Interviews: QNS Makers, QNS+A

Bridget Bartolini

Community Educator

To those who don’t know what FBSP is, can you give us a little background?

The Five Boro Story Project is a program I created to produce community events that bring New Yorkers together through sharing stories and art inspired by our neighborhoods. We produce live storytelling events that showcase community members sharing life stories, songs, poems, and other art about their neighborhood. At the events we also have participatory activities – like open mics, story circles, and discussions – that invite everyone to share their stories, memories, and ideas.

The main goals are to strengthen connections to our neighbors and neighborhoods, challenge stereotypes and promote pride in the outer boroughs and marginalized areas, and celebrate the diverse neighborhoods of NYC.

What inspired you to start the FBSP?

A big part of my inspiration for starting the Five Boro Story Project came from my experiences growing up in South Richmond Hill in Queens, a working class neighborhood with lots of immigrants, where it’s very culturally rich but where there’s not much cultural public programming or resources.

It’s a place where “making it” means getting out. But I wondered, what if those of us in these neighborhoods on the “periphery” of the city had more opportunities to appreciate and build on what’s here? So I started the Five Boro Story Project with the aim of providing those opportunities.

Richmond Hill Love Letter. Photo c/o Bridget.

Why did you choose to focus your programs around Storytelling?

Originally, I just wanted to create fun public programs that connect us to our neighborhoods, and I didn’t know how to do that, so I decided to go back to school.

While I was getting my Masters Degree in Community Education, I learned about storytelling – how storytelling is fundamental to the way we understand the world, and how the act of sharing personal stories has an incredible power to create connections between people.

I learned a lot from great storytellers who I met who also produce events, like Michele Carlo (who does “It Came From New York”), and Will Lee and Rick Patrick (who do “Talkingstick”).

FBSP was a part of The Laundromat Project (not where it started), how important is it to have the support of local art organizations like them?

I launched without any budget, just because I felt like the programs I was going to do were needed. I didn’t have a blueprint, I didn’t know what shape it was going to take, and it felt scary. Around that time, I learned of The Laundromat Project, and applied for their Create Change Fellowship. The LP was really instrumental in helping me shape the FBSP. I learned about frameworks for using arts and culture in community organizing, and socially engaged art.

Before the LP, I thought of myself as an educator; they helped me see that I am also an artist, and helped me deepen my practice. The fact that the LP chose me as a Fellow, and the following year as a Commissioned Artist, affirmed that what I was doing had value. Most importantly, it connected me to a really great network of people who love their neighborhoods and are using creative means to make them better places to live. Being educated (both formally in school and informally from friends and peers) and finding a new family of like-minded artists, made it not so scary to put my own program out into the world.

I [Amy] attended your program, Queens Documented, both at Terraza 7 in Jackson Heights and the Latimer House in Flushing—both amazing events, but very different. Why is it so important for you to hold FBSP events in neighborhoods across Queens?

I feel really strongly that I don’t just want to do events in neighborhoods that are convenient for people coming from Manhattan. Queens is more than Astoria and Long Island City! I’ve done events in neighborhoods like Flushing and Jamaica, working with people who live in there, as I do for all our events. I want to do these programs all over the city, but it’s especially important to do them in neighborhoods where there’s not a lot of cultural programs going on already, where there aren’t enough opportunities to celebrate the local history and culture.

With the FBSP I’m aiming to strengthen community within and across neighborhoods. Some people follow the FBSP around the city, and it gives them a reason to get to know places they may have never seen otherwise. It’s easy to get stuck in routine, and stick to where you live and where you work, but this is such a glorious city, and it’s a shame if you don’t experience what’s out there!

From the first “Queens Documented” at Terraza 7 with storyteller Affandy Yacoob. Photo by Alex Gordon.

For those who are not subscribed to your newsletter, could you tell us more about, Richmond Hill Love Letter, launching this Saturday, April 9th?

Richmond Hill Love Letter is our most in-depth program ever, honoring my home neighborhood, and it’s launching this Saturday, April 9th! It’s a storytelling, art, and oral history program aiming to strengthen community by highlighting all there is to love about Richmond Hill.

Richmond Hill Love Letter has two parts:

  1. From April to October we’re holding free community activities, including story circles, community discussions, and art-making and writing workshops in libraries, community centers, and parks.
  2. In November we’ll have a culminating event which will showcase performances by community members of true life stories, poems and other art inspired by Richmond Hill. It will be an ode to the neighborhood like we’ve never seen!

What are your summer time memories growing up in Richmond Hill?

I have such happy memories of childhood summers in Richmond Hill! As a kid I’d run around barefoot in the street playing tag with the other kids on the block. We’d open the fire hydrants. And at dusk we’d catch fireflies.

Here in South Richmond Hill (aka Little Guyana) our usual summer days are filled with music. A good portion of daily life is spent in the backyard, and the air is filled with high pitched voices of Indian women on Bollywood soundtracks, and the deep thumping of reggae, soca and calypso.

If you could sum up what the Five Boro Story Project is in one word, what word would you choose?


Finally, what are your future plans for FBSP?

The Five Boro Story Project is my passion project, but I want it to become my day job. I partner with awesome people and organizations for each program that I do, but I am the only common thread between all the programs. In a year or two I’d like to have a dedicated partner in each borough to help grow our programs. And I want to do more programs like Richmond Hill Love Letter, that aren’t just one event, but sustained programs that are really making a positive impact.