One Year Later: El Puente

Above, an Audio Postcard about the starting conditions for the project. 

Arts and culture are central to the vision of self-determination and social justice that El Puente puts forward to the residents of South Williamsburg. Founded in 1982 El Puente has been leading community organizing efforts to address issues of safety, access to education, health and development for the neighborhood’s Latino community.

During our conversation last fall the El Puente team explained to me that there is a sense that new residents have benefitted most from the changes in the neighborhood they worked to effect.  With the Green Light District initiative they are working to create a model that enables community members to drive development in an equitable and just fashion.

As they have worked to engage residents and local organizations around a community vision for arts and culture, El Puente has also discovered a distinct opportunity to reflect on their own sustainability and vitality as an organization. As the project revitalizes cultural energy in South Williamsburg, El Puente has a unique opportunity to decide how they will position themselves as a community leader as they move into their fourth decade.

The Innovation

The Green Light District engages Latino residents in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn to work together create a holistic vision for community development. El Puente Executive Director Frances Lucerna explained the name, saying, “It is a “green light” for community residents to think about a better future for themselves, their neighbors, families and friends.” While Williamsburg is the center of intense gentrification, The Green Light District is an opportunity for neighborhood residents to engage with arts and culture and activate at a community level. It is an opportunity for residents to oppose gentrification by articulating and activating an alternative vision for the cultural life of their neighborhood.

Progress to Date

With support from the Rockefeller NYC Cultural Innovation Fund, the Green Light Project has used a door-to-door, person-to-person strategy to engage community members and has began a community asset mapping initiative called the WEPA project. In the past year they have:

  • Launched programs that highlight community stories: including an exhibition, an oral history project about the experiences of community elders conducted and presented by students, and a “photo sharing” event where residents brought in photos of neighborhood and community members.
  • Developed new partnerships: The have partnered with other Rockefeller CIF grantees, including Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts, to present programming, and with a local elementary school, PS 84, to create a new mural “Nurture Nature” that expresses the local residents’ vision for education in South Williamsburg.

Organizationally they have supported the work by hiring additional staff and reflecting on their practice along the way. They are, “Engaging and creating the construct of reflective practice for the community research model, which is a core practice of El Puente,” explained Lucerna. They have hired a teaching artist to fully develop a reflective practice model to use with the Green Light District project.

Shift In Thinking

While coalition building and community organizing has taken El Puente time and skillful negotiation, the launch of the Green Light District has revitalized the interest in arts and culture in other local organizations. Churches held concerts in their community spaces and the local Community Development Corporation set up a neighborhood history museum in one of their storefronts. The creation of the “Nurture Nature” mural at PS 84 brought together parents, students and artists to work with El Puente to articulate a vision for public education in the community. It also served as a model of what the Green Light District is working to achieve as participants built a sense of ownership of the project in specific and the community’s future in general. Working on the mural, “Everybody had an opportunity to feel like this is my community, these are my neighbors, and these are my children. This is what we want to tap into moving forward,” explained Lucerna.

Next Steps

This fall the Green Light District will launch the WEPA festival, which will highlight student activists artists from Puerto Rico and South Williamsburg and present a draft of the cultural asset mapping they have been working on. Anusha Venkataraman, Acting Director of the Green Light Initiative, explained that this will be an evening long trial for what they hope to develop into a regular community festival.

The Green Light Initiative brings together a myriad of issues and puts arts and culture at the center of a community vision for development. To articulate and achieve this vision with the input of a diverse group of community members takes time and patience, but has led El Puente to a stronger movement and vision.

Eleanor Whitney is a writer, educator, arts administrator and musician raised in Maine and living in Brooklyn, New York. Currently, she is the Program Officer for External Affairs and Fiscal Sponsorship at the New York Foundation for the Arts. Karina Mangu-Ward is the Director of Innovation at EmcArts.