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Art Project to Preserves Seniors' Memories in Clay

By Serena Solomon | August 7, 2012 2:37pm

LOWER EAST SIDE — A collaborative art project is aiming to decorate a community center with the memories of local public housing senior citizens.

"Memories and Wishes," an initiative of local artist Syma Afia, is raising funds to decorate the Hamilton Madison House Community Center with clay tiles created by elderly residents of the Alfred E. Smith Houses on the Lower East Side.

The project already has $1,600 from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and needs to raise a total of $9,000 so the art installation can be completed by December this year.

"The city is changing around them [local senior citizens] especially on the Lower East Side," said Syma, who goes by only her first name as an artist. "They have stories to tell and I think it would be wonderful to save those stories."

"It might give them a voice in a city that maybe doesn't often listen to them, or hear them," added Syma, who is in her 60s and lives on the Lower East Side.

The remaining funds are being raised through crowd funding site Indiegogo.

The project aims to add about 50 tiles on the wall surrounding the "senior bodega" at the center at 50 Madison St., where elderly participants serve snacks to children in programs. Syma will contribute some of the tiles, but the seniors will create the majority.

Residents have aged into the complex, creating a naturally occurring retirement center or NORC at the NYCHA housing complex, according to Brenda Tong, the director of senior services at the center. The center serves about 800 seniors each year and dolled out more than 16,000 lunches last fiscal year to the about 1,500 elderly residents in the surrounding complex.

"They moved in while they were young. They raised their families here,” Tong said. "Some have been here for 40 or 50 years."

Syma, who is also a freelance educator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has already interviewed some residents who intend to add their stories on the tiles.

"I am getting stories like 'I remember when my whole family lived together in one bedroom and my baby brother slept in a drawer,'" she said of one elderly woman's experience.

Other residents spoke about their hopes that the future generation would be safe and remain a close community community, Syma said.

There will also be cultural tiles representing the different nationalities who call Smith Houses home.

Syma has already completed numerous collaborative public art project including some with school children in both Boston and New York City.

"They are leaving a legacy of their stories," said Syma, of the seniors who choose to make a tile.

"I think it could benefit us all," she said.