Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Democracy Wall in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn 10 Year Anniversary!

     I am very proud to be part of the following 'his/herstorythe Ten Year Anniversary of the Democracy Wall in Carroll Gardens' 
Triada Samaras, Artist/Activist 2017

  Suffice it to say, for the sake of brevity:   
If you have an urge to fight the powers that be in your own circumstances or situation, JUST DO IT!  Even if you do not get the precise result you hoped for, you WILL get results! And you will never ever regret finding your own voice and your own courage in your own community!
CORD Co-Founders, Rita Miller, Lucy DeCarlo, Triada Samaras 2017

     The "Democracy Wall"  is a story about a long-term, community and art activist project that happened in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. This tale is for the many artists and community activists who are out there in NYC (and elsewhere) right now fighting major battles in their communities. I want to tell you this:  Stay the course!
 Above:  First mural, Democracy Wall, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn NY by Triada Samaras 2007

     I am an artist and I have lived in Brooklyn all my adult life.  One day in May, 2007, in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, where I live, I was launched into artist activism quite spontaneously. So were my neighbors.  Like them, I had no idea what to do when a serious land-use and zoning issue arose in our community.   We were angry but felt powerless.  After several meetings on each other's stoops, three of us: Lucy DeCarlo, Rita Miller, and myself decided to co-found an all-volunteer community coalition:
CG CORD/Carroll Gardens Coalition for Respectful Development with ART as one of its primary communication vehicles.  
     In other words, we decided to fight the powers that be in NY. We did not have previous experience; our guide was passion for our cause.  We placed the Margaret Mead quote:  "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." on our new CORD blog that I created (with no prior blogging experience) and plunged in.  Over the next many, many months we engaged in wide range of activist and art activist activities.  
      I will summarize a few of these activities below for the reader to get an idea of the type of activities involved in community and art activism.  While the entire story is too long for one page or even ten,  the story is documented in its chronological entirety starting here (scroll to the bottom of the page to begin).  I wish, here, to simply add to the ever-growing body of information now available to other would-be artist/activists who might need to know how to begin to engage with a civic or public issue.  I certainly would never presume nor pretend to be exhausting all the artist/activist actions and possibilities.  In fact, brainstorming is the creative and 'fun' part of art activism and should not be missed! Each issue is naturally different and thus each will require different approaches and methods.
     Here are some of the art and art activist activities we engaged in to make our case, to inform the public, and to communicate with the 'powers that be':
First, we created a petition calling for a moratorium of all construction over 50'.  Honestly I must re-congratulate, for the ten thousandth time, my 'colleague' (CORD Co-Founder) Rita Miller on this absolutely winning idea. It was perfect!  And we made protest signs that we gave to people to place in their front gardens (see photograph below). Many people placed these signs in their front gardens and Carroll Gardens became a sea of hard-to-miss, yellow signs.
     Simultaneously we launched what later became know as the "Democracy Wall." I placed the very first protest mural at the Carroll Gardens outdoor subway platform on 2nd Place and Smith Streets. (See image below)  Later in its evolution, the Democracy Wall became a Brooklyn News 12 item on television (See video below image or at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjFx-OlXT10

