Catalyzing Vacant Space Through Art and Public Engagement
by NICOLAS SAVVIDES
As a youth, upbringing in New York City consists heavily of looking for a place to just chill. Somewhere that would be safe—but not limiting. Unlike our neighbors in the suburbs, none of the local kids had access to basements or garages for people to gather. And in places like Astoria, Queens, where sidewalk garages are relatively common, the 20 minute commute to Midtown Manhattan made renting the spaces as an extra room or highly valued parking space a more lucrative alternative than allowing groups of young people to congregate.  By the mid 2000s, for instance, and average studio apartment in Astoria rented for approximately $750/month.
Thus, by the ripe age of 13, I had already begun a quest for a safe space to gather with people my age—to share ideas and be listened to. In drones of 10 or more we constantly took to parks until sunset, shared stories and jokes on sidewalks after dark, walked miles, and habitually looked for uncommon, undiscovered crevasses in the neighborhood to turn into our own.
It was around this time where I began to notice a steady, yet not so-slow pattern in the neighborhood: for sale signs on houses and for rent signs on businesses. Staple mom and pop shops were closing down and transforming into banks, cafes, and big-chain stores. We were witnessing gentrification unfold before our eyes up to five years before we became aware of the term. In ten years, rents in the area tripled.  Beyond the concerns these changes were raising in my community, the constant flux got me thinking critically about what I might do with a space if I had the means. It was in this formative time that lead me to a life committed to designing for people—studying and working to transform urban space.
And in places like Astoria, Queens, where sidewalk garages are relatively common, the 20 minute commute to Midtown Manhattan made renting the spaces as an extra room or highly valued parking space a more lucrative alternative than allowing groups of young people to congregate.
Millennials raised in New York City now live and work in a city completely different from the one they lived in, even in the years before they went to college. Though we are getting paid, we are farther than ever from the clear-cut ability to create spaces for ourselves to share, create, and congregate. In recent years, speculation has caused whatever scraps of vacant, and previously undesirable land across the five boroughs to turn into hot commodities, readily available to developers but for the first time, closed off to the common resident. Vacant lots, once practically given away by municipality, which in the 70’s was crucial in the development of hip-hop culture  , are being sold for millions of dollars—leaving local culture with limited access to space for incubation and strengthening. And it was this creative congregation that drove so many people to New York City, and to adopt its styles, in the first place!
Today, creative, urban youth culture across the United States is tackling these issues of lack of public space representation. As described by the Project For Public Spaces, activating public space, or place-making, creates the opportunity for people to socialize and build stronger communities. 
As I thought about issues of urban change, it seemed like fate that in the Fall of 2014 Ms. Catherine Green, Executive Director of Arts East New York, introduced me to ReNew Lot—her two-year-long, personal mission to create a space dedicated to cultivating local culture and a safe space for artistic expression. Located in East New York, Brooklyn (approximately 8 miles from where I was raised), ReNew Lots is a public market space and incubator model for first time businesses and artists living in or already invested in the East New York Community. What makes the ReNew Lots model most revolutionary is that it transforms empty lots in the neighborhood, for which the New Lots region in East New York gets its name: creating in the process productive hubs for business, art, and cultural activity. Acres of land, abandoned for over 30 years, attributing much of the plight in the community, have only recently begun to be looked at as potential spaces for development. Municipal funding for such a project comes coincidentally at a time where City Administration set their eyes on previously overlooked, and underserved, neighborhoods such as East New York as a solution to the city’s biggest housing crisis since the Great Depression. Developers have used labels such as New Frontier in regards to the development potential of East New York. For example, such terms were used abundantly in the 70s and 80s in regards to the Lower East Side area of Manhattan. Before it became a world center for art and happy hours, it was home to a low income community—shunned by the media as a center for drug dealing and crime. Privy to patterns of gentrification across the city, Ms. Green is committed to building a first line of cultural defense through the ReNew Lots Artist and Market Incubator.
In the Spring and Summer of 2015, I was lucky enough to participate in the launch and execution of the ReNew Lots Pilot. ReNew Lots effectively proved a hypothesis I had developed over time: when people are given the creative space to express themselves, they will take advantage of it, and in the process of expressing themselves they will learn skills that will empower them to take a larger role in their community’s development. Entrepreneurial leaders in the community such as Berchell Egerton, founder of fashion line Made in Afrooklyn, Stepanie Burrell and Angela Hill of the screen printing studio, Thee Art Cave, Fine Artist and activist Sophia Dawson, muralist and urban farmer, Alexis Mena, and James Malone, co-founder of Tunnel Vision Gallery, lead the transformation of 20,000 square feet of land into a new cultural heart of the region.  Events large and small such as the 2nd annual Sanaa Music Festival, boasted close to 2,000 attendees.  Weekly skill shares and open studios brought in dozens on weekdays. Word Up Cafe, the resident internet cafe, proudly serving the only iced-coffee in the region not from a national chain, attracted an incredible amount of people every week for open-mics and talent shows. Given the space, local culture was strengthened and a local economy was born. I personally had the opportunity to organize programming that directly exposed high school students as well as adults in the region to the magic of ReNew Lots and its significance in a neighborhood at risk of displacement.
Utlimately, the ReNew Lots family lead by example, proving what individuals could do on a local level to strengthen culture and take ownership of physical space. In the summer of 2015, an intersection notoriously known for crime, car accidents, and abandoned space was transformed into a place for creation, business, and pedestrian activity. With the close of ReNew Lots’ opening season, Ms. Green and her team will work to create this again next spring, likely to pump life into more of the empty lots in the region. Is it possible without millions of dollars in city funds? Either way, inaction risks losing the city to disrepair and corporate control. And what will happen if the only culture we have access to is a popular culture within a market-economy? What will poor and energetic people turn to if there is nothing of their own inspiring them take responsibility for themselves?
ReNew Lots effectively proved a hypothesis I had developed over time: when people are given the creative space to express themselves, they will take advantage of it, and in the process of expressing themselves they will learn skills that will empower them to take a larger role in their community’s development.
Now, more than ever, even the smallest transformations in attitude towards a city’s vacant spaces can transform sentiment and build culture in the strongest ways. Painting a Mural in a dark alley, building a soapbox stage and throwing a party could easily affect individuals in transformative ways. Urban communities must continue these patterns of taking ownership for space if there is to be a culture to be developed or maintained. As designers we can continue to find creative ways to spark culture and strengthen roots in the places we know best. Displacement does not have to happen if we train ourselves to own land and compete against outside development.
Photographs by Nicolas Savvides (unless otherwise stated).
 (2013). Housing prices and rents rise in Astoria and Long Island City. Retrieved October 4, 2015, from http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/real-estate/housing-prices-rents-rise-astoria-long-island-city-article-1.1246080.
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 (2014). Housing plan - NYC.gov. Retrieved October 4, 2015, from http://www.nyc.gov/html/housing/assets/downloads/pdf/housing_plan.pdf.
 Smith, N. (1986). Gentrification, the frontier, and the restructuring of urban space. Gentrification of the City, 15, 17.
 (2015). 2nd Annual Sanaa Fest Tickets, Brooklyn | Eventbrite. Retrieved October 4, 2015, from http://www.eventbrite.com/e/2nd-annual-sanaa-fest-tickets-17911513820.
Nicolas Savvides can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.