The sun shone on Harlem and Morningside Heights on Friday when local students and artists angling to reclaim public space took over city parking spaces to set up lawns of green asphalt, Ferris wheels of levitating bicycles, sculpture gardens of recyclables, and miniature plots of urban farms.
This year marked the third and largest annual installment of Park(ing) Day, a Transportation Alternatives event that gives over 50 participating groups city permits to take over select parking spaces in a citywide protest against the space wasted by parked gas guzzlers.
The nonprofit West Harlem Art Fund, run by Savona Bailey-McClain, the Community Board 9 chair of economic development, had the most locations of any organization in the city. Two of its projects sat boldly in the heart of Harlem, sporting social and environmental messages amid a backdrop of speeding cars, boarded-up brownstones, and vacant storefronts.
On 136th Street and Broadway, in the center of the Hamilton Heights neighborhood, Manuel Mansilla and Richard Gonzalez—recent graduates of Columbia’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation—worked with the West Harlem Art Fund to set up an educational lab in urban farming. Their space, called “Farm(ing) Day,” featured locally grown plants, vegetables, and produce, along with hands-on components of the composting process.
“This is an opportunity to spring out of a crisis. This is a Latino neighborhood, and people here have these skills—it is in their heritage,” Mansilla said of urban farming and gardening. Gonzalez, a neighborhood local, added, “There is a void in access to healthy foods here, and someone needs to step in.”
Passersby looked on with curiosity and excitement, and the creators invited them to step into the space and take a look. “They are initially scared of moving over the threshold. It’s new,” Gonzalez said, and McClain added, “We want them to experiment and cross these barriers.”
On 120th Street and Lenox Avenue, Dianne Smith, an artist who lives on Lenox, installed a parking space-sized sculpture garden of old magazines, desks, metal wires, and canvases in her piece titled “Remix Repurpose.” She also brought childhood games for “reuse” and integration into the garden.
“I chose where my heart is,” she said of her spot on 120th Street, which she had to fight for earlier Friday morning after a “Law & Order” film crew asked her to relocate. “This is public space and public art,” she said.
“I was always who I am today—making art and playing these games,” Smith added, looking at all the reused coloring books and board games she brought to her project.
Meanwhile, over at Columbia’s campus, students from the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation ran three interactive sites that turned the heads of drivers and pedestrians.
On 115th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, a group of students sat by a Ferris wheel of four floating bikes. “We’re elevating bikes, literally,” Josef Szende, SAPP ’10, said. “If people see it as a work of art, they can really see it as a beautiful thing.”
On 117th Street, another group of architecture and urban design students explained to an inquiring boy in the backseat of a car that this event was about reclaiming open space in Manhattan. Their elevated green asphalt integrated a game in which players had to roll marbles down a winding path of endless obstacles to reach a nearly unreachable lane, as a metaphor for the battle that is biking through the city and dodging trucks, buses, cabs, and jaywalkers.
Many locals agreed that the concept of Park(ing) Day was strange, but ultimately very intriguing.
“I think this is really great,” resident Toby Thompkins said as he sat down in Smith’s street garden in Harlem. “This is about breaking down the barriers of stratification in Harlem, through art and music.”
He added, doodling with colored pencils in a “Little Mermaid” sketchbook, “Plus, I really enjoy coloring.”