. We have a large community garden of about 1200 square feet. We garden in a communal manner. I have the privilege of working with a lot of different people. I work with a lot of children, with folks who live on the block. I spend a lot of my time working with 6 amazing women who have really invested themselves in the community before I was here.”
On how she sees the Kelly Street community:
“…it always sort of feels like you are walking into a large family. I think that sense of unity, and maybe part of that has to be due to sharing a lot of great memories from the block, but also part of it is from having a shared struggle from back in the days of the 60s, 70s, and 80s when everybody didn’t think the Bronx was cool, or the next forefront. Yeah, I guess it’s just sort of a shared struggle of always having to constantly stand their ground–that being from the government, from other people who have bad things to say about the community.”
The role of art on Kelly Street:
“People don’t have to leave their community. That’s so much of what we learn in our education system, that in order to do something within our community we need to leave our community, and in some cases we’re sort of straying away from what we really need. It is difficult to be in a situation where you are dealing with a lot of a challenges, whether that be violence in the street from the police or violence from us harming one another, or just seeing a lot of shit where you are like “I really want to get away from it and I can, so I am going to.” But here people are like “no, I am going to create a program to address this. I am going to address this somehow.”
Can Kelly Street be an example for other communities?
“when you recognize that people have the ability to create that’s what’s important in developing a sense of community.”
Biggest change you have experienced since living here?
Is there anything last thing you want to add about Kelly Street?
Petrushka Bazin Larsen is the former Program Director of The Laundromat Project and recently started as the Vice President of Programs and Education at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. I spoke to Petrushka about the LP, how the LP got connected with Kelly Street, and the relationship of art/youth to community development.
A little bit of background on Petrushka:
How the LP has shaped her view of art:
On art and community development:
“Whether people that are not indoctrinated into the power of art realize it or not, things happen because of arts and culture; that’s how we set tastes and trends—artists is very powerful because they do many things, express many thoughts, and organize many people. So when you introduce that into a community, neighborhood, more localized setting then you are able to address many things through the use of arts and culture.”
“So I think for the two sort of reasons of accountability and also familiarity then it because a very powerful pairing when you are working in your own neighborhood.”
How the LP got connected with Kelly Street?
Importance of youth and art?:
“Art empowers us to learn what it is what we’re thinking; it prompts us to think deep and explain what it is infront of us, how it makes us feel, what it is we’re communicating, how it might connect to others. It’s a creative act, making things and doing things, and you learn by doing those actions—you learn about yourself, your weaknesses, your strengths, what the actions can do. You learn how to work with people.”
Alison is an artist, administrator, educator, and community organizer, interested in weaving together performance, oral history, scholarship, and activism to co-create experiences that allow people to access their strength and creativity. She was a 2014 Create Change Fellow at the LP and is now working on a project called STORYBLOCK, an oral history and visual archive of Kelly Street. I spoke to Alison about how she got connected with both the LP and Kelly Street and what she has learned from her experience with each.
How Alison got connected with the LP and Kelly Street:
Preconceived notions of Kelly Street/ The Bronx?:
“I also didn’t have any of the negative connotations of Kelly Street because I had just literally never heard of it. I am not from New York, I had been here for like less than a year. So I didn’t carry any of that—it’s only through working in the community that I have heard of “kill em up Kelly” and all of these things that are a way that this community has been categorized. I really got to know it through the people which is really a beautiful way to know it. I felt very welcomed and always very safe in that regard. Not in a naïve way, I understand the challenges that exist, but yeah I think I really had beginner’s mind.”
Relationship of community to art/the garden?
“This is a very radical thing that is happening in this community. It’s not just an every day thing.” People are coming together, and it is not just coming out of no where—this community has a long history of community organizing—but like coming together around food to name what they want to happen in their community, neighbors talking to each other.” “I guess I like to focus it on creativity even more than arts. Any form of increasing creative thinking you are able to imagine beyond what you see. So, I think I have seen that with Kelly Street in that once you start imagining you kind of cant stop. You see a different future from what exists right now.”
Do you have anything else that you want to include?
“I think my big things are always just about that it has a really amazing history as a block, so getting to know that. I think it’s important to note that what is happening isn’t new, it’s just a growth of what is already there. History is never gone, it’s not even past. That’s what you see there. There is a direct connection to what’s happening now and what happened before.
If I was talking to a group I would be like “talk to someone else because I am not from Kelly Street.” I would be happy to be from Kelly Street and I have been very blessed to have been invited to be a part of that community. I feel like I am always learning and have learned so much.”
Jennifer “Hopey” Foster is a lifetime Kelly Street resident, community leader, and unofficial neighborhood social coordinator, in charge of making sure everyone feels welcome and well fed! Above is a photo of her leading one of the bi-weekly Kelly Street community cooking classes. I talked to her about the history of the garden and the importance of cooking.
“The garden has always been a place where you can come together, talk, laugh; sometimes if we had problems we used to come sit down in the garden and talk to each other and stuff like that.”
“Cooking is important because a lot of times if you tell someone you are going have food, people will come out more. Even if people come just for the snacks once you get them in the door, sometimes you can get them to talk, open up, and relate to what’s going on.”
here is a blogpost that I wrote about Hopey’s cooking class for STORYBLOCK: