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Section 6. Improving Parks and Other Community Facilities

Example: Femke Rosenbaum and Spontaneous Celebrations

Improving community facilities can be a long process.  In order to create a new facility and turn it into a community institution, you may have to wait in line as other facilities are developed, make your way through political and interpersonal thickets, and have enormous persistence.  Femke Rosenbaum, founder of Spontaneous Celebrations Community Arts Center, has been able to negotiate all of the above and more to create a neighborhood center that’s now very much a fixture in her community.

Spontaneous Celebrations is a community arts center in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts.  It runs programs for youth and adults, provides space for other arts projects, and puts on community festivals..  It is a community facility owned and run by the community itself, and the diverse board includes teens as well as adults, and people from many backgrounds and cultures.

The center reflects the vision of its Dutch-born founder, Femke Rosenbaum.  When she and her husband, Peter (Slug), moved to Jamaica Plain in the early 1970’s, they were looking not only for a place to live, but for a community they could be part of and could raise the family they planned.  They hoped to work for social change, not through protest and confrontation, but through art and the forging of relationships.  They bought a big Victorian house, made affordable by the then less-than-savory reputation of the neighborhood, and settled in for the long haul.

Before coming to Jamaica Plan, Femke had taught in an alternative elementary school in Philadelphia.  She says, “I was influenced by Deschooling Society [by Ivan Illich] and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I wanted to bring education into the community.” With the hope of connecting schools and community more closely, she started a community art center in her basement.  She hoped to bring together children from many areas of the diverse neighborhood to make art out of recycled materials, and to learn to respect the earth and one another.  Soon the house was filled most afternoons with children making noise and exercising their creativity.  The first seeds of a unique community facility had been sown.

In the decade before the Rosenbaums came, much of the neighborhood had been under threat of being cut in half by the city’s plans to build a portion of a highway through the middle of it.  Hundreds of homes and businesses had already been torn down to make way for the highway, leaving a swath of undeveloped land slicing through the heart of the community.  This wasteland became a magnet for crime, further dividing Jamaica Plain by creating a dangerous barrier between the areas on either side of it.

By 1970, community protest had halted preparations for the highway (it was formally scrapped in 1975), but the devastation of the area – now called the Southwest Corridor – remained.  In 1976, the Southwest Corridor Community Farm formed to develop community gardens on a piece of the wasteland.  The number of gardeners grew quickly, with Femke and Slug prominent among them.  While the community garden flourished, most of the Southwest Corridor was still a garbage-strewn, overgrown moonscape...and more seeds were sown.

Femke, trailed by three small children, still ran art classes in her basement, but had made connections with a number of groups of all sorts, some oriented toward politics, some toward culture, some toward the environment.  One of the groups was led by a woman who taught folklore at a local university, and who was especially interested in festivals and their importance in various societies.  Femke, by now a member of the Jamaica Plain Arts Council, recruited a loosely-organized group to organize a community festival. They worked with the folklorist to define the spring festival traditions of the various groups – Hispanics, African-Americans, and working-class whites of various European backgrounds – in the Jamaica Plain and neighboring Roxbury neighborhoods.  Eventually, the group got a grant to teach traditional dances and other festival activities to kids, who would then perform them at a community spring celebration.

The first Wake Up the Earth Festival, organized by Femke and a few others, took place in May of 1979 on vacant land in the Southwest Corridor next to the community gardens. It was meant to be “a celebration of what can be accomplished when people of all traditions, cultures, ages, and beliefs come together,” to demonstrate and celebrate the use of the wasteland, and to create a community tradition.  Femke, through previous contact with them, was able to convince skeptical African-American and Latino organizations in Jamaica Plain and neighboring Roxbury, long accustomed to being used politically, to take part.

Cooperation from the city was not forthcoming. “The morning of the festival, we realized that the lot next to the farm was still covered with garbage, when the city had said they would clean it up.  We swept it all up and put it in Slug’s dump truck, and parked it in back of the greenhouse.  Then when the festival was over, we put it back on the ground – all in a big pile, not scattered.  The city eventually took it away, weeks later.”

Participants paraded through the three neighborhoods representing the different cultures involved and there were spectacular dance performances and food.  A community tradition had indeed been born: May, 2007, marked 29th Wake Up the Earth Festival. The first drew several hundred people, remarkable in itself; festival attendees now regularly number about 10,000 – with no publicity.

Shortly after, partially as a result of the success of Wake Up the Earth, Femke was instrumental in an effort by the Arts Council to acquire the old neighborhood fire station, which was about to be replaced, for a community arts and performance center. Eventually, after much political wrangling, the Firehouse Community Arts Center was born, with Femke a member of the board. That board was split, however, between those who believed in art purely for its own sake, and those who, like Femke, also saw it as a vehicle for social change.

Femke is very clear that she wasn’t particularly interested in political art, but rather in art as a vehicle.  “I was political, but I really wanted to do something positive – that’s what Wake Up the Earth was about.  I saw art as a way to bring people together.”.  She was seen by many as a radical, however, and her relationship with the Firehouse and its director was never comfortable.  But her community-building continued: in 1984, now with four children in tow, she led the first Lantern Festival.  A group of neighborhood residents carried home-made candle lanterns – many constructed in lantern-making workshops at the Firehouse – around 62-acre Jamaica Pond, one of the central features of the neighborhood, on an evening in late October. Another community tradition was born: the Lantern Festival, now more than 20 years old, regularly attracts a procession of about 5,000 stretching over a mile – more than the circumference of the pond – bringing light as the nights grow longer.  A few years later, the midwinter Tropical Festival was initiated as a fundraiser for the Firehouse, and also took on a life of its own.

Femke chafed at the programming restrictions placed on her by her association with the Firehouse. “They wanted me to run a program that was a couple of hours a couple of afternoons a week, just to make stuff for the festivals.  But when the festivals get close, you’re working around the clock, and I wanted to do more than just make costumes or teach stiltwalking. So in 1991, I rented the basement under the name of Spontaneous Celebrations. That was the beginning of Spontaneous – the name on the check in 1991.”

When the Firehouse refused her offer to lease the basement space on a long-term basis, Femke started searching for a building, moving Spontaneous Celebrations into the old German Club a few blocks away in 1995. Since then, the center has become a true community facility. It started with a Festival Arts program for middle school kids, which focused on making costumes and decorations for the festivals, and learning traditional dances, songs, and skills (stiltwalking, for instance).  One group of sixth graders became so enthusiastic that they stayed with the program for three years.  When Spontaneous had no high school program for them to graduate into, they started one themselves – Beantown Society, dedicated to the eradication of teen violence in the still-dangerous neighborhood.

A course in drumming from different traditions has led to the Spontaneous Samba Band, which plays at the Spontaneous festivals, and at other events and locations around the city. La Pinata, a program of the Latin American Family Cultural Network, teaches the traditions of their cultures to Latino children. All in all, Spontaneous Celebrations is a lively place that reflects the faces, cultures, and traditions of all the people in the neighborhood and surrounding areas. It’s a community institution now, synonymous with Jamaica Plain. It serves to introduce children of all cultures to one another and to one another’s art and traditions, to awaken their creativity, and to instill in them the importance of celebrating life.  And now, although Femke has retired from her formal association with it, the project carries on, leading to changed lives and a stronger community.