Caron Atlas—Podcast Transcript
Miriam Eisenstein-Drachler: At the time when Hurricane Sandy was raging, wrathfully and forcefully, I was staying in my room at the Bell Harbor Manor looking outside and saying to myself: may the creator of Heaven and Earth help us in this hour of need. We find ourselves in the Armory; I looked around and I saw that mainly it has community activities going on there, but the whole place was transformed really. They greeted us like that with open arms and smiling faces. It was wonderful. It's beyond description what I feel for those people.
Caron Atlas: Artists from around the city were so generous. They were just like wanting to help out so bad and to use their skills and talents as they got involved. So we had everything from, you know, classical music quartets and, you know, a group from Carnegie Hall who came because Carnegie Hall was closed. We had people from the Philharmonic. We had people from Broadway. And we had jazz quartets and storytellers and Big Apple Circus and we had, The New York Writers Collaborative
Jo Reed: That was Miriam Eisenstein-Drachler, resident and community organizer Caron Atlas talking about the time they spent at a Brooklyn shelter in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
Hurricane Sandy battered the Northeastern portion of the United States with New York City and the surrounding area hit particularly hard. Thousands of people were evacuated as their homes were flooded and frequently destroyed. In the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, a shelter was opened in a space called the Armory. There, the dazed, wet, and hungry evacuees were housed and fed, looked after by medical teams providing healthcare and scores of volunteers helping anyway they could including artists who created daily cultural programming for the residents. This programming was organized by Caron Atlas, the director of the Arts and Democracy project, a non-profit that works to integrate the arts in to local communities through civic engagement. The Arts and Democracy project, provide the link between artists and community activists on the grassroots level. Although the Arts and democracy Project has no institutional base, Atlas describes it as “a network of networks” with a team that's spread throughout the country. Caron herself is based in Brooklyn and very involved with her Park Slope community and well-known to her city council Member Brad Lander, which is how her involvement with the Armory began.
Caron Atlas: The way it started was that in Park Slope, which was not that badly hit but the storm, it was a lot of fallen trees, which were really bad but not the kind of devastation in other neighborhoods, and we're on high ground, so they put two of the shelters in Park Slope, including a special-needs shelter which was for senior citizens and people who had physical and mental disabilities. These were people from the Rockaways who had been evacuated after the storm. And it was very traumatic for them. They literally walked through thigh-high water. Some of these people were in their nineties and they were-- their clothes were sopping wet and they find themselves in this shelter. And it took a while to get things going and- and to get hot food for them and showers, and all of this was done, a lot of it was done by the city councilmember from the area, Brad Lander, who really looked out for people. He called me up about four days, three days into it and said, "I think the shelter leadership is ready to deal with what are people going to do while they're there, and so maybe you can come over and organize a few cultural activities for a couple days." And I got there, and, of course, artists from around the city were so generous. They were just like wanting so badly to get involved and to use their skills and talents as they got involved. So they had been like calling and knocking on the door, and this did not only happen in this shelter. It happened in all of them. And the shelters couldn't deal with it. They didn't have the infrastructure to start organizing cultural activities. So most of the shelters just said, "We can't do it." In this case, they said to me, "If you can create the infrastructure and not just do a couple things, but create an entire program, which, by the way, is not just arts but should also include religious services," and we had everything from religious services to therapy dogs to, massage to stress relief, and it was not only for the residents, the folks, the evacuees, but also for the emergency workers. So I just agreed to do it. I mean, the good thing about being a really small, flexible network is we didn't have to clear it through a bureaucracy. We just knew that this was something we needed to do, and even though it seemed like a huge task, one thing we are really good doing is, sort of creating teams. So that's what we did. We created a Wellness Center and we did everything that was about peoples' wellness from the arts to religion to a lot of other things. And we created an infrastructure to make it work, and we were asked to be somewhat autonomous, which turned out to be a pretty good thing for us because we could set our own rules and we could, sort of develop our own volunteer teams in a way that made sense for our work.
Jo Reed: Where did the volunteers come from?
Caron Atlas: Volunteers at this shelter were just streaming in from everywhere.
Jo Reed: So they were coming to you and saying, "How can we help?"
