NEIGHBORHOOD AIR: Rethinking community engagement during a world crisis

This is an image of the author with a bubble wrap fanny pack, gloves, handkerchief mask wrapped loosely around my neck. I am holding a handmade cardboard clipboard with one hand and our postcard saying “HI, AN ARTISTIC CRISIS RESPONSE TEAM HAS BEEN ACTIVA
June 29, 2020

Six months into my graduate program - and my new life - in Providence, I found myself, like much of the rest of the world, disoriented, helpless, and trapped in my house. How am I supposed to engage with public humanities in a time of social distancing? Most of the opportunities for safely connecting in creative and empowering ways are now digital and elected officials were suggesting courses of action that are confusing at best.

Facing these new and unexpected conditions, I was longing for more connections in my immediate surroundings. How could I use the limitations of this time to deepen connection and engage with my work in a meaningful way?

Andy's blog post_image1_0.png
A map with dots and straight lines connecting
houses to one another. Daydreaming about
possibilities. Made by Amy Walsh.

Currently, I live with a family of three on Federal Hill. One of my housemates, Amy, is an artist, a small business owner, and a mother. We have had many late-night talks around our kitchen table, as we discussed procedures for leaving the house, going grocery shopping, and maintaining sanity. We looked out our windows to our backyard and wonder about our families and our neighbors. Cars drive by, cutting through our block, bringing with them a wind of trash. The aliveness of my house and the family I live with is in stark contrast to is beyond: the fast cars, trash wind, and brightly colored but quiet houses. We haven't gotten to know these neighbors, nor have we known how they were faring during this crisis.

So how does one make friends with one’s neighbors from 6 feet apart? Things like saying hello needed a clear, CDC compliant, and ridiculous tactical plan. From this challenging set of circumstances, a new art initiative was born.

First, of course, we made silver bubble wrap fanny packs.

Then we screen printed postcards, printed maps of our neighborhood for tracking and research archiving, and hand-delivered invitations to join our newly hatching plans: The Neighborhood Artist-in-Residence program (Neighborhood AIR).

Amy already had been marinating on using our neighborhood and its residents as inspiration, muse, collaborators, and audience for creative and cultural activities. Within such a model, artists could become central to their immediate communities, as activators of hyper-local culture - especially in times of challenge or change.      

Andy's blog post_image2.png
A designed map of our neighborhood AIR sites. Julian has surveyed the area and mapped out the colors of all the houses.

Amy hadn’t known when or how to start the program until one of our late night talks, when suddenly the changing conditions of our lives and neighborhood made it blazingly clear that it was time to ignite this plan. Engaging the interest and collaboration of our neighbors, including those we had never met, became our number one challenge.

One of our first collaborators, and a cherished part of our collaborative team, Julian is a ten-year-old boy who now is being homeschooled. Julian already had taken it upon himself to begin a “Neighborhood Newspaper” for everyone, but created almost entirely by kids. His newspaper could be a great way to connect with kids, families, and adults about our work, and Julian generously designated a spot for our program to make announcements. Despite our zealous enthusiasm to connect, we wanted to move at a slow and steady pace, crafted by the nuances of our environment and the need to be inclusive.

Neighbors met our “hello!” with enthusiasm and a willingness to participate, signing on to communicate regularly through our website. They brought with them ideas to further connect with each other, including stoop dinners, contributing to Julian’s newspaper, and communicating with one another through a slack channel.

Navigating language barriers and technology access were among our greatest challenges, but also provided opportunities for ingenuity. We looked to our neighbors and community to help tackle these unique circumstances. Can such challenges provoke innovation?

We want to help unite neighborhoods through art, imagination, comfort, and mutual aid. Neighborhood AIR invites a very local public (the three quiet blocks surrounding my apartment) to reimagine the present and future of our neighborhood as one shaped and influenced by collective creative action. Amy says that we are creating tiny acts of culture. Through performance, experimental research, mapping, unique community rituals, and stealth gifting, we invite our neighbors to grow a sense of belonging and connection during a time of social distancing.

I want to rethink the artist’s role in society. Strengthening local connections helps to counteract and reframe the story that everything needed for our survival exists outside of ourselves and our people, something to be consumed. We challenge this idea, and all such ideas of globalization and colonialism, by strengthening our ties to one another and by asking artists of all kinds to contribute to their immediate surroundings.

Andy's blog post_image3.pngAs an early action, we created mini paper installations for residents to discover. This image shows a small poster with tear off tabs. In the center of the poster is a cut-out image of a door. We often find ourselves using visual language to evoke a sense of absurdity and discovery. What happens in the places between certainty? In times of disruption, this felt like an easy artistic choice, one that could provide a comfortable way to laugh at confusion. Absurdity is a place where new rules can be crafted, using personal discovery and imagination to fill in the blanks.

What is the artist’s role in society? Is community organizing part of public humanities? Whenever someone asks these questions I get annoyed and impatient because I want to flash forward to the future, when a new POTUS announces a Secretary of Art for Making Futures Bright. With a large budget, staff, and the infrastructure needed to help grow ground-up movements, the Secretary of Art will help us forge bright future. In this future, during crisis times like the COVID pandemic, society calls upon artists not only to soothe our grieving bodies but to develop new systems, mending those torn apart, because art gives us innovative ways of seeing, engaging, and thinking.

As we fold our neighbors into acts of culture that we, as individual artists, have cooked up, we continue to think of exciting ideas to get people involved and inspired.  We found an abandoned stump at the end of our block with interesting natural ecosystems growing on it. This stump and its bounty of ecology inspired us to create and launch the “National Neighborhood Miniature Park System.” We are claiming this beautiful trash stump as a national park, plotting a public (virtual) ribbon-cutting and naming ceremony. As this miniature park network opens up, we will ask people to reconsider such small, overlooked spaces, to imagine big possibilities there, and to perhaps claim them as national treasures.

Andy's blog post_image4.png
Our Neighborhood Miniature Park System Logo.

Looking small during a time of world crisis and seeing what can be fostered from what has been forgotten, has been a profound act. Public humanities asks practitioners to engage respectfully with outside communities, but do we know how to do that within our own neighborhoods? Finding vast landscapes in forgotten trash stumps, as well as saying hello and gathering resources among neighbors all have been artistically fruitful and more: these acts have changed my views on community engagement. I ask you to join the micro-movement, to say hi - and look closely. Add a tiny act of culture to your environment and tell us what happens. How would you connect to your neighborhood in this time?

Andy's blog post_image5.png
Image of Amy and the author taking a moment as puppet cut-outs on the new National Miniature Park - Squirrel Tale Park.

If you are interested in doing an art project that connects with your neighbors/surroundings, please connect with us. We will have online workshops to support artists wherever you are!

Neighbor AIR was recently funded by Browns Arts Initiative Community Artist Development Grant FUND. We plan to use this money to pay for art supplies and Spanish speaking translator to help deepen our communications.

Andy Goodman was an artist, dancer, and community activist for young queer folx in Seattle, WA. before coming to Providence, and is currently a second-year Public Humanities MA student. They invested their artistic practice in creating a sense of belonging in arts programming for young people by serving as a Director of Youth Programming at an arts non-profit, Gage Academy of Art, for five years. In their personal life, they hosted hallway dinners for their apartment complex, lead arts facilitation workshops for friends, and participated in dance and video collaborations in non-traditional art spaces.