The decisive role of neighborhood communities in MMNY 2014

We asked our fabulous 2014 fellows to reflect on their experiences organizing special projects for MMNY 2014. Here is the second installment: Oriane Vittu de Kerraoul’s reflection on organizing diverse neighborhoods within the Make Music New York world. 

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In 2013, I interned for the French equivalent of Make Music New York, La Fête de la Musique. Born and raised in Paris, I’d grown up with the Fête de la Musique, and after interning at the headquarters, I expected the festival to work the same way in each of the 400+ cities where it is now celebrated. When I decided to come to NY and experiment with another version of this international music festival, I did not expect to learn so much, both about the festival organization itself, and the sociological landscape of the Big Apple.

Performers at Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island
Performers at Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island

As a street festival, Make Music New York happens in the everyday environment of each NY citizen. Regardless of whether New Yorkers take part in the festival as musicians, they cannot fail to notice changes in their immediate surroundings — the sound of downtown is different than usual, the neighborhood library is invaded by marching bands, the East River Ferry is taking you on a world tourMake Music New York is an event that invites citizens to modify their habits for one day, offering them a new, big-picture perspective on the City as a whole.

Corona Youth Music Project in Corona Plaza
Corona Youth Music Project in Corona Plaza

However, as I began to work on MMNY, I realized that the festival should also be considered from a smaller, more local and intimate perspective because Make Music New York is, more than anything else, an occasion for neighborhood communities to gather and create an event together. Similar to how it is in Paris, what happens on the local community level is as important — if not more so — than what happens on the large-scale “special project” level. Unlike Paris, however, New York is infinitely more nuanced, and each neighborhood is its own, distinct entity within the larger Make Music New York world. No two neighborhoods are organized or participate in the festival in the same way!  

Performers at The Cast on the LES. Photo by Chuck Guarino.
Performers at The Cast on the LES. Photo by Chuck Guarino.

Over the course of my five months in New York, I came to understand the diversity and scope of these participating communities, and came to appreciate the role they each play in creating a successful festival.

Here are just three examples of different kinds of community engagement that I came across during my Fellowship:

Atlantic Ave BID

When I start talking to Josef Szende, who manages the Business Improvement District on Atlantic Avenue, I understood that what was important to him was to enhance the visibility of the Downtown Brooklyn Businesses by creating harmony between them. For this, he had the idea to assign musicians from many different nationalities to different locations along Atlantic Ave, creating a cohesive celebration. I worked closely with Josef on this project, finding artists to play at each location. When I explained to artists that Josef’s idea was a local initiative that made sense within his precise community, musicians were enthusiastic about participating, because they understood they would be part of a local celebration. Josef’s project is a great example of why community interlocutors are of the utmost importance — they know what works in their communities, and know how to rally participants around an idea. All we have to do is take care of the logistics!

DVA plays in front of the Waterfront Ale House on Atlantic Ave
DVA plays in front of the Waterfront Ale House on Atlantic Ave

Harlem

Another example of the work I did on a local level is the outreach within Harlem’s community. This community is both easy and difficult to reach. It’s “easy” because the neighborhood has a long history of music and performance. It’s “difficult” because there are many musical events and festivals taking place within this community, and they are often in competition with each others. (It was a major concern for several venue managers who held a meeting at the Apollo theater last January). Despite this, we were proud to gather 36 Make Music New York locations all over this neighborhood in 2014!

Soul Unlimited plays at Harlem Haberdashery
Soul Unlimited plays at Harlem Haberdashery

To be honest, I knew that the celebration would be great in Harlem this year. I knew it from the moment when I called the owner of one participating location and he told me: some businesses in my street are participating in the event so I checked it out and I really want to be part of it too!” It reminded me of something my Communication Sciences professor told me: even though new technologies of communication are more and more efficient, word of mouth is and will remain a key factor in a successful communication plan. My work for Harlem’s community was the occasion to prove him right.

In this case, the community word-of-mouth came in the form of the amazing Harlem resident (and now Manhattan Community Board 10 member) Tuesday Brooks. Our organization told Tuesday about Make Music New York; Tuesday told Harlem businesses about it; and then the festival became a topic in the community’s discussions. The reason why this communication channel is a key factor of success is that it invites the individuals living in the same neighborhood to acknowledge their role as members of their community. The very concept of making music implies that people need to create, to shape their own musical celebration, and that can only be transmitted, explained from person to person within a community.

New York Public Library 

It is important to recognize that community is not necessarily a geographic designation–there are also ethnic, associative or professional communities. One example is the New York Public Library network which has more than 50 branches throughout Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx. Working with Kelly Yim, the Adult Programming Specialist at the NYPL, I had the opportunity to help 46 of these branches book shows for the 21st of June. Here again, Kelly was a precious intermediary between me and the Branch Managers because they knew and trusted her as a member of their community.

Travelling Jewberries play at the NYPL City Island Branch.
Travelling Jewberries play at the NYPL City Island Branch.

People like Kelly Yim, Tuesday Brooks and Josef Szende, who act as spokespersons in their communities, are critical to MMNY. Not only do they increase the visibility of Make Music New York, but they also help us ensure that the event fulfills its goals and remains faithful to its principles: a free, popular and participatory celebration that makes sense within each community where it is celebrated.

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