Caron Atlas: Oh, yeah. We didn't have to do a lot of reaching out. When I came there, they already had this list. Somebody had written down everybody called, so that was where we started. And one of the best things every day was when we checked the email and just saw all the offers that were being made from around the city. And they were just extraordinary. So we had everything from, you know, classical music quartets and, you know, a group from Carnegie Hall who came because Carnegie Hall was closed. We had people from the Philharmonic. We had people from Broadway. And we had jazz quartets and storytellers and Big Apple Circus and we had, uthe New York Writers Collaborative. And, I mean, I think what I learned also was what kind of artists made sense in that setting. Some artists could just come and play beautiful music and that was wonderful. And I think people so appreciated, you know, you'd be listening and there would be the cello playing and it would be gorgeous. And we'd have people from the emergency workers say, "You know, I couldn't come over, but we just heard it and it was so comforting." So we'd have that, but then we had people really early on who did participatory workshops or music circles or writing where people could start to make sense of what happened to them. And, you know, we kind of thought of ourselves as the living room of the shelter because it was the one place with chairs. I mean, one thing we found out is that the arts community is really resourceful. So, you know, there weren't that many chairs in the shelter, but Rooftop Films was right in the neighborhood and they have tons of chairs. So they not only did a screening, but they provided chairs for us to have all the way through. And, you know, each group, we learned about sort of the social networks that are out there and the cultural networks and what each one had to bring to the table. And so we were in pretty good shape pretty fast because of the combination of the religious organizations and the cultural groups. We were like the only ones with tables, at one point. And I remember when FEMA came, they took our tables and chairs. And it was fine, you know, because FEMA needs tables and chairs. But it just was funny to me that- that that's where they came from, the arts community.
Jo Reed: You know, in looking at some of the information you put online, there's a great shot of what was happening, and I guess it was Election Day at the Wellness Center. And that is so robust and has an enormous amount of scope, from flute to meditation to just Sit and Be Fit with music, cello, comedy, exercise, art-making, storytelling, Big Apple Circus, knitting circle, I mean, and on and on and on.
Caron Atlas: And that was the night that the-- I think it's they used to call it the Belaca Ensemble came from Carnegie Hall and played. And then we had an election party, which was really important. There was another person in the shelter, who did an extraordinary thing because she figured out how people could vote. And you had a lot of people there who were really, had always voted and, you know, she was able to work it out with the Board of Election, you know, with a lot of running back and forth with the absentee ballots but to be able to get them to vote, and so the election party was quite a robus event, as well.
Jo Reed: It sounds as though what you did, and I think the term "creating a living room" sort of illustrates it, is building a community within that shelter. I mean, a living room is really an important thing, I would think, for a displaced person.
Caron Atlas: If you see a picture of the shelter, it's this huge armory with cot after cot with the same color blankets. And that is what people have, and then they have their garbage bag, you know, of stuff that they've been able to get at the shelter. And just to have a space where you could get up from your cot and walk over and sit down like a civilized human being and stop being like everybody else as an evacuee and start being yourself with your name and your story and your talent. I think it was this transformation from being a victim to being a creator, and that's why especially the participatory, art-making was so important, because people would be calling, you know, they would be writing and they would be, creating. There was an amazing painter, and he would just sit there and paint every day. But he could get up, go sit somewhere where there were lots of art supplies. The other amazing thing, and this really says a lot about community and civic networks is people just walk in. One day, people walked in with knitting needles and yarn and, kind of a curriculum, and we, after that, we had knitting circles every night. And somebody else walked with the art supplies. It was just incredible. And a lot of these are folks that- that when they offered initially, the shelter was like, "We can't deal with people giving us yarn." But they could just deal directly with us, and so they could bypass and it didn't become a burden to the shelter. Because we were- we were very interested in how this could be done in other shelters, as well, but none of them had that infrastructure, so it felt like a burden. And I think what we're really interested in figuring out is how can arts and culture be something that's liberating, not a burden, in these kinds of situations.
Jo Reed: That is really interesting. Why do you think that is? Why do you think it worked in this particular shelter, the Armory, where it was more difficult in other shelters? Why weren't they able to create the kind of infrastructure that you did autonomously?
Caron Atlas: Well, I'm sure they could have. I don't think they had the invitation. I really believe there are so many people around the city who could set up what we set up, and especially now because we really want to make this into a model. But, I think it was the invitation from the city councilmember, Brad Lander, and really important. And then, I think the, the vision of the people who ran the shelter, and Erin McClanahan is one of them, and there was a whole central command team that took the risk to do it and were willing to, you know, because, again, Brad brought me in. He knew me. He could vouch for me. And I remember, you know, it was a very heavy responsibility because I said, "I'm going to be responsible for everything that happens in the Wellness Center." That was a lot, you know, and so to feel like everything ultimately came back to me and if anybody got sick and there was a lot of concern because it was a special-needs shelter. So, like, I had to negotiate for an hour around knitting needles, because there were people who were mentally ill and what happens if a knitting needle gets used the wrong way? But one of the things I've been thinking a lot from this experience is how much just personally for me it stretched me. And I think it also stretched the system, and I think stretching is a good thing in that the question is once we're stretched, do we stay there or do we go back to our old ways?
