Penn State faculty members' artful solution to rat problem

December 19, 2011

In 2008, fed up with the rat-infested vacant lot next door to their New York City apartment, Penn State School of Visual Arts faculty members John Bowman and Ann Shostrom founded First Street Green (FSG), a community organization with a goal of cleaning up the lot at 33 First Street in New York City's East Village.

Three years later, the lot has been transformed into an “Art Park” supported by FSG in collaboration with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation (NYC DPR) and other community groups. This fall, the lot was the first site to host the touring BMW Guggenheim Lab, a mobile think tank devoted to cultural programming. In December, the Art Park held its first post-lab event, part holiday celebration, part work session, where attendees built a sculpture with modular tiles filled with hand-written ideas for the park. The ideas were generated during fall FSG workshops at the lab, facilitated by Penn State School of Visual Arts graduate students.

First Street Green’s grassroots effort began with letter-writing to gather community support, followed by benefit art exhibitions and performances at a storefront near the lot to raise awareness and funds. The organization began to gain visibility when a drawing of the proposed park and community space caught the attention of Manhattan Parks Borough Commissioner William Castro. “He believed this was a better solution to the rat problem than a conventional grass-filled park,” Shostrom said.

FSG is now working with community and arts groups “to realize the community’s dreams for the new park,” Shostrom said. In conjunction with the NYC DPR, First Street Green is developing a federal grant proposal to obtain support for an ambitious 2012 programming schedule that includes arts-related cultural and educational events. A sculpture garden is in the works and will feature a new piece by Robert Sestok, a Detroit-based artist with ties to New York. Sestok said the welded steel sculpture, called "First St. Iron," was inspired by the wrought iron fences lining the streets near a friend’s house in the East Village.

First Street Green has been supported by Penn State’s Institute for the Arts and Humanities and School of Visual Arts, the Citizens Committee of New York City, and the Partnership for Parks. For more information, visit First Street Green Art Park on Facebook or go to

  • John Bowman and Ann Shostrom adjust tiles in the 'visioning wall' at a First Street Green workshop at the BMW Guggenheim Lab on Sept. 10, 2011.

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated January 11, 2012