Best Of :: Smart City
Digital art is a scene, which isn't surprising. What is pleasantly surprising is seeing attempts to open that scene up to those who don't have an art degree or a trust fund. Powrplnt, a nonprofit based out of a Bushwick gallery space (bear with us) where the computers are nestled among more plants than you'd expect, traffics in those attempts. With the right lighting, the place feels like it's been dressed up as a low-rent version of a science-fiction arcology. In addition to shows, Powrplnt runs workshops that are designed to make digital art and technology more accessible, running the gamut from basic computer skills (email, Facebook, uploading photos) to zine-making to electronic music. Recently, Powrplnt hosted Intersessions, DJ'ing workshops run by and for women and non-binary people. Many of the classes are offered for free to teenagers, and community members are invited to propose courses of their own.
562 Evergreen Avenue, Brooklyn
New York City's real estate market is great, and the city is a wonderful place to buy a home! Now that developers and landlords have stopped reading: New York City's real estate market is a terrifying nightmare, and costs are still rising steeply. According to Curbed, Manhattan's price per square foot just hit a record high and the average sales price of a place in Queens increased by 10 percent since the beginning of the year, compared with a mere 2.2 percent increase in Brooklyn. That's to say nothing of landlords waging war on affordable housing, or state foot-dragging on spending enough to maintain affordable housing units (thanks, Governor Cuomo). A good way to learn about the state of New York real estate and/or reduce yourself to a gibbering mess is @realNYCbot, which tweets out reports on local real estate transactions, including address, price, square footage, and type of building. The bot is the brainchild of Neil Freeman, an artist and planner with a penchant for illustrating and playing around with data that others might ignore or use in some other, more boring way. Enjoy and/or immiserate yourself. Ethan Chiel
"I'll hang out with hackers in hackerspaces and people who do digital security stuff for the United States, and they'll always say, man, it's like there are no black people who want to know about this stuff," Matt Mitchell told Vice's Motherboard last year. Mitchell, a security researcher and developer who's worked at CNN and the New York Times as well as for a slew of tech companies, knows that's bullshit. These days, he holds a fellowship at the civil rights group Color of Change and organizes Crypto Harlem, a free event aimed at teaching Harlem about information privacy and surveillance — which is increasingly important when you're living in a neighborhood where the NYPD surveils black teenagers via Facebook, and uses posts on the service to justify indictments.
At Crypto Harlem, people are invited to bring their computers and mobile devices to learn how to protect their data via encryption, whether that means WhatsApp, the Tor browser, or PGP encryption for email. The more-or-less monthly events, held at the Harlem Business Alliance (275 Malcolm X Boulevard, #2, Manhattan, 347-851-7746), usually draw a crowd of sixty or more, and Mitchell holds office hours at least once a month from 6:30 to 9:30 in the evening. Mitchell — texting via the end-to-end-encrypted messenger app Signal, of course — likens the project to a public health initiative, writing that it provides "a digital security clinic in Harlem, just like the city mobile dental clinic."
Mitchell has designed the events to be a space safe from what might otherwise be prying eyes. At one recent Crypto Harlem event that included a panel led by Times tech reporter Jenna Wortham, Mitchell decided to operate under the Chatham House Rule: no audio or video recording, and while anyone present was free to use or disseminate information and quote, they weren't allowed to attribute those comments. Mitchell says it led to "candid answers and personal stories from hackers, human rights defenders, law enforcement, and entrepreneurs," who were on the panel but might not have been able to speak as freely if the rule weren't in place.
The room was packed, and afterward, Wortham tweeted: "Tonight's @cryptoharlem is was PACKED and BLACK AF. Pipeline problem my azzzzz." It was an open message to tech companies (hi, Facebook!) that blame an empty "pipeline" of applicants for their paltry numbers of black employees. To top it off, Mitchell is also part of a weekly roundtable discussion (published on forbes.com) that scrutinizes episodes of Mr. Robot for its depiction of hackers and hacker culture. (Apparently the show does pretty well in that regard.) If that's not legit, I'm not sure what is.
