Silence Prevails: Lower East Side Community Gardens During the Pandemic

Silence Prevails : Lower East Side Community Gardens During the Pandemic (2020)

field recordings, videos, text, map, and historical photos and documents

June 2, 2022–January 16, 2023

As a part of the exhibition Life Between Buildings, organized by Jody Graf

Aki Onda's multi-media installation “Silence Prevails: East Village Community Gardens During the Pandemic” explores the past and present of twenty-four community gardens in the Lower East Side. Known for his work with experimental field recordings, Onda’s practice explores the reverberations and manifestations of the past: how does history suffuse a space, and how can memory be distilled? While living in New York for two decades, Onda became interested in the legacy of the Lower East Side community gardens that dot the neighborhood. The resulting project pairs archival materials gathered from community gardens with photos and audio captured in those same gardens from April - August, 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 lockdown. Onda’s recordings document a rare moment in which the sounds of these small gardens overtake those of the surrounding city.

In the 1970s, the Lower East Side became a locus of community gardening in New York City, as members of overlapping communities—Puerto Rican immigrants, artists newly moved to the neighborhood for its cheap rents, and anarchist squatters—came together to occupy and transform empty lots into green spaces for gathering, making art, and political organizing. The movement arose in response to the increasing number of vacant lots in Lower Manhattan: with industry and wealth leaving the city, real estate prices dropped, and landlords often found it more profitable to abandon or even burn down their buildings (in order to collect insurance money).

Planted on land technically owned by the city or private landlords, many gardens have faced constant threat of demolition—especially as the land began to regain value in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1994, Mayor Rudy Giuliani decided to auction off the gardens to private developers, leading to a struggle documented in a number of the archival materials displayed here. Despite the destruction of some gardens, the Lower East Side continues to have the highest concentration of community gardens in New York City. Community gardens have also played an important role in other neighborhoods of the city, and struggles over the right for community use of land continue today, especially in areas currently experiencing gentrification.

Viewers are invited to take a brochure, which offers a more detailed history of the gardens, as well as Onda’s reflections on them.

Installation view at MoMA PS1. Images courtesy MoMA PS1
Photos by Steven Paneccasio

Past Group Exhibitions

2022  Life Between Buildings, MoMA PS1, New York, USA
          Don’t Blame it on ZEN: The Way of John Cage & Friends, MOCA Jacksonville, FL, USA  
2021  Don’t Blame it on ZEN: The Way of John Cage & Friends, Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, Asheville, NC, USA
2020  Listening: Resonant Worlds, Art Maebashi, Japan