Hester Street Collaborative

Why is design a good skill for young people?

Our work tends to be very hands on, fun, and playful.
Anne Frederick: Design is very interdisciplinary by nature. You can connect design into almost any curriculum. In the elementary school we connect to science, art, social studies…design allows you to connect what you are learning to very tangible activities. That becomes empowering for students because they get to actually see their efforts lead to tangible changes. They are building things, planting things…which then actually become a part of their local built environment.

That process is particularly rewarding for students who have a hard time pulling it together in the classroom. Some students are a different kind of learner. Design allows for the different learning styles to be celebrated and exercised…we see our students keep coming back to learn and they get engaged more and more.

Hester Street Collaborative usually works with underserved communities, and brings the techniques and processes of design and community advocacy.

How do you define an “underserved community?”


Anne Frederick: For us, “underserved communities” are communities that might not have a say otherwise in the development of their neighborhood. We take our cues from the people that make up a place. We always partner with groups that are doing organizing work and have a membership, or really have their ear to the ground. These are communities that might be facing issues of displacements, lack of affordable housing — people who have identified themselves as needing the resources of a design studio.

We really look toward the social justice and community-based organizations around the city, who have already identified a need, and we see if the types of resources and services we provide can help. If there is some way we can work together, we then collaboratively shape that scope of work together.

How did the collaborative get started?

Anne Frederick: Hester Street Collaborative was started by myself and the two partners of Leroy Street Studio, where I used to work as an architect. When we moved our offices down to the Lower East Side, we felt that there was an opportunity to create a practice that related to the neighborhood in a meaningful way. It also happened that when we moved downtown, 9/11 occurred, slowing down the whole business and giving us an opportunity to rethink ourselves. It had been an interest of the partners and myself to do something grounded to the community prior to 9/11, but that event really gave us a moment to move in new directions.

We started by developing design education programs with public schools. I had a particular interest in working with young people. Since I had been already teaching in other design-related education programs, which happened to be located across the street from a middle school, we thought, “Why not just walk across the street!”

We take our cues from the people that make up a place.
We started out by founding Ground Up, which is our Design Education program with [public school] MS131. We kicked everything off by thinking about how students could impact spaces, either in their school campuses or community. We started this within a small little sculpture garden in front of the school.

From there we grew into more design education work, as well as working with small community-based organizations on larger open space projects around the neighborhood, and then more recently citywide.

So, you started as a group engaged in projects local to the Lower East Side; are there are any plans to widen your scope?

Anne Frederick: When we started, it was really important to acknowledge the place that we are located. Since the Lower East Side is such a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, we really wanted to be aware of the impact having a studio in this neighborhood had on accelerating that gentrification in whatever way it does. So it was important to start out with the idea that the [community] needs are here first.

The past ten years we have really focused locally, even though our mission is truly citywide. We have started here, but through word of mouth and with the help of our partners, [we almost always work collaboratively with other organizations on each project] have received the opportunity to work in other neighborhoods.

Right now we feel we are at a moment where we feel we can continue to contribute to our neighborhood, but begin to serve more communities. We are thinking about how some of the tools and expertise of designers can aid social justice movements not just near us, but throughout the city.

So the project development and design process is guided by teaming up with community organizations, rather than proposing design plans from a location far removed?

Anne Frederick: Exactly, that is very important to us.

What is the usual process for making the type of public space projects Hester Street Collaborative develops?

Anne Frederick: Usually it starts with some stakeholders — organizations or individuals — who have identified a need for something.

I’ll use the East River Waterfront as an example — there was a coalition of organizations who are imbedded in that neighborhood, and who wanted to have a say in the development of the [local] waterfront.

They were concerned that the further development of the waterfront would accelerate the gentrification of the area, and place additional pressure on the constituencies who are already being squeezed out.  This group had already identified needs, and just by being based in the neighborhood and having relationships with the organizations in the coalition, HSC started to have conversations with the organization to see if they needed help with the community organizing process for envisioning and visualizing the waterfront.

Usually the work evolves from a group or coalition, who expresses interest about a public or open space issue and we will partner with them. Those partnerships can be very long term, because these projects just don’t happen overnight. Projects of this nature can happen over many years and decades.

Does HSC work with grassroots organizations [bottom up] in addition to city-based agencies [top down]?

