made in Lower East Side: Everybody Wants to Help


This post is part of a series contributed by made in Lower East Side (miLES), an initiative that facilitates the transformation of vacant lots and storefronts in the Lower East Side of New York City by listening, co-creating and prototyping with its residents.

One of the amazing things about living in New York during the post-Hurricane Sandy period has been seeing how much people will help if you just give them the tiniest chance.

Sometimes, it takes big crises like natural disasters to spark that response.

For us at made in Lower East Side (miLES) that spark was smaller: a challenge posted on OpenIDEO at the end of 2011.  That challenge question—“How might we restore vibrancy in cities and regions facing economic decline?”—got the miLES co-founders thinking about how to reverse urban decline.

We generated a lot of ideas during the challenge period, thinking about the cities that we know and how to celebrate local pride, activate communities, and encourage new avenues for revitalization. The conversation was so great, that a group of us really wanted to take this out of an online discussion and do something in the real world. Eric Ho, one of the co-founders of miLES, suggested doing something in the Lower East Side (LES) of New York, since it’s an area that he knows well.

The LES is an amazing neighborhood that in many ways is a microcosm of New York City. While it has traditionally been a working-class immigrant neighborhood, recent years have seen tremendous upheaval, as new groups of residents arrive and urban development and gentrification slowly change the character of the neighborhood.

At that point we had a general concept of where we wanted to work, and we had a few hunches about what might work for the neighborhood, but we didn’t have many resources and we didn’t know how the community would respond. Being designers, the next natural step was to go out into the community and start talking to people, interviewing them, taking pictures of vacant lots, and trying to generate more ideas and solicit feedback. That process built over the summer, with more and more groups coming on to help and more and more people from the community saying they wanted to help.

It was very interesting to read Benevolent Media's recent interview with Kurt Engfehr on the “empathy deficit” in the U.S.  I think with so much going on, it’s easy to just get lost in your own stuff.  Whether that’s your job, family, school, what’s on TV/Hulu/Netflix—there’s a lot of information being thrown at us these days and that makes it really easy to just sit back and be a consumer. I don’t think people are avoiding getting involved, but you need to give them a reason.

In that sense, I think there were a few things that we did with miLES that really helped. The first, was to do research to help frame the problem (there are currently 212 vacant lots on the Lower East Side of Manhattan—more than any other neighborhood) and make it easy to understand.

Once people saw the information presented visually, I think it really hit home: “Wow, those are a lot of storefronts just sitting there." Data can be a little boring or antiseptic, but if you can find a way to tell a story, then you leverage that data and it becomes incredibly powerful.

The second thing that we did was to take people out of their comfort zone and ask them to get creative. At both the FAB Festival and the Feast Pavillion, we presented this giant cardboard map of the Lower East Side and invited people to come up with their own ideas. We used a lot of color and visuals and invited people to imagine their own future: “I want a place to learn or teach...”, “I want a place to meet with”, “I want a place to buy or sell...”, “I want a place to create...”, and “I want a place to enjoy...”

And that really gets us to the last point, which is that throughout this process we’ve made an effort to be as visible as possible and ask for help.  What started out as a small independent effort from a few people who met on the internet, now has supporters like TYTHEdesign and Design for America. We’ve started working with students from the School for Visual Arts and hope to bring in students from NYU Wagner later this semester. And we’ve started to get the attention of people in the neighborhood.

We’ve built on the initial idea of miLES to create different workstreams that best utilize our own skills and will hopefully teach us a lot about what to do and what not to do. And most importantly, we are documenting this entire journey. Our next step is to build on the research that we’ve done, start prototyping and find venues to launch these first projects.

But before we can get there, we need to help clean up from Sandy. miLES has been working with many other community groups to help out those in need and speed recovery. We’ve put up a list of places you can contribute here regardless of whether you’re in NYC or out of town.

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