In May 2021, in the midst of the darkness of the pandemic in New York City, a bright ray of hope and optimism arrived on the west side of Manhattan. As someone who is based in New York, words can't express how important that bright ray of hope and optimism meant, given the state of trauma we were all enduring at that time. That bright ray of hope and optimism was the opening of Little Island—a new public park for New Yorkers and visitors where they can experience nature and art in an urban oasis on the Hudson River.
In the midst of long windows of quarantining, Little Island became an essential escape for many residents of the city as an outdoor, communal environment to heal and connect with others. Given their journey, I decided to sit down with their director of education and community relations to get an inside look at the magic of Little Island and see what we can all learn from their success.
Damian Bazadona: Many reading this won't be able to visit the park in person. Help me paint a mental picture for them—what's a typical day look like at Little Island?
Michael Wiggins: No day on Little Island looks the same, not just because the garden is alive and always changing, but because the space and our public programs are both designed to allow people to choose how they want to experience the park. The pathways meander. You can reach every corner of the park from at least two different directions. That's the design working to slow you down and giving you the chance to breathe and be human.
In the wee hours of the morning, it's quiet. We open at 6 a.m. That's the time for locals who like to start their day with a run or a walk before the sun gets too hot. By 11 a.m. most days, things are starting to pick up, especially from May to October when programming starts. You might take a Creative Break, which is a light touch workshop in visual art, dance or music. Do a watercolor. Dance the Bachata. Late mornings are a great time to be in the park, especially for people who live nearby and for local families and children.
Afternoons, you can expect to stumble upon pop-up performances in various locations in the park. Live performances of dance, music and circus. Buskers—the energy and variety of street performance is the energy on tap.
During the evenings, Little Island hosts a range of events, all summer long, for visitors of every age, throughout the various spaces of our park. The Amph, our 687-seat performance space facing the Hudson River, hosts ticketed events featuring artists across all disciplines. The Glade, an intimate stage set at the foot of an inviting lawn, hosts all free events—music, comedy and arts workshops for visitors of all ages. The Play Ground, our open plaza, offers food and beverage options, pop-up performances, and late-night programming including trivia nights, bingo and sing-alongs.
How would you describe the Little Island community? I would imagine you would have such a diverse range of visitors.
Little Island's community goal is to look like the inside of a New York City subway car. We want to achieve that diversity from all angles. Our staff, artists and visitors come from New York and all over the world. To our delight, there are times when the park is filled with more everyday New Yorkers than tourists, which means we are successfully saving a space for local people to enjoy this new world-class attraction.
Little Island is a space where people of all ages and backgrounds are invited to engage, explore and thrive. We provide educational programming in the park and host various community and arts organizations every summer, including Greenwich House Music School, MoCADA, Children's Museum of the Arts, the Free Black Women's Library and more. We also partner with neighborhood schools, provide job opportunities for young people, and provide free tickets to all of our performances in the Amph.
Our partnerships with Hudson Guild, Greenwich House and the Westbeth Artists Residents Council have brought art, dance and theater workshops to local older adults. Participants in these partnerships work with our Little Island artists-in-residence on public programs, creating and sharing their art with park visitors. Our teaching artists have led Latin dance nights with the community at Hudson Guild; Greenwich House hosts a weekly musical Creative Break in the park; and the seniors of Westbeth performing original stories as part of the Little Island Storytelling Festival.
How do you look at the ways Little Island can engage the surrounding community? It's one thing to get people to be a part of the community, it's another for the community to be active. Are there any particular investments you think are critical to build, grow and maintain a passionate community for Little Island?
We think the way to build community is to engage, educate and employ local people.
Making sure our employees have everything they need to be successful is the best investment and mission critical. We are a public-facing enterprise. Our whole reason for existence revolves around generating joy and holding space for people to connect with each other using art and nature. So, providing every single one of our employees with authentic opportunities to learn and grow—a fair and engaging workplace—that is the soil that we need to be able to cultivate community on Little Island.
We partner with local community-based organizations to offer free tickets to all of our shows, and we support creative communities. Our Teen Night is a great example of the kind of impactful and multi-level community partnerships we are interested in creating.
Produced in partnership with The Door, a social service agency that serves youth in crisis, Little Island's Teen Night offers a safe and brave space for young people ages 16–24 to have fun, learn, perform and engage with art, nature and community. Young people are invited to join us for this weekly series of art workshops, panel discussions, open rehearsals and performances in the Glade. The event is joyful and open to the public. Visitors make up the bulk of the enthusiastic audience for this event, so we are putting people together who would probably never be in the same space—a tourist from Sweden and an LGBTQ kid from the south Bronx, for example.
Through our Community Ticketing Program, we partner with the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) and the New York City Department of Education's Office of Arts and Special Projects (OASP) to distribute free performance tickets to organizations and families throughout NYC, ensuring that a broad diversity of New Yorkers have access to Little Island's programming. In our first year, we distributed over 40,000 free tickets.
How do you keep your finger on the pulse of your community to bring them the experiences they want most?
