Nestled in the northwest corner of the Lower East Side, between 1st Street and Houston, the murals of First Street Green’s art park appear inconspicuous at first glance. Tucked into a courtyard sandwiched by two tenement style apartment buildings, the park is hidden behind a row of bushes and a metal gate, cut off from the bustling life of downtown Manhattan and its chaotic accoutrements. Behind the hedgerow lies an oasis of art, where the ever-changing schemes of shape and color adorn high walls underneath the fire escapes stretching around either side of the block, fulfilling the potential of its sanctified environment. Open to the public for seven years now, FSG has become both an iconic representation of New York’s urban art culture and a testimony to its thriving contemporary scene. In becoming a legacy to the medium, it holds true to the power of public display by giving anyone willing a chance to get their name up.
UP Magazine got a chance to sit down with the primary curator of the landmark park, Jonathan Neville, to talk about First Street Green and his experience helping build and maintain a grass roots community-based creative organization. Jonathan Neville is a working artist and community activist who runs two other art organizations, Centrifuge Public Art Project and, along with co-founder Denton Burrows, Dripped On Productions. A native New Yorker, he approaches the art scene with the same enthusiasm that allowed him to discover it.
Neville and the organization are known for their inclusiveness in the art community, working with graffiti writers and street artists alike, regardless of whether they’re new to the game or have been established for decades. “We’ve had artists from every single continent paint,” Neville confided in me, “and we’ve met so many different people and have come to understand that art is a means of communication way beyond words.”
“I grew up in Brooklyn and I was fascinated with graffiti as a young kid. I would walk into Manhattan across the Manhattan bridge as a 13-year-old and be amazed by all the graffiti on the rooftops,” he told me, describing his introduction to art. “I was drawn to the whole culture. Not just the graffiti, but the hip-hop, the rock, the nightlife, the whole atmosphere and the larger than life feeling you get from it.”
Both Centrifuge and Dripped On Productions place an emphasis on public art and muralism, connecting artists to clients and communities in need of art. With his experience running these organizations, Neville was the perfect candidate for getting the park up and functioning as a permanent open-air gallery. He’s been involved from the beginning of the art program with the First Street Green organization, walking into his role as serendipitously as only a working artist can.
“It was 2012, the year of the first Idea City Festival with the New Museum,” he told me. “Centrifuge was looking for a couple new locations. We knew that the park had a couple of projects that involved community murals, so we approached them and asked them if they wanted to be involved with the murals for Idea City, and they were super into it. So, we set up a couple walls in the park and it was a huge success. The organizers of FSG wanted to keep the murals going, but at that point there were only two sections on the eastern wall, and the western wall was all broken up and dirty. So, Parks Department bought us a ton of wood and delivered it. We set up the entire eastern wall with plywood and put that up for submissions. Maybe a year later, they asked me to come on to the board.”
The park primarily seeks to enhance both the local arts community and the Lower East Side at large, venerating New York City’s vibrant, urban essence while maintaining a clean, safe, creative space for all to enjoy. They work hard to keep the art fresh and the grounds presentable, accepting donations and help when they can, but most efforts come out of pocket. “Blood, sweat, and the occasional tear,” as Neville said, but judging by his attitude the job seems more like a passion than a grind for the curator.
Neville and the organization are known for their inclusiveness in the art community, working with graffiti writers and street artists alike, regardless of whether they’re new to the game or have been established for decades. “We’ve had artists from every single continent paint,” Neville confided in me, “and we’ve met so many different people and have come to understand that art is a means of communication way beyond words. Everyone can appreciate it even if you don’t understand it, if given the opportunity and the openness which the park has… The LES is a very different neighborhood than it was ten years ago, so having this little area that kind of keeps the funkiness of old-school Lower East Side mixed with ‘it’s for everybody’ is nice. It’s not just NY artists painting, it’s everybody, and the community coming together in a positive way is one of my favorite things.”
The Park has expanded enormously since its inception, now hosting 25 to 32 murals at any given time, between the park’s east and west walls. They boast an alumnus numbering in the hundreds, without ever shying away from any school or style. They want to give every artist an opportunity to paint freely, with just a few select parameters.
“If we haven’t gotten funding, we don’t give the artist a theme, we just ask that the artist sends in whatever they want to paint and we’ll select it. We turn down a lot of people, and that always stinks. We turn down good people because sometimes it’s similar artwork. There are so many different aspects to keep a diversity of styles. For me, I know what I like, and after these many years, I kind of understand what the public likes. I want to curate for everybody; for the old guy passing by, for the little kid who like cartoons, for the people who are into metal. I want everyone to walk by and look at something and be like, ‘oh, I like that one.’”
