Beach Sessions: How Arts and Culture Can Drive Economic Development

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This coming weekend (August 25 and 26), Beach Sessions returns to Rockaway Beach for its fourth season. True to its name, the performance series, curated by producer and former Rockaway resident, Sasha Okshteyn, brings dance to the exquisite beaches of the Rockaway peninsula.

A New York City native, Okshteyn grew up surrounded by an abundance of cultural offerings in public spaces, which fostered a strong belief that the arts should be accessible. “Why shouldn’t free public art be available in Rockaway as well?” she asks.

Community engagement is a huge part of the mission of Beach Sessions — Okshteyn aims to engage demographics that might not otherwise be exposed to modern dance, particularly Rockaway’s youth and low-income communities. Over the years, partners of Beach Sessions have included Rockaway Artists Alliance, Arts in Parts, Queens Council for the Arts, City Parks Foundation: Partnership in Parks, Surfrider Foundation, The Rockaway Retreat House, The Rockaway Times, and The Wave.

Another important component of the series is an initiative to respect the natural environment of the beach by keeping the beaches clean. “If people see something beautiful on the beach, they’ll be more likely to want to keep the space beautiful,” she explains.

The return of Beach Sessions to Rockaway sparks an interesting conversation about the role of arts and culture in economic development.

As is noted in many urban communities nationwide, arts and culture can serve as a common language to bring together disparate communities, engaging the public in something tangible and moving, that creates a sense of place, and eliminating social class from cultural experiences. A local example is MoMA PS1 and Rockaway Artists Alliance’s Rockaway!, a celebration and illumination of Rockaway’s recovery process in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Over the years, Rockaway! has included projects by Patti Smith, Adrian Villar Rojas, Janet Cardiff, and Katharina Grosse (among others), drawing thousands of visitors to the peninsula and engaging the Rockaway community with free public art. Rockaway! 2018 offers Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus Garden, a site-specific installation highlighting Fort Tilden’s history.

Looking back on the history of New York City, we can see patterns of neighborhoods blossoming following the migration of artists. Many come to NYC for the thriving arts and cultural environment, and the arts are closely tied to the vibrancy and personality of a neighborhood.

In Rockaway, the unique personality of our commercial corridors is a function of the artistry and character of our local businesses. We can find the talent of local Rockaway artists in the culinary offerings of cafes and bakeries like Cuisine by Claudette and Fat Cardinal Provisions, the curated fashion of boutiques like Zingara Vintage and Lana’s Loft, and local bars and restaurants that value live music and performance art, like Caracas, Epstein's, Rustwoods, and Rockaway Brewing Co. Rockaway is flavored and defined by these business/ artist partnerships.

On a higher level, this deep valuing of the arts is upheld in our city government: The Rockaway Waterfront Alliance (RWA) is one of the 2018 recipients of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs’ Building Community Capacity Grant, which offers community-based development organizations and cultural nonprofits the opportunity to team up to strengthen the role of culture in NYC neighborhoods. RWA is partnering with the Rockaway Artists Alliance to conduct a neighborhood arts inventory and community-driven cultural planning.

While it is apparent that major income discrepancies still exist throughout the peninsula, Rockaway has seen an overall economic boost in the last few years. (According to New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli’s “An Economic Snapshot of the Rockaways” report, in 2016, the number of businesses in Rockaway was 11 percent higher than before Sandy, and total sales in that same year exceeded pre-storm numbers by 35 percent.). However, one of the major economic challenges of the Rockaway peninsula is the task of encouraging beachgoers to patronize the commercial corridors. There are currently various initiatives in place aiming to facilitate that connection, including the Combrr application, the Everything Rockaway application, and the Rockaway Business Alliance’s Rockaway ConneX.

In the spirit of connectivity, Beach Sessions 2018 moves audience members across the peninsula, transforming three diverse locations: the beach, the boardwalk, and the Rockaway Castle. The evening of August 25 begins on the beach at Beach 110th, with a procession down the boardwalk leading audience members to The Castle by way of Beach 117th, where performances from 14 artists of various disciplines offer audiences the opportunity to mold their own experience. The evening of August 25 ends in a dance party, featuring local D.J.s, Brother Nature and Baby Love. The Sunday performance, “Flip it and Reverse it,” changes the direction of the performance; audience members start at the Castle and end at Beach 110th. The mission of this year's series is “to explore the full capabilities of the peninsula through art.”

With the vision of creating thriving commercial corridors across the peninsula, supporting arts and culture will help contribute to the social impact of the Rockaways.

See you at Beach Sessions!

Saturday, August 25, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Schedule:

5 p.m.: Biba Bell, Hustle on the Sand - On the sand at Beach 110th Street.

5:30 p.m.: AUNTS Procession - Beach 110th Street to The Castle (Beach 117th and Newport Avenue).

6 p.m.: Evening performances at The Castle (Beach 117th Street and Newport Avenue).

Sunday, August 26, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.

FLIP IT AND REVERSE IT

Schedule:

2 p.m.: Afternoon performances at The Castle (Beach 117th Street and Newport Avenue).

4 p.m.: AUNTS Procession - The Castle to Beach 110th Street.

4:30 p.m.: Biba Bell, Hustle on the Sand - On the sand at Beach 110th Street.

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