     In other words, the original art mural wall I placed at the Carroll Gardens MTA station grew and grew quickly, with additions by new artists, local residents, and even children.  (See images above)It took on a life of its own and was featured a great deal in the media, rewarding us with lots of attention and naturally, free publicity.  This art/mural/protest wall was coined the "Democracy Wall" by then blogger Bob Guskind founder of the *Original "Gowanus Lounge" blog.  
     See some of our early press:
From www.bobguskind.com
1) 5-25-2007
Smith Street Could Get Very Very Shiny
2) Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Smith Street Revolt Brewing Over Shiny New Building?
3) Thursday, May 31, 2007
More Heavy Metal Backlash in Carroll Gardens
4) June 1, 2007
Carroll Gardeners Continue to Oppose Smith Street Building
5) Saturday, June 02, 2007
Not a Good Week to be a Controversial Brooklyn Architect: Scarano
Rally Planned
6) June 3, 2007
Anti-Building Signage Torn Down on Smith Street
7) June 5, 2007
Battle of 360 Smith Street: Fight for Your Right to Plaza
8) June 6, 2007
Major New Developments in the Battle of 360 Smith Street
9) Thursday, June 07, 2007
Robert Scarano is Having a Bad June
10) June 8, 2007
GL's Guide to Elected Officials & Community Board 6
11) June 11, 2007
Battle of 360 Smith Street: Strategy Session Tonight
12) June 12, 2007
New Shots Fired in Battle of 360 Smith Street
13) June 13, 2007
The Big Carroll Gardens Issues: Rezoning & Landmarking
14) June 15, 2007
More Curious Street-Level Developments in Battle of 360 Smith
Street: Mystery Paint Job
15) June 15, 2007
A Little Brooklyn Tour de Scarano
Scaranos copy 6-15-2007
16) Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Battle of 360 Smith Street: Councilman Circulates Scarano Email
Second Place Plaza
17) June 20, 2007
Carroll Gardeners Busy With Robert Scarano Wikipedia Page?
18) June 21, 2007
Carroll Gardners Post Online Petition, Report Illegal Work
From Curbed www.curbed.com
1) Thursday, May 24, 2007
Heavy Metal Coming to Smith Street?
2) 5-30-2007
Scarano Pushback on Smith
3) Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Carroll Gardens 'Monstrosity' Seem to Have Fan Club
4) June 1, 2007
Carroll Gardeners Now Tossing Bricks at Big Smith Street Building
5) Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Will Carroll Gardens Fight 'South Beach' Look?