They also have to consider is that the park is a public space, under the city’s jurisdiction. Fortunately for Neville and for the public, the city is pretty relaxed and understanding with what goes up on a wall. As long as there isn’t an advertisement or a logo, no for-profit work, it’s usually works.
“They’ve never told us we couldn’t do anything,” Neville said. “If I have a thought that this might upset Parks Department, they usually have ways to make it work. The only things they’ve ever questioned were the politically relevant things, like the mural that an artist dedicated to Planned Parenthood. They asked that we made sure it didn’t turn into an ad, and it turned out perfectly fine. Besides that, for painting, they’re super hands-off.”
“We raise money or find other non-profits to donate bushes, and we take time out of our days to come here. We had a park cleanup day and that was funded by Partner for Parks, so there are a couple organizations that help us raise money, but for the most part, it’s all us trying to get it done. The Parks Department wishes they could do more of course, but they just don’t have a great budget.” – Jonathan Neville
With this freedom comes the responsibility of cleanliness and funding their program. When it comes to small community gardens, the city usually delegates organizations to take care of these responsibilities in exchange for using the space, so, they deemed FSG responsible for upkeep. “Maintenance falls entirely on us,” Neville stated. “We raise money or find other non-profits to donate bushes, and we take time out of our days to come here. We had a park cleanup day and that was funded by Partner for Parks, so there are a couple organizations that help us raise money, but for the most part, it’s all us trying to get it done. The Parks Department wishes they could do more of course, but they just don’t have a great budget.”
Curating the events and encouraging people to use the space is another aspect of Neville’s position. They don’t do many corporate gigs, unless a corporation wants to throw a community event, which is what FSG is all about. Aside from this, anyone and everyone is invited to participate in making the park grow as a center for social gathering. “I want events in here all the time. It’s underutilized space. If it’s a dance group or a drum circle, I don’t care, we just want people in here utilizing the space.” Neville sympathizes with the tribulations of other small organizations, and emphasized that those wishing to host events in the park won’t face any fees. “We take care of the permits for you; you just send us the information. If there’s sound, you pay for that, which is $5.”
The impact the art has on the community keeps Neville going; it’s something he constantly strives for. Amidst a changing urban landscape, Neville wants to ensure that the park acts as a place of respite for those in need, as well as a place that retains the flourishing urban culture of old school Lower East Side while the neighborhood gentrifies. He describes the transformation of New York as he’s seen it with fervor:
“LES was a tough neighborhood to come to, even when I was a kid in the early 90s. My freedom of running around starts in 2001. Even from then, New York is a 180, a completely different world. At first it was kind of depressing. When I came back from school, pretty much all my favorite places were gone. There still was a cool underground scene, but it wasn’t the same. Then a couple of years later, a lot of the fun downtown fizzled out, because the government wanted us out, which was the nightlife, the graffiti. There are wealthier people moving in and they want cleanliness.”
This transformation has been an incredible influence on Neville, pushing him to pursue his creative passions in order to bring some positivity to the neighborhood he loves.
“Neighborhoods become hot; neighborhoods become cold. I’m not for gentrification in the least bit, but it’s New York. I was bitter for a while about the changes, but then I realized that I was part of the problem. You don’t have to embrace it, but you can be a positive part of whatever’s happening, like this park, where we keep this space open to everybody and we love having all types of people come in, from the homeless community to the teenage kids.” – Jonathan Neville
“Neighborhoods become hot; neighborhoods become cold. I’m not for gentrification in the least bit, but it’s New York. I was bitter for a while about the changes, but then I realized that I was part of the problem. You don’t have to embrace it, but you can be a positive part of whatever’s happening, like this park, where we keep this space open to everybody and we love having all types of people come in, from the homeless community to the teenage kids. This park isn’t for one type of person. So, just be that positive light. You can’t fight something that’s inevitable, but you can make it better.”
Having successfully maintained the park for several years now, the FSG organization has solidified positive relationships with the city, the neighborhood, and the scene. The park has earned its place in the heart of the New York art scene, with a strong following and a reputation that continues to grow as the park continues to grow, with more art, more people, and more of the same attitude of acceptance and gratitude that Neville continues to provide to everyone who makes the park what it is.
Tyler Bruett is a writer and musician from Minneapolis, Minnesota, who is now based in New York City. Fascinated with contemporary culture, he finds pride working with emerging artists, street artists, and musicians alike. He is passionate about using his experience to bridge the gap between artists and the city they inhabit.