Between 4th and 5th streets and avenues C and D, in the heart of the historically Puerto Rican neighborhood known affectionately as Loisaida, lies the city's best-kept secret garden, El Jardín del Paraíso. The 35-year-old garden is home to a beautiful willow tree, with a large wood-plank tree house, donated by artist Roderick Romero, wrapping artfully around its trunk like a bird's nest. From it you can view the happenings in the garden space, which is big enough to have once been the site of ten tenement buildings before their mid-century demolition. Now community elders monitor the garden's gates from their casita, where they play cards and listen to the radio, pigeons cooing in cages on the roof. Never mind that once you enter the treehouse, you'll likely share the nest with skater boys, joint-smoking college students, and other people of all ages sprawled across the wood as if it were their own personal living room. That's part of the charm of this truly public canopy. Ayasha Guerin
Between 4th and 5th streets and avenues C and D, Manhattan
The Urban Farm Recovery Project at the Brooklyn Grange (63 Flushing Avenue, Brooklyn, firstname.lastname@example.org, 347-670-3660) takes on two of the most pressing problems of the 21st century: the environmental and refugee crises. According to the United Nations, 65 million men, women, and children around the world have been displaced, many of them as the result of food insecurity caused by climate change.
The Urban Farm Recovery Project offers refugees in New York a six-month paid fellowship in urban agriculture at the world's largest rooftop soil farms, located on two roofs operated by Brooklyn Grange — one at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the other at the flagship farm in Long Island City. Fellows work to help produce over fifty thousand pounds of sustainably and organically grown vegetables each year that are then sold to restaurants and families around New York. Not only do asylum seekers gain experience growing and harvesting with technologically advanced green roof systems, their time on the farms provides job experience and access to both fresh produce and farmers and organizers.
"My day at Brooklyn Grange is what I wait for every night," says current fellow Martins Akinbode Busayo, who works at the Queens farm location once a week. Busayo made his way to New York three months ago from Nigeria, where the United Nations has estimated that more than 2.2 million people have been displaced since 2014 due to Boko Haram–linked violence. Busayo was involved with agricultural production in his home country, but rooftop farming is a completely new experience for him. At the Grange, Busayo is learning new methods of farming and weed control, and he says he hopes to continue in nonprofit humanitarian work after the fellowship ends. "It is unfortunate my number of days there is short," he explains. "When I am there, I feel alive because I experience my life having meaning."
The Urban Farm Recovery Project is an initiative of the Refugee and Immigrant Fund (RiF), a small Queens-based nonprofit that provides support services to asylum seekers fleeing persecution for their political and religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or gender. The training program is designed to prepare asylum seekers for life in New York City with job readiness training and English immersion, but RiF also recognizes the importance of psychological healing and community building. "In recent years New York has seen a large influx in the number of refugees seeking asylum," says RiF associate director Ellie Alter. "It can take over a year for an individual to get a work permit and to begin earning money, and refugees can feel extremely isolated during this waiting period [and are] oftentimes homeless between shelters."
Now in its fifth season, the Urban Farm Recovery Project has successfully trained 55 fellows, proving that urban farms can be fertile ground for refugee integration and community empowerment.
An occasional evening of presentations by people who are, broadly speaking, from the internet, IRL Club has been around since 2013, when the first show was put together by a group of journalists (specifically New Yorker staff writer Adrian Chen, New York magazine editor Max Read and staff writer Laura June Topolsky, New York Times reporter John Herrman, and BuzzFeed editor Katie Notopoulos). Past talks have included IRL Club regular Leon Chang offering a sampling of the poorly drawn dogs of WikiHow, Web developer and artist Jenn Schiffer explaining how to make male Web developers really mad by using satire, a presentation by moderators of the Cool Freaks' Wikipedia Club, and a performance by artist Peiqi Su's Penis Wall (a wall of moving plastic dicks originally designed to fluctuate with changes in the stock market). Some past IRL Club events have had loosely interpreted themes (e.g., politics, drugs) but most have been wide ranging. These days IRL Club is hosted at the Bell House in Gowanus; show up to the next one and maybe you'll figure out what people are talking about when they say "weird Twitter," or be deeply confused, or both.