One of the ways that it really stretched me was to figure out, you know, how do you really integrate the arts and culture in a way that make people feel comfortable? And I just drew on some skills that I had gotten, actually from being in a leadership program last year which was all about how do you work with people who don't agree with you. So, you know, there were basic skills like stopping in the central command every morning, sharing the schedule with them, telling them if anything bothered them to let me know immediately and we would make sure that stopped, and just finding out what people's concerns were about it and then trying to address them and realizing that we were all with no sleep and on edge. I mean, you know, and then some really obviously things like offering massages to the staff, so they could also benefit from our programs. I think they also started to come around when they realized that again, as the living room, we go to know the people really well there. And if they wanted to know the word on the street, one day we called it, in all of those rows of cots, you know, it was the volunteers there, you know, both the people from the Wellness Center and the other volunteers who really knew what was going on. And so it went from the sort of starting with some suspicion towards us to bringing us in when some major thing had to be communicated with the residents, because they knew that they came and talked to us and that we knew what was on their minds and we could also communicate to them, and they trusted us.
Jo Reed: So it sounds like at the Armory it was a real collaboration of city officials and state officials along with community volunteers.
Caron Atlas: Yeah, I think that was another one of these things where in a disaster, you can come together and- and do things that are harder than when we do things in our conventional ways. And I think the combination of the community networks, the broader citywide network of artists who participated, and then the Red Cross and the emergency medical people and the local government and the city agencies, we had a common goal. There was a recognition ceremony you know, it's always great to be recognized, so I'm very happy, you know, the city, through the city council office gave us these plaques, but even more important was like who we got them with. So it was the Wellness Center and it was the medical doctors and it was the central command. We had a common goal.
Jo Reed: It's interesting because it would seem to me two things, one, the impact on the artist, I bet, was almost as profound as the impact on the residents of the shelter.
Caron Atlas: Absolutely. There were so many moments that in the moment I was just crying because they were so moving. And I think a lot of the people involved, the musicians and other artists, felt them, but I remember one where we had, you know, it turns out there's-- I mean, not a surprise. There's an amazing network of musicians in Park Slope, an one of the musicians, Mark Stewart, he plays the guitar with Paul Simon. And he's just got this whole network of artists and they-- musicians, and they do hootenannies. So they did their hootenanny at the Wellness Center, and it was so much fun. They brought all kinds of instruments and people played them and it was very participatory and by request and, a lot of the things we did actually kind of felt like a three-ring circus in a kind of wonderful way. So we had the hootenanny happening, we had one of the therapy dogs who performs come and play the piano, and we had a knitting circle. And all of that was going on at once. And if you just looked at it, like now you'd say, "That is bizarre." But in the moment, it was so moving. And I remember we were sort of in a circle singing together and Mark said, "This is feeding us so much as artists. We are so grateful for this, opportunity to do this with you."
Jo Reed: And I also think for volunteers in a disaster, it really, I think, often calls out the best in people and the best in people really is they want to do what they do well. And for artists, that means making music or, you know, running a writing workshop or doing storytelling…
Caron Atlas: That's absolutely true. And also, though, I want to give a shout-out to a lot of the folks doing the real basics like taking people to the bathroom and, you know, of this shelter, and then after a few days, they'd see, you know, they'd say, "Well, you know, I am a musician too." And I think when we became a little less autonomous, because I didn't want to take volunteers away from the basic needs of the shelter, so I was generating my own volunteers, but then there was a point where the shelter started sending people over to us if they knew they were artists. And it was great because artists were helping schedule. They were like, "Boy, I've never been on the producer side of things, you know. I've always been the performer.” A lot of people did finally step up. I remember there was a jazz musician, Jeff King, who worked every night doing, a lot of things in the shelter, and he worked for the city. And finally he said, "All right, my band's gotta come play." And it was- it was so wonderful because everybody knew him. And his band played and- and they all saw this other dimension of him. And I think in terms of just overall, artists really being seen as part of the community, this was a really wonderful way for them to be seen that way.
