In the last weeks of April after a tireless winter, the sun’s appearance became consistent and a frozen New York City began to thaw. We shed our wool layers and our dormancy as the layers of snow melted to reveal the earth below. With this reveal of land and skin, the city quickly regenerated. Communities were reborn. Around the same time in April, Emily Johnson introduced her own form of warmth to New York. She began on the shore.
As I emerged from underground on a Far Rockaway bound subway, I saw the morning sun glisten atop the calm Jamaica Bay and felt worlds away from my Brooklyn home that had grown all too familiar during the long winter months. When I exited the subway at my destination on Rockaway Beach Blvd., I consumed the familiar scents of cold air and sea and recalled the coastal town where I was born and raised. Homesick doesn’t quite describe this sensation; I was home-filled.
I continued to think of the various homes I’ve come to know—of memories of their peculiarities and their roles in the different stages of my life—as I walked to Firehouse 59, the meeting point for the first event of SHORE: Lenapehoking. The plan was to join local volunteers in a dune restoration project following a story walk led by the high school student leaders of The Rockaway Waterfront Alliance. The importance of home, particularly the way that individuals come together because of shared adoration and respect for their homes and communities, was evident from the moment I entered the gathering.
Firehouse 59 bustled with movement as volunteers interacted with one another, peeling oranges and playing an impromptu game of soccer. I was sitting on a picnic table observing the ease and comfort of those around me when I noticed that Emily was running with the ball, exuding pure joy and laughter. When the activity wound down and Emily briefly described SHORE and the structure of the day, I reminded myself of the context of this event—I was at an art performance. I forgot.
This temporary lapse in awareness of the context of my participation continued to occupy my thoughts as words were shared. Members of The Rockaway Waterfront Alliance’s high school internship program, Shore Corps, relayed personal stories of their involvement in the Rockaway community and how their participation in the program has helped to connect them with the physical environment where they were born. I attempted to recall another instance where I forgot I was in the presence of a work of art. Nothing. However, this revelation is not a negative one; in fact, it was exciting. I contemplated SHORE’s humble merging of art and life—of performer and audience, of history and action, of land and movement—realizing that this bond is what made our presence on the beach that day so profoundly pure. It was honest.
As we traveled from the lawn to the dunes where we would plant two hundred native shrubs in an attempt to restore the beach, which was severely damaged in Hurricane Sandy, the stories never ceased. I spoke with excited students who would head to college in the fall to study architecture and environmental science, leaving their home in the Rockaways for the first time. I heard reflections ranging from the devastation of the hurricane to a fight for the inclusion of a bike lane along Rockaway Beach Blvd. In each distinct recitation the significance of community was apparent, and it played out as we worked together to plant the shrubs along the dunes.
After all two hundred shrubs were planted, we gathered near an entrance to the newly renovated boardwalk where were asked to form a circle together and to take turns speaking synonyms for “joy.” As the group stumbled through the task, laughing and enacting the meaning of each unique word, I spoke with a poet and musician who was participating in the SHORE: Story curated reading later that night in downtown Manhattan. We shared brief anecdotes about the different cities we call home, our thoughts on our common experiences, and what drew us to Emily’s SHORE performance project. I asked him if there was a theme that would unite all of the storytellers that evening. He responded: we will tell stories of home. As I left the beach, warm with shoes full of sand, preparing to descend back underground, I felt ready to write my own.