I am home in New York City this summer because I’ve been given the opportunity to participate in Princeton’s Interfaith Summer Internship Program (ISIP), and to spend eight weeks learning about three things that are very important to me: New York City, religion, and art. ISIP pairs each of its students with an internship at a secular non-profit organization in New York. The student’s job is to connect that organization to its local religious leaders and institutions, and to help engage those religious communities in the organization’s programming.
The program began with a weeklong intensive seminar on religious diversity in New York City, and the social moral role that religion plays within it. The fourteen of us spent five long days learning about social justice leaders and movements in Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim communities across the city. Through tours of places of worship, conversations with religious leaders and community members, and long rides on subway lines I’ve never taken, I was exposed to parts of the city I didn’t know existed and the diverse religious powerhouses within them.
I’m lucky to be paired with an organization called Fourth Arts Block (FABnyc). Founded in 2001 by arts and community groups to preserve and promote the East 4th Street Cultural District, FABnyc exists today as a service and advocacy organization for the Lower East Side— renovating arts spaces, promoting the heritage and creativity of the neighborhood, and providing support services like resource-sharing and sustainability initiatives to local artists.
Through my work with FABnyc, I’ve gotten to meet some awesome artists and community members working in the arts in downtown Manhattan, as well as see some amazing art. Recently, I walked a few blocks over from my office to First Street Green Park, a local park that is currently housing two public art pieces presented by FABnyc. The pieces are part of a series called FABLES (the name is an acronym for Fourth Arts Block Lower East Side), which includes five public works that explore Lower East Side history. One of the pieces in First Park, called Feed Me a Story, particularly caught my attention.
(photo courtesy of mannycantor.org)
Feed Me a Story, a project by Theresa Loong and Laura Nova, is made up of eight photographs of different food dishes set on a background of the red-and-white-checkered pattern of a picnic tablecloth. The large images are bright and mouth-wateringly colorful, and each one is captioned with a person’s name and the name of the dish (e.g. “Mendy’s Cauliflower Latkes”). The foods are clearly ethnically distinct, and the whole display paints a striking portrait of the Lower East Side. The simple pictures of food and sharing of names are enough to tell (part of) the story of the rich heritage of the Lower East Side— of the vastly different cultures and traditions that, jumbled together in an absurd mix of languages, clothing, and most importantly, flavors, make up the beautiful diversity of the historic neighborhood.
Also on the mural is the title of the piece, along with the project’s website (www.feedmeastory.com). The website features the recipes for each dish paired with a video of it being prepared by its cook. The cooks, many of whom the artists worked with at the Lower East Side’s LaGuardia Senior Center, share stories of their families and heritages as they make their dishes. Watching these videos a few days after visiting the site, I was again reminded of the infinite stories of New Yorkers I’ll never know. But seeing a few random individuals share bits of their lives and their food also reminded me of what I love about New York City, and specifically my work here this summer. Despite the apparent hodgepodge of infinite mismatched flavors and smells that makes up the city, when you take a moment to talk to one person out of the millions, to listen to one member of one sect within one community, you discover a flavor so bold and distinctive you’re shocked it doesn’t overpower the entire dish.
I highly recommend checking out the Feed Me a Story videos and following some of their recipes. And, if you’re in New York, check out the FABnyc website (www.fabnyc.org) for information on art and community events in the Lower East Side all summer long.