Community forms partnership with designers to create furniture
By Sasha Wortzel
When Lafayette Avenue is transformed next year into a branch of the South Bronx Greenway, residents may find colorful picnic tables, their tops adorned with mosaics and their seats shaped like buttercups or like oversized drums.
Or they may encounter curved benches with clean, modern lines, or seats that incorporate space to grow plants.
“I’d never seen anything like that,” said Michael Brodie. “It was like furniture you’d put in your house. I couldn’t believe they would be put on the street.”
Brodie, who is enrolled in the A.C.T.I.O.N. program at the Point CDC was an active participant in discussions around what street furniture would work best in the neighborhood.
The furniture models are the result of a partnership between designers and local residents.
The project began a little over a year and a half ago with Miquela Craytor, executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, the Hunts-Point-based environmental organization that helped spearhead the creation of the South Bronx Greenway. She wanted to ensure that the furniture designs would express the “unique flavor and culture of our community.”
Craytor, a graduate of Pratt, got in touch with Deb Johnson, executive director of the school’s Center for Sustainable Design Studies.
“Rather than designers making up what the community needs, we need the community to tell us what they need,” Johnson agreed.
Sustainable South Bronx and The Point CDC threw a block party this summer to engage the community. The event also gave the design team the opportunity to walk around and to speak with people.
Later in-depth conversations between residents and designers aimed to create excitement about the furniture project. What arose from these conversations, were “amazing political discussions,” that used the design process as a sounding board for larger social issues, said Craytor.
Some of those who attended expressed concerns about whether benches and picnic tables were a good idea at all.
“It might bring property values up,” remarked Victor Davila, 15, who has been coming to The Point for seven years. “I’m scared Hunts Point is going to go through the same thing as Harlem.”
In addition to concerns about gentrification, local youth brought up issues such as prostitution and drug dealing.
“Many residents felt that the furniture could encourage and invite unwanted activity that is already here in Hunts Point,” said Craytor. “Why put something there that could be seen as encouraging unwanted activity?” they asked.
Only after resolving these issues could the designers turn to what sort of furniture might be built. The participants wanted to “create something that could easily be fabricated, decorated, and customized by the community,” says Johnson.
The final design prototype was a cupcake-shaped seat made of concrete. It would cost only $37 to make.
In the future Johnson would like to train small teams to fabricate the seating and then have them work with groups in the community to make the design a reality. The design team is also still brainstorming how to personalize the seating so that the individual pieces become points of storytelling.
Davila hopes to be one of the people decorating the benches. “It would be cool if we had a bench that said Hunt’s Point on it,” he said.
Ideally, Johnson envisions the project becoming a viable business formed by local people. The possibility that the design could create jobs is thrilling to her.
Craytor stressed that there is no guarantee that the final design chosen by the community will be adopted, but says she hopes it will.
Many feel that what has been most valuable was not the final design, but the process. The collaborative approach succeeded in engaging residents and giving the participants a sense of ownership, while it pushed the designers to learn how to respond to communities, said Craytor and Johnson. Both agree that this process is a model that should be used for projects in other communities.
A version of this story appeared in the December 2009/January 2010 issue of The Hunts Point Express.