Jo Reed: Outreach to other communities devastated by storms, which unfortunately we see more and more of, and of course, New Orleans, which is so rich culturally, comes to mind. Have you compared notes with people in New Orleans about some of the strategies that they might have employed during Katrina, and exchanged ideas, for example?
Caron Atlas: Yes, and I mean, we're just starting to do that and we look forward to doing it more. There was just a conference this weekend that was about really building community resilience. And we had a cultural session and Carol Bebelle, who runs the Ashé Center in New Orleans, who is amazing, that center played a really important role after Katrina because it became the kind of neutral space where people would come and meet and build up, rebuild it, you know. And, it was also important that it was a cultural space, because while they- they had all these community meetings there, they also had culture and healing. And I've always known that culture can heal. I think this experience really showed how it can heal. And the Ashé Center didn't just do that in a shelter. They became a healing space for the long recovery. And I think that's what we have to learn from, our folks, you know, that we know in New Orleans, this is a long process, and how do we build this cultural and wellness work into the ongoing work in our communities, not just in the moment of the relief effort, but as we think about, recovery, as we think about rebuilding, as we think about all of the instances when it's needed in communities. How do we strengthen our community groups who do this kind of work and how do we strengthen our networks so that they can keep going? And I think that's the work we all need to think about now.
Jo Reed: If you're able to carry on the work that you began at the Armory, that really is a great foundation for the ongoing work that you're talking about.
Caron Atlas: Yeah, and there's a couple ways the work has, continued, or will continue. One thing I'm really interested in is this model, and how do we really look at what we did document it, think about who all the players in it were, and the team is huge of people that I worked with. And sort of find the people with the most interest, find the artists with the most interest, and we've even talked, started to talk to the “cert teams,” which are the emergency neighborhood-based teams, about us getting their training so that, the next time there's a shelter it's built into the infrastructure, and we have the emergency training. And also to really think about how do we really make this case that when you start a shelter, you shouldn't wait four days into it to add the Wellness Center. It should be part of the design from day one. And this is a hard argument to make, but I really am eager to make it, which is, that dignity and respect is a basic human need and that, yes, people need shelter and they need dry clothes and they need food, but they also need to be treated like human beings and to have the kinds of things that were offered to them that we were able to offer in the Wellness Center. And they need that from day one. That- that's not something that you like get your dry clothes and then you do that.
Jo Reed: Bread and roses.
Caron Atlas: Exactly. And, you know, every time I hear somebody say, "Yeah, but we deal with basic human needs," I'm like, "This is a basic human need.”
The other form of continuation, which is a more unfortunate one…So what happened is that when the shelter closed, uh.. there was a whole group of people, over a hundred, who couldn't go home. And they were senior citizens from-- and, folks with special needs from an adult home in the Rockaways. And they got moved, and to a hotel, only in name, that was insecure. It was not a safe place. And they had to be moved away from that to a third place, and now they're in a psychiatric institution. And it's a real horror story what's happened to them. And because, again, we really got to know them at the Armory, there's a group of us who have followed them at each place and continue to provide programs and a sympathetic ear and we've become advocates. I think part of the stretching of this work is, I didn't know anything about all the issues around adult homes and the state before this happened, and now I've had to have a crash course in it. And have to do different things than I would have thought that I would do but that's what happens when you, You know, for us, they weren't clients. They became people that we were close to.
Jo Reed: Friends.
Caron Atlas: And friends. And people were concerned about. As much as we wanted to celebrate when the shelter closed down, until these folks can go home, we're sticking by them, and we're still sticking by them because they're still in this unfortunate situation.
Jo Reed: You want to develop what you call an arts-and-wellness recovery corps. Describe what your vision is for this.
Caron Atlas: There's a lot of work to be done, but we got kind of inspired but something called DMAT. Basically, they are medical personnel of all different kinds. Everybody who works in the medical field can sign up. And they're like the civil guard. And they meet once a month and they get trained and then when a disaster comes, they get called up and they get deployed. And so we had, DMAT people from Massachusetts and Hawaii and I think Florida. It was pretty amazing. And we really got close to the DMAT folks. They were really-- they had a wonderful spirit because, you know, to sign up for something like that, you have to have a- a generous spirit. And I remember on their last night of the Massachusetts one we had a karaoke night because they wanted to sing. And they sang "New York, New York" …. they were amazing. But we were inspired by that model, and not that we would necessarily have a group of artists who get deployed, but the idea that you have a core group of people and that we do receive some emergency training so that-- and that we're recognized, we have standing so that where, you know, we don't have to just rely on one sympathetic city councilmember but that there's the understanding that this is an official group that can be called on and that we keep a database of artists. And so for local use, you know, we'd be called up when something happens. For, emergencies in other areas, we could do something like help come in and start an infrastructure for a wellness center. I think it's really important to use local artists, because local people want to help. And it- it becomes very frustrating when local people, can't even get in to volunteer, which was sometimes the case. So, it's really important in this model that it uses the local resources, but on the other hand, you know, the building of the infrastructure is something that you could use outside help with.