We listen to our visitors, and we try to be responsive. We conduct formal observations to see how visitors are using the park and interacting. We track which items are moving off the food trucks. We use all the usual tools like a visitor survey, audience survey and even the odd focus group when we need help making a decision. We invite visitors to complete a survey after the show, and staff review a snapshot of survey results, including visitors' comments, at the end of each month.
Finding the right balance of programming will always be a moving target, but the quality of a visitor's experience really sinks or swims on more mundane things. Clean bathrooms. Clean bathrooms. Clean bathrooms. Our standard of care, the way we maintain the park, is paramount. People need a safe, clean, inviting place to sit and just be human. It is not an extra.
Given you do such a wide range of arts programming, what's your message for artists and creators to come present their work at Little Island? It's a beautiful, outdoor public space on the water—while it's an amazing experience for the patron, that must be a unique canvas for artists.
New York's artists and performers help bring Little Island's park landscape to life, inspiring discovery and joy for all who visit. Through our artists-in-residence program, we partner with a cohort of innovative performing artists and visionaries to help curate and lead programming and events throughout the park.
Local artists interested in bringing their talents to Little Island can apply through our annual Perform in the Park open call program, for paid performance opportunities. Perform in the Park invites artists who can channel New York's iconic spontaneity and energy and bring that spirit to life on Little Island's dynamic stages and spaces, surrounded by nature, water, and city views. In 2021 and 2022, we presented approximately 75 Perform in the Park artists.
In practical terms, we are always working to present artists and entertainments that make sense within the context of a public park. Artists must be comfortable working outdoors, sharing work that embraces the unique challenges of each of our venues. Finally, and most important, we value artistic excellence, which means different things depending on the discipline.
As an organization that is still reasonably new to the market, how do you think about investing in building new relationships and supporters while keeping a bond with those that have been engaged since when you first launched? You have visitors who live less than a mile away, and at the same time, visitors who reside across the world. How do you balance these needs?
For local people, we're their neighborhood park, a clean, well-lighted place that they can rely on. For tourists, we are an attraction—a place where they are hoping to have a memorable experience. Serving both those needs is a balancing act. The hard part is that we must do it 365 days a year, consistently.
Our visitorship and our audiences are wildly diverse, but no matter who you are, we want you to feel like we thought of you before you came. That's the hat trick we are trying to pull off, every day. When a visitor, whoever they are, has a need, we want to be ready and able to meet it. Whether it is making sure the park is fully accessible for someone who uses a wheelchair or putting entertainment onstage that is accessible to the widest audience. That $3 ice cream cone, that rollicking musical variety show in the Amph, and that family-friendly circus performer that just pops up in The Play Ground might feel like serendipity to visitors, but a lot of planning goes into making the park experience feel surprising and whimsical. The way we program Little Island, even down to the offerings in the food trucks, reflects our desire to offer a little bit of something for everyone, every day.
One of my favorite things about Little Island is the incredible workforce program you've created for the next generation of talent in the city. I wish more organizations would take an active role in this. Can you explain what the program is and why we should be excited about its impact?
Little Island's Workforce Development Program is called Pathways to Employment. It's really a suite of programs and activities that are about giving people more opportunity to learn, earn, and build a career. In simple terms, Pathways reflects our commitment to caring about our employees' next step.
Some of our work in this space looks traditional and some of it is more organic and opportunistic. Through our partnership with the City University of New York (CUNY), college students and recent alumni can learn professional skills and receive pathways to employment through paid opportunities with Little Island.
We launched our Internship Program in July 2018 with two interns recruited from our partnership with Hudson Guild, which serves the local NYCHA houses. We launched our Fellowship Program in 2021, offering six CUNY students a work/study program that aligned with their career goals. This year, we launched our Usher Corps Program to provide summer jobs for an additional 16 CUNY students.
Our alumni group for these programs now totals 41 people, and we are serving more people every year.
That's real progress. Congratulations. This must have a profound impact on the people in your organization.
Pathways is about our commitment to creating high-quality jobs for our staff, especially our seasonal staff. Everyone on our staff gets access to professional development and training that helps them be better at the job they have now, or a future job. As we enter year three of our operation, I can say that people are routinely being promoted from within. I would say this work makes it more likely that our employees know that we care about them and it demonstrates that there is room to grow at Little Island. Our approach to workforce starts with the idea that there are lots of talented people out there who just need a chance to shine. We now have a slew of success stories featuring staff who have either been promoted internally or have found worthwhile opportunities elsewhere, with our support.
If more employers took this kind of approach, we think the world of work would be improved for New Yorkers who need good jobs. Just by trying to make our seasonal employment opportunities, of which there are many, a little bit more rewarding, we are changing people's lives for the better.
Little Island is now a part of the fabric of New York City. What's the one word you would describe the future of our amazing city?
Building Passionate Communities is a regular interview series where Damian Bazadona, president and founder of Situation Group, sits down with extraordinary leaders at organizations that have paved the way in both cultivating passionate communities and driving them to meaningful action. For more about Building Passionate Communities, or to be considered for the series, please get in touch.