     Guskind also encouraged me to continue my art activist activities using my poetry and thus I began to create my "over-development in Brooklyn poems" under the pen name: "Graciela Radici" on his blog.  "Graciela Radici" means, roughly, "Grassroots". 
Floppy Hose Wraps
Floppy hose wraps
Spins ‘round the living tree, sick and
more since hosting a noose
for the neighborhood,
Feeds the barren development site,
In long sleeping lines the re-bars await
On the shadows of a bottomless pit
Back hoes sleep,
A raindrop
Onto their apathetic
Coming down from the hill,
from the suburbs, comes the developer
comes, his pocket empty
to the field of dollar signs,
Empty poles on a highway
attach a back hoe to his sleep.
c. Graziella Radici
       Guskind encouraged many artists, like myself, to use ART to speak out about local issues and to activate public awareness and action.  While he is, unfortunately, no longer with us, I will always be so thankful to Bob Guskind for his caring and his vision. (*Today his blog name still exists but the blog is under under a whole new management with a whole new mission unrelated to Guskind’s. See this LINK at the NY Times.)
   Thus, CG CORD, an all volunteer coalition with no "operating budget" (only a personal, "shoestring" one) made quite an impression on our community, where we continued to gather support, on our elected officials, who could not help but notice us, and on an ever expanding number of NYC agencies and departments where we our presence became known (or shall we say 'obvious').  This gave us courage. We CORD members and co-founders collected signatures for our moratorium petition.  We called for a town hall meeting.   We contacted NYC Department of City Planning and other city agencies.  We hand-delivered thousands of petitions and letters to our elected officials and many others.  Devoted CORD member, Maryann Young and her activist dog, Ringo, walked hours in rain and shine collecting signatures and explaining the issues to the community. We were featured even more in the local and NYC media. CORD Co-Founder Lucy DeCarlo staked out a tree in front of her house and it became a second, much-needed "community message/information board" (and is still there today serving this same, vital purpose).
     And Guskind introduced us to other Brooklyn activists, and to other activist bloggers.  All over Brooklyn, residents were protesting zoning and development but with little or no cohesion and the powers that be in NYC seemed to prefer it that way. But blogging was one easy and free way to unite us and to mutually inform us. Also, CORD met new bloggers and new activists in person at other Brooklyn sites such as the infamous "Atlantic Yards" site in Downtown Brooklyn, and the many sections of the re-zoned Williamsburg.  We realized the new zoning laws had thrown much of Brooklyn into turmoil, and that we were not alone. It was obvious to us all that we could have strength in numbers and by collaborating with others.
     Some of these people included the passionate and brilliant PMFA/Pardon Me for Asking Blog founder and author, Katia Kelly http://pardonmeforasking.blogspot.com and the prolific and exacting Atlantic Yards Report blog founder and writer, Norman Oder http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com.  Both of these outstanding community activists/watchdogs have since received many accolades for their tireless blogs covering contentious community and political issues.  Another was, Phil DePaolo, an art activist legend in Williamsburg who has recently finsihed contributing to a new book on NYC Zoning called "Zoned Out!" "Race, Replacement, and City Planning in New York City, a veritable NYC zoning 'bible' for artist/activists today.  It goes without saying that we will always be grateful to those who supported us and who covered our story.  And there are so many here I have not even mentioned.
     So where did the Democracy Wall eventually end a couple of years later?
Well, the actual Democracy Wall was torn down on a bitter day for Carroll Gardens indeed. And, unfortunately a building did go up in its place.  Our final arguments were made at the 'lethal' Board of Standards and Appeals (the BSA) a board that is appointed by mayoral control alone. Obviously, the BSA is not a very democratic place.  In fact, then Councilman Tony Avella wrote a devastating piece on the BSA and called for it's abolishment in very strong language. See this LINK      However:
  1. We won a text amendment and a contextual rezoning. 
  2. We beat back a subsequent developer plan to take a coveted Place Block courtyard nearby.
  3. We got a street re-named for one of our original and brilliant activists: Frank Verderame.
  4. We were instrumental in getting the highly contaminated Gowanus Canal Superfund designated.
  5. We made some enemies, but many more friends and we even got an award or two along the way.
  6. And many of us are still fighting the good fight after ten years!
As one of us CORD Co-Founders likes to say:
"Not too bad for three women huddled in secret CORD meetings at a local Dunkin Donuts not knowing who they could trust other than each other."
And it gave me hope personally, believe it or not.  As an artist, I found myself rather temperamentally suited to this type of work after all.  So I went on to create three separate multi-media installations of the Democracy Wall for three separate exhibitions: 

  • Brooklyn Historical Society:  Brooklyn Utopias? Exhibition
  • Kean University:  Nancy Dryfoos Gallery Solo Show
  • Millbank Chapel: Columbia Univeristy GiSCA Palooza  Global Initiative for Social Change Through Art Exhibition
  • And I later entered and graduated from (2012) a fabulous, Interdisciplinary MFA Program where I found many like-minded artists. So, naturally, I continued to create more art activist projects (community and/or socially engaged projects) as well as other creative projects in my art studio such as this one and this one and this one.
    And, then voila, I got a part-time blogging gig (paid this time!) co-authoring another 'art activist' blog (in this case an art educational one).  Art education is another cause I truly believe in fighting for.
    And I/we am still here plugging away in our community, fighting the good fight, and hoping by now to have inspired a few of you!  
    So, young people, especially, please take note!
    Doing nothing and/or staying silent about any contentious issue around you will pretty much assure that the final outcome will be undesirable or even worse. It gives the powers that be even greater power in their power. And, this is never a good thing in any democracy. Thus the choice to act or not, to speak up or not, is really not very complicated.  Speak up; Speak out; Let your voices be heard! 

    Last words of advice to you from me/us:  
    Please document your art activist work and pass it forward! We can all benefit by this shared information.  I will be very happy to feature your project as a blog post if you wish. 
    Regards, Triada Samaras  
    3-25-2017 (Greek Independence Day!)

    PS If you have comments or questions please contact me at cg@gmail.com (In the subject please write: For Triada Samaras). 

    PPS See this project at the Actipedia