For forty years, as New York’s Lower East Side went from disinvested to gentrified, residents lived with a wound at the heart of the neighborhood, a wasteland of vacant lots known as the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA). Most of the buildings on the fourteen-square-block area were condemned in 1967, displacing thousands of low-income people of color with the promise that they would soon return to new housing—housing that never came.
Over decades, efforts to keep out affordable housing sparked deep-rooted enmity and stalled development, making SPURA a dramatic study of failed urban renewal, as well as a microcosm epitomizing the greatest challenges faced by American cities since World War II.
Artist and urban scholar Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani was invited to enter this tense community to support a new approach to planning, which she accepted using collaboration, community organizing, public history, and public art. Having engaged her students at The New School in a multi-year collaboration with community activists, the exhibitions and guided tours of her Layered SPURA project provided crucial new opportunities for dialogue about the past, present, and future of the neighborhood.
Simultaneously revealing the incredible stories of community and activism at SPURA, and shedding light on the importance of collaborative creative public projects, Contested City bridges art, design, community activism, and urban history. This is a book for artists, planners, scholars, teachers, cultural institutions, and all those who seek to collaborate in new ways with communities.
About the Author
Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani is an artist, urban scholar, and curator pioneering public arts and urban research for community engagement. She is principal of the design and research studio Buscada, and teaches urban studies and public art at The New School. Gabrielle lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
LAYERED SPURA "UNLESS IT'S WRITTEN, IT NEVER HAPPENED"
New buildings go up in New York all the time. In my work as an artist, teacher, and researcher, I hardly ever think about the relatively short time frame in which most of these buildings are constructed. I look at the longer arc of neighborhoods — of place, history, and attachment. But sometimes these two elements bump into each other in powerful ways, and the need for dialogue about place becomes imperative. Without dialogue, we end up at best with stalemate and stagnation. At the worst, violence against people and property erupts. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the Lower East Side, at the long-contested site of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA). The site, rebranded as Essex Crossing, is more frequently discussed as parcels of developable real estate than as a place with meaning and histories.
In May 2015, one of the first community meetings held to discuss access to new affordable housing at Essex Crossing was shut down by the fire department forty-five minutes in due to extreme overcrowding. That the meeting drew such a large audience spoke to the neighborhood's hunger for housing after many years of inaction. But the presentation was unclear, community members' questions were cut off or deflected, and, in this multilingual neighborhood, many people attending could not follow the proceedings due to a baffling lack of Chinese or Spanish translation.
The meeting was more than just a case study in poor planning. It also made obvious that failing to grapple with the multiple attachments that different residents have to a place results in a crush of bodies, an astonishing level of sound, and an almost insurmountable enmity within the community.
The engagement with the different meanings of place that was so absent from this meeting is frequently missing from community planning meetings across the city. But at SPURA, one of urban renewal's grandest failures, that absence was especially significant. Over the past fifty years, SPURA has been marked by discrimination and conflict, and the pain of displacement and exclusion has not been forgotten. In the intervening time, the area has gone through severe disinvestment, community-led reinvestment and homesteading, squatting, an influx of artists, gentrification, and now a new kind of hypergentrification driven by corporate luxury development.
In 2008, in collaboration with SPURA Matters, a coalition of housing and community activists, planners, and public historians, I waded into the complicated and painful histories of this site and began a five-year-long engagement with its stories. Growing out of work with students in my annual City Studio class for undergraduates at the New School in New York's West Village, what we called the Layered SPURA project used art and dialogue to illuminate the meaning of SPURA as a place, issuing a call to heed its histories.
Layered SPURA — and This Book — Begins
I created City Studio from the ground up based on experience, practice, and intuition. I first came to the New School as a part-time professor while finishing my doctoral degree at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, bringing my expertise in environmental psychology and urban history as well as my experience as a photographer and curator. I was asked to develop and teach a brand-new upper-level undergraduate class for the Urban Studies department that would partner with a community group and make something public at the end. The class would be called City Studio, but its structure, content, partners, outcomes, and everything else were up to me to develop.
I saw in this loose framework an opportunity to put into action the approach I'd been pioneering through my own work — and to engage students in a practice for which I had coined the term "visual urbanism." This cemented the approach I'd taken through all my work as a thing of its own, rather than something existing on the periphery of other disciplines. This is not place-based social science that adds some pictures, nor is it art that adds a little light research. Visual urbanism is a hybrid approach through and through, which holds both visual and urban explorations to the highest standards and through their combination makes a new way of knowing. A crucial goal is to develop rigor, method, and critical perspective in using the visual to know cities, building on other ways that social and place research has intersected with visual images — from visual anthropology to architectural renderings to documentary photography and beyond. Visual urbanism builds on work that crosses boundaries between disciplines to create critical theoretical queries into the kind of knowledge that can develop from and through visual work: How can the city be understood through visual representation? What roles can the visual play in social research? What happens when art and research overlap? How is making visual representations akin to and different from other ways of building knowledge about the city?
Former City Studio student John Lake, now an artist in his own right, has reflected on what this approach meant for him as a student:
It was really important for me to put these diverging ideas, that of photography and social studies, into practice. The intersections between visual image making and the social sciences are vast and fascinating but not really well taught or understood at the undergraduate level. So I felt incredibly lucky to [have a class] that introduced me to a great deal of people working in this field. My first visual typology project came from City Studio, where I simply photographed different ways that scaffolding was interjecting itself into the daily landscape of an apartment complex. It was so simple, but so important to both see and discuss these interjections and it taught me a lot.