Jo Reed: You know, it strikes me that, and I know this is something that you've thought a lot about, so I would just like you to talk a little bit about it, that the arts have a very particular role to play during times of disaster, during polarizing political moments, during hard economic times, that the space that the arts can occupy can really help build bridges.
Caron Atlas: Absolutely. In a polarized situation, people are dehumanized. They stand for things rather than, you know, become people that you can identify with. And I thought what was really interesting in the shelter is, like, I didn't even necessarily know what people's politics were or, you know, the kinds of things that divide us. We were interacting on a more basic level. So I think that that happens. I think that you know, just from a social-change perspective, if you don't have, uhm.. dignity and a sense of yourself and a sense of your own strength, it's very hard to do anything more. And so that's the first step. So if you're saying, "Here are all these people," and they're here and they're kind of treated like, you know, in mass numbers rather than individually, because you have to in that situation, we could work with them individually. And and I think it really, in terms of agency, it gave people agency to feel like, they could be an individual. Now, I don't want the Wellness Center to take credit for all that because I think another thing-- something that was really important to me was just to sit down with a group of the people, that are still, not home and talk to them about what worked and what didn't work in their experience, because, you know, you want to hear from the people who are most impacted. And what worked for them was just the general idea of all these volunteers. That's, you know, and then the wellness activities was great, too. But the fact that you had all these people who cared about them and were willing to spend time with them and treat them as human beings, and that is important, and I think art takes it the next step, for sure.
Jo Reed: And the step after, aside from the disaster, just in terms of community-building in neighborhoods.
Caron Atlas: Absolutely, and the thing that they said was worst was they weren't listened to and they were lied to. And a lot of times, it wasn't deliberate. I think people made assumptions about them not being able to hear the truth, and, instead of saying, "Let's just level with you," like anybody who should be leveled with, you know, let's give you that respect. A lot of times, for example, the writing circles would really unleash a lot of things. And they hadn't had another way to have these conversations. Or I was also really impressed with, uhm.. somebody who worked on our team who- who was a music therapist and he ended up doing some music circles and, you know, just using in a very innocuous way singing together, but then, what does that song make you think and, you know, going that next step, to really be able to talk about what's going on. They're really important conversations for people to have.
Jo Reed: So it was the full spectrum of all that art can do. I mean, it can take you outside of yourself and bring you…
Caron Atlas: Right back into yourself.
Jo Reed: Right back into yourself.
Caron Atlas: Yeah. And we usually do both at the same time.
Jo Reed: Finally, what's the next step?
Caron Atlas: Yeah, well, the next step immediately is to help get these folks home. They're in a terrible situation and they need to get out of it. And so I'm so eager for that to happen so then I can follow up on the next steps around the Wellness Center ideas and really try to develop that model and that core idea. We had a visit by the Health and Human Services, Secretary Sebelius. We had visits from the White House Office of Social Innovation, and AmeriCorps head. Everybody was delighted when they saw it. How do we take this beyond just this wonderful thing that happened in the middle of that horrible disaster, and how do we think about this more integrally in terms of the role of arts and culture in everything that's important to us?
Miriam Eisenstein-Drachler: So my final word is: may the dtnamics that prevail now in the Armory, go outside of the walls of this building, go outside and reach society at large in our daily interactions with one another. Amen.
Jo Reed: That last voice was Miriam Eisenstein-Drachler, a resident i the Armory in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. I was talking to Caron Atlas. She's director of the Arts and Democracy Project. She was talking about the arts programming she helped to create in the Armory
You've been listening to artworks produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.
Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts from Looking East, Enchantedly and On the Beach, from the CD Songs Without Words, written and performed by Sean Grissom, used courtesy of Endpin Music Publishing.
Special thanks to musicians Mary Ann McSweeney and Casey Shea. they, along with Sean, were among the many artists who performed regularly for the residents at the Armory.
Miriam Eisenstein-Drachler was recorded by Rachel Falcone from Sandy Storyline.
All of these musicians played regularly for the evacuees at the Armory.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at Arts.gov. You subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U—just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.