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Made in the Lower East Side: Transforming Vacant Spaces, With Neighbors' Help

Designing and providing a service for a community is complicated and challenging: making sure you are providing what is actually needed, and not what you think is needed, can be a bit of a balancing act. For made in the Lower East Side (miLES), a project that helps bring new opportunities to vacant storefronts in a Manhattan neighborhood, this was even more of a challenge. Very few of the team actually lived in the Lower East Side.

miLES started in early 2012 when several participants, led by Eric Ho, joined forces after an openIDEO challenge to turn their ideas into a pilot-able project. The Lower East Side was traditionally an immigrant, working-class neighborhood and has drastically changed in the recent years. Even through it is a very “up-and-coming” and quickly gentrifying neighborhood, there are still over 200 vacant or unused lots and storefronts. miLES saw this as an opportunity to turn these spaces into vibrant community hubs, versus the traditional path of a new bar or restaurant.

TYTHEdesign joined miLES in early summer 2012 as the community engagement partner. Since none of us were from the hood, we wanted to be careful not to carry our team and personal assumptions through the whole project. As the business model and data research was happening, TYTHEdesign and a series of volunteers engaged in activities to understand the pulse and needs of the community, to help the community become engaged in both the learning, brainstorming and prototyping process, and to help miLES start a dialog.

Our first engagement activity was a series of on-the-street interviews that could be used in casual conversation around the many different parts of the community. Our goal with the interviews was not to create a baseline, or to gather replicable information, but just to open the door. We wanted to learn from both residents and storeowners, and gauge their simple interest or disinterest in the project.

It was insightful. Most people were excited about the idea of fewer bars and more programmed community activities, but we also heard from some people that they didn’t want the program at all; they liked the quiet space and didn’t want anything new. It was useful for us as a team to remember that just because an idea might be helpful doesn't mean everyone in the community will want to buy in.

Following the interviews, TYTHEdesign and miLES co-created an interactive street activity. We wanted to engage people in a process of listening and learning, show that we had already listened to the community through past interviews, tell the story of miLES, and to have fun. Our main goal was to use the activity to simply continue the conversation. We asked community members to tell us what they would want to see in the empty space or storefront, by writing on a small card. In the process of writing on the card, the MiLES team would engage the community member in a conversation, and it would help us understand the context and needs of the community. Through these activities, we learned a lot, including that sometimes our assumptions were wrong. We didn’t get any hard data, but we did understand that people were excited, that they were interested, and that they understood the need.

As a group of outsiders, all this feedback gave us the encouragement to keep moving forward and the knowledge we were somewhat on the right track. In keeping with this process of community engagement and testing before implementing, the miLES project has taken a big step forward. In partnership with Fourth Arts Block, miLES opened their first storefront at FABWORKS starting April 1, 2013 for a three-month period. They will use the space to test out their business model, find the true needs of the community, the types of services they can provide. Over the next few months they will hold classes, event, co-working, community meetings and short-term rentals. They strive to learn from others and turn them into vibrant community hubs for working, learning, connecting, and starting up new projects.

Watch for a new Kickstarter campaign, coming soon, for future spaces. Learn more at

First image (cc) Vivenne Gucwa, courtesy of miLES; second image courtesy of TYTHEdesign.

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