Photo mural project featuring Red Hook residents. Photo by David Al-Ibrahim
When natural disaster impacts a community, it’s not just the physical destruction that takes its toll—the damage to the area’s self-image, pride, sense of place and economic well-being can be long-lasting and particularly hard to rebuild. Design/Relief is a new initiative from AIGA/NY that pairs communication designers and other specialists with the areas hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy to help re-establish a sense of identity through creative place-making. Three teams have been assembled to help the neighborhoods of Red Hook, Brooklyn; the Far Rockaways in Queens; and the South Street Seaport in Manhattan. Li’l Robin is one of the firms chosen to work with residents and small businesses in Red Hook. Our collaborators on the team include the design studio MGMT., the non-profit strategists Amplifier Project, and the communications specialist David Al-Ibrahim. The area is particularly close to our hearts: Li’l Robin founder Anke Stohlmann lives in the adjacent neighborhood of Carroll Gardens and has seen first-hand the effect Sandy has had on the community.
To achieve its aims, Design/Relief is conducting a series of design charrettes, lectures and workshops that pair the selected designers with the communities in need. The goal is to develop design-based solutions that are a true collaboration with the affected areas, rather than prescribing “top-down” responses that are unwelcome or inappropriate. Another objective for the participating designers is to think about how the process is conducted and to look at the ways communities can be engaged in their own rebirth after a devastating event. Design/Relief has received an innovation grant of $200,000 from ArtPlace America, a collaboration of foundations and banks that has the mission of using art and culture to transform communities. As a demonstration of design as a powerful catalyst, the initiative will also hopefully inspire a wider audience that includes other communities who have faced similar crises, designers at large, and the general public. The Design/Relief initiative is being led by program director Laetitia Wolff and AIGA/NY Board Members Glen Cummings, Manuel Miranda and Willy Wong.
Each Design/Relief team includes a mix of up to two designers or studios with backgrounds in graphic design, interactive design, digital strategy, art direction and illustration, as well as participants who are familiar with community engagement and pro-bono causes. Our team includes our designer friends Alicia Cheng and Sarah Gephart, the principals of the Brooklyn-based design studio MGMT.; and James Andrews and Jerome Chou, strategists with the non-profit Amplifier Project, who will help with community outreach. The communication designer and writer David Al-Ibrahim is our “storyteller,” helping to gather information and raise the project’s visibility through blog posts and other channels.
Photo by Alicia Cheng
Red Hook is a diverse and unique community in south Brooklyn. It is geographically isolated: Surrounded by water on three sides and by the Gowanus Parkway and Brooklyn Battery Tunnel on the fourth, it is separated from the rest of Brooklyn and at some distance from local subway lines. Red Hook has a vibrant artist community and is architecturally and industrially diverse. It was severely damaged by Sandy and a year later, the neighborhood is still recovering: businesses are rebuilding and people in city housing continue to have portable boilers.
To start the project, we’ve been exploring Red Hook and talking to residents, small business owners, community activists and other stakeholders in the community.
Some of the questions we’ve asked include:
• What are the things you love about living in Red Hook? What are the things you dislike?
• Describe the character of the entire neighborhood/community in one word.
• Identify one persistent problem, dilemma or situation in Red Hook where you feel a change could have a substantial positive impact.
• Is there a physical location that is a main gathering point for your community? Or a potential location that is underserved and needs more exposure?
The final project will be implemented next spring. We’re not sure yet what form it will take: it could be a collaborative art project, an education initiative, a marketing campaign, or something completely different. Whatever the outcome, the project represents an exciting and inspiring opportunity to help a community rebuild itself after a devastating loss—and to use design to make a difference.