Anne Frederick: Yes, we work with city agencies a lot. Often we are working to be a bridge between the more grassroots groups and city agencies. For example we have been working on a project titled People Make Parks for several years with Partnerships for Park. The project is attempt to make the parks capital process more transparent and easier to engage with.  For groups who want to have a role in how their parks are redesigned, People Make Parks provides a road map for that process.

Do you ever face any resistance from the communities you engage with?

Anne Frederick: Working with lots of people is never easy. Democracy is not a neat and tidy process. Part of the interesting part of collaboration is allowing different opinions and concerns to arise, and work themselves out. We don’t advocate for one view or the other but be try to develop a broad platform where participation can happen. Not everyone is always going to be happy, but that is the nature of the beast.

So HSC is broken down into education programs, advocacy, and community design. What kinds of projects and activities fall under those categories?

Anne Frederick: For the education programs – we work in public schools, with elementary, middle, and high school students all in the LES community. We are really committed to have that longer term community engagement here, [Lower East Side] so we can have a more in depth experience with individual students rather than serving thousands of students. One of the goals of the design education programs is to impact the youth that we are working with. We feel that the best way to do that is through sustained engagement. For example, the elementary school we have been working with, we have been building an outdoor classroom (school garden) since 2004. Every year, each group of students who participates, adds another layer to it. Sometimes we work with the same students from grades 2 through 5.

Thats awesome! You get to see some of your students grow up and witness the development of their education.

Anne Frederick: Yes, its a great process.

What falls under “community design,” and “advocacy”?

Anne Frederick: In regards to our community design, we work with organizations and constituency groups in the neighborhood, and providing resources of planners, artists and designers to impact the community space. Like I said, often those are very long-term projects. For example, we have been working on the Allen and Pike Street corridors since 2004, and we coordinate community participation, to initiating the the capital process and developing an ongoing series of public art and design interventions at the site, as a way to continue to draw attention to that space, and envision what it could be.

Design allows for students with different learning styles to be celebrated.
Often there’s a fluidity between our educational programs, advocacy, and community design because our students will contribute to the art installation. Each area of our organization is not distinct from the others, but all are working together to empower communities to impact change of community public spaces. We sort of address the issues we care about through these different ways.

For us, advocacy is about working with our partners to try and bring about the change they want to see in their communities. So we work with with elected officials and city agencies to channel community concerns and aspirations.

How do you feel that this sort of process helps to build social connections between community members?

Anne Frederick: Our work tends to be very hands on, fun, and playful. So providing opportunities for individuals to participate in a fun interactive way, is a much less intimidating format than going to a town hall meeting and having to stand up in front of a lot of people and voice your concern. We try to take the process and meet people where they are at, to insure their ongoing participation.

How does Hester Street Collaborative envision a more sustainable city?

Anne Frederick: Having engaged, invested citizens that have a clear and transparent ability to effect change in their neighborhood. [That] allows for more people to invest more effort in the place where they live. If you think your thoughts and actions matter, you are going to be more of a steward of your environment — that, for me, is sustainability.

About Hester Street Collaborative:

Hester Street Collaborative’s (HSC) mission is to empower residents of underserved communities by providing them with the tools and resources necessary to have a direct impact on shaping their built environment. We do this through a hands-on approach that combines design, education, and advocacy. HSC seeks to create more equitable, sustainable, and vibrant neighborhoods where community voices lead the way in improving their environment and neglected public spaces.

HSC was founded in 2002 by the architecture firm Leroy Street Studio (LSS). The East New York Urban Youth Corp, a nonprofit group specializing in building rehab and community outreach, approached LSS to work on an affordable housing project and Community Center. As a result, the LSS partners/HSC co-founders designed and built a series of playful interventions for the courtyards, as well as a lobby with local sculptors and tile makers, and future tenants. The lobby design replaced standard tiles with mosaics and hand carved clay tiles, and installed ferro-cement planters in the courtyard. The transformation was dramatic, and the project led to the formation of Hester Street Collaborative.

About Anne Frederick:

As the founding director of HSC, Anne has worked to develop a community design-build practice that responds to the needs of under-resourced NYC communities. Her unique approach to community design integrates education and youth development programming with participatory art, architecture, and planning strategies. This approach is rooted in partnership and collaboration with various community based organizations, schools and local residents. Prior to founding HSC, Anne worked as an architect at Leroy Street Studio Architecture and as a design educator at Parsons School of Design and the New York Foundation for Architecture. Anne graduated from Parsons School of Design and The New School for Social Research in 1998, and has represented the work of HSC at various conferences, lectures and exhibitions.


Photos: Jessica Bruah