Interview by Evil E.
Yvonne Shortt is the head of a social practice non profit studio called RPGA Studio. She has been working in Queens with a focus on revitalizing spaces, transportation safety, garbage, inspiring youth, and commercial corridors for 10 years.
Tell my readers about the space in Rego Park, Queens. Why did you want to clean it up?
This space was garbage ridden since 1939. By 2012 it was being used by drug addicts as a place to shoot up. The addicts literally created a shelter out of around 200 umbrellas that they lodged in the bushes. The bushes were around 3 feet tall. You had the bushes and right inside of the bushes you had hundreds of umbrellas. The men literally built a den to get high. It was incredibly filthy with food and trash. And, surrounding the space was more garbage.
Every day I walked past this space to go to my studio or to take my kids to school. One night while on my way home one guy jumped out of the space and started yelling at me. It became much scarier to walk by. Some nights the men weren’t there but two or three times a week they were. I called so many city agencies to try and get help for the two men shooting up in the bushes. I’ve had family members who got high so I felt like I didn’t just want to kick them out. Someone would come and try to get the two men to go to a drug rehab center but the guys wouldn’t budge so the city couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything more. This is exactly what would happen to one of my family members. We would beg the person to get help but they wouldn’t. The process was hard for me to see because I had seen it play out in my own family.
How did you finally get the space in Rego Park, Queens cleared out?
One night I noticed the men weren’t in their umbrella den getting high so two friends and I set to work. We took down all of the umbrellas and put them on the sidewalk. It took 4 hours. By the end the umbrella den was no more. The next morning the sidewalk was lined with umbrellas. People had to walk in the street because the sidewalk was covered with broken umbrellas. Then, I called the city to pick up the umbrellas. I felt like I turned a corner I would no longer enable the men and I would no longer enable my family member.
Did you get help fixing up the space?
I found 10 neighbors to help. I raised around $2000 for plants. They helped me plant a drought tolerant garden. However, the space required maintenance and very few of the 10 made a long term commitment to help weed so the garden could grow. It became just my family and three neighbors. I did not give up. I got more funding from my social practice, Citizens Committee for NYC, and Council member Koslowitz. We continued to plant. And, the LIRR working nearby put in a lovely brick wall along the perimeter to prevent erosion after they saw me working in the garden for several months. They had been working nearby fixing an underpass wall. One is never truly alone.
Last summer we designed and painted a small mural on one of the walls in the garden.It was a way to get some of the local kids involved. Now, the kids help with weeding and the mural has never been vandalized. This past year we used CAD software and 3d printers to make the mural 3 dimensional. I hung wire and flowers along the fence surrounding the mural. Now the flowers appear to come out of the wall. And they dance in the wind.Today the space is a 700 square foot green space complete with an art installation.
Not too long ago I saw one of the men who used to get high. He was no longer bare footed without a shirt. He was wearing shoes, had on a shirt, and was coming out of the local CVS.
Picture of the same space in disarray in 1939