The development of social communities in the contemporary city pivots between the powerful forces of top-down financial capital and bottom-up collective citizen action. These top-down forces move through space as an algorithm with little concern for people or community. Bottom-up forces, on the other hand, focus explicitly on local needs but sometimes at the expense of a greater urban vision or the larger city. In this current age of hyper capitalism in New York City it often seems that it is the top-down development that almost always gains the upper hand in defining “community” unless there is a local issue, grievance, or extreme condition that brings people together to fight for community based concepts of “neighborhood.”
Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was one of those extreme conditions that brought residents of affected communities together to think about a different future and a communal way forward. But when communities—particularly poor and underserved ones—attempt to come together for the sake of local identity they often struggle to find a voice for their concerns, let alone communicate with their neighbors.
But an innovative new initiative created by the New York chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA-NY) came to the aid of three areas affected by the hurricane: the Rockaways, Queens; Red Hook, Brooklyn; and Lower Manhattan near the old Fulton Fish Market. AIGA-NY, through a program they created call
Under a project titled Design/Relief the AIGA-NY helped young designers to engage with local community groups, listen to their complaints and hopes, and then design bespoke initiatives for each of the communities. In the Rockaway peninsula, which has long had diverse ethnic communities of varying wealth and background separated by expanses of sand, they heard the plea to keep the togetherness of purpose that developed just after the hurricane. The Dear Rockaway team created bold colorful inserts in The Wave, the Rockaway’s most important local newspaper. These two-color centerfolds appeared with interviews of local residents in a bold graphic style that hoped to create a distinct identity from the bottom-up.
In Red Hook, Brooklyn, the AIGA-NY group created a physical “Hub” to act as both a place for analog and digital information gathering in curated and non-curated spaces where residents could come together over community issues. Red Hook, which is isolated from the subway system, is home to the city’s second largest public housing project and new artist and craft communities that surround it at discrete distances along its edges. These communities tend to be separated by race and class, and the Hub, situated in the local library branch on Wolcott Street and the nearby Miccio Center, attempts to help these two groups forge a common community plan. Finally, in Lower Manhattan the AIGA group helped create a public tour that focused on the unheard nearly forgotten voices of residents of the area that have lived there for decades.
These three projects all utilized what contemporary graphic design does best—visualize complex information in a simple format and imagine futures. If utilized correctly it also has the capacity to build a “rigorous and engaging participatory processes, and produce easily deployable solutions.” AIGA-NY has begun working in East New York, the city’s latest development focus, to help drive this changing site to consider existing residents while planning to bring in newer groups and architects. The AIA should watch this process and take notes on the project.