Taking a visual urbanist approach to City Studio meant creating a class focused on both research and creative work — considering both as ways that new knowledge could be produced, and new conversations could be fostered. It also meant considering how a partnership would work. I believed that creating an exhibition could be useful, compelling, and educational for students, partners, and the public, but I didn't yet know how it would evolve over time or what role the potent space of an exhibition could play in the larger dynamics at work.
From 2008 to 2013, more than fifty diverse City Studio students and I collaborated with the longtime local activist groups Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), the Seward Park Area Redevelopment Coalition (SPARC), and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice as well as the public historians at City Lore and Place Matters and the community planners at the Pratt Center for Community Development, among many others. Together we combined public history, creative practices, and visual work to create a series of annual collaborative exhibitions and guided tours in and about the neighborhood.
Our two main partner organizations, GOLES and Place Matters, were very different in mission and work, but each had deep roots on the Lower East Side. GOLES is a self-described "neighborhood housing and preservation organization that has served the Lower East Side of Manhattan since 1977." This member-driven, fifteen-staff organization is directed by Damaris Reyes, who came to GOLES in 2001 as an organizer and eventually became executive director. Damaris has described GOLES as "a grassroots community based organization that focuses on eviction prevention, tenant rights, economic development and community revitalization." It focuses on ensuring that people are not displaced, fighting gentrification, and ultimately keeping people in their homes and in their community. GOLES has been involved in SPURA since Damaris's predecessor, Margaret Hughes, led the organization, a time when GOLES first began working with SPARC — an important organization we'd later get to know as well.
City Lore and its Place Matters project use the power of public history to help people engage with their city, calling themselves a "museum without walls." Since 1986, City Lore has sought to "foster New York City's — and America's — living cultural heritage through education and public programs," working in urban folklore and history, preservation, arts education, and grassroots poetry traditions. Its Place Matters project was founded in 1998 by City Lore's managing director, Marci Reaven, with a mission to "foster the conservation of New York City's historically and culturally significant places." Focusing on the cultural and individual importance of places based in memory and tradition, it is "convinced that such places promote the well being of New York's many communities in ways that too often go unrecognized."
Learning from the approaches and insights of our partners, we created projects unlike most other art, pedagogy, or architectural projects about SPURA — we never prescribed what should happen on the site. And rather than waiting for a development proposal that the neighborhoods' very different communities would merely oppose or support, working with the larger initiatives of SPURA Matters we took proactive steps to spark dialogue. We wanted people to see SPURA in new ways, and we wanted to spur desperately needed conversations among people with different points of view about SPURA's past, present, and future — conversations that otherwise had nowhere to take place.
The class started out being called City Studio: Exhibiting SPURA, and each year's exhibition tried to make visible things that weren't obvious on the surface — the first year's exhibition, in fact, was titled Visualizing SPURA. Eventually, because the primary goal of all this looking was to reveal the invisible and underrepresented layers of meaning at the SPURA site, so it could be seen as a place rather than as square footage, the whole project became called Layered SPURA. The kinds of layers I was interested in making visible were the histories of the people who had lived there over time, the policy decisions that had resulted in the strange landscape we saw in 2008, the processes that would shape the space moving forward — often shrouded in bureaucratic opacity or impenetrable acronyms — and the many untold histories of innovative and tenacious activism (and activists) that had been part of this place for so long.
Layered SPURA used different strategies to find new ways of seeing, collecting oral histories and soundscapes, and mapping patterns of memory and life at SPURA. Our projects explored mapping and form along with different ways of seeing the site's geography and its legacy as well as oral histories, memories, and soundscapes. On reflection, Evan Iacoboni described the student experience as becoming a "curator of one of many stories about SPURA." Across five years of work, all the projects encouraged touch, playfulness, and imagination.
For example, one student created cubes that visitors could pick up, covered with photographs of the mundane and profound actions of socializing, eating, working, and playing at the Seward Park Extension buildings. This project focused on the SPURA of the present. Others focused on different parts of its past. Some students filmed interviews with residents and activists to tell the human story of what came before the space's demolition through urban renewal, before its contemporary life as a group of parking lots. Still others depicted SPURA's many possible timelines, creating square viewers that combined and superimposed translucent images of the site's imagined and unrealized futures over present-day photographic panoramas. Other students made composites of maps drawn by residents, illuminating how the place's diverse meanings could conflict, intersect, and overlap. Our goal was to involve people with many perspectives on the site, to start a conversation about the deep discrimination at the heart of SPURA's story, and to help contemporary New Yorkers feel connected to — even implicated in — its histories.
Contested City tells the story of our collaborations and their evolution over time, but it also tells the story of SPURA itself, hewing as closely as possible to the experiential ways we approached its histories as a living thing through our classes, our collaborations, and our exhibitions. These undertold histories are important in their specificity and in their broad reach. When one SPURA activist told me I had to write this book, he explained that "unless it's written, it never happened." And very little has been written about SPURA itself. But as a place SPURA's complex, little-known, and often opaque histories touch on many of the most powerful elements that have shaped American cities: urban renewal, fights for and against affordable housing, discrimination and quota systems, urban disinvestment, and gentrification, to name a few. Hence, SPURA helps us understand other places, too. As such a multi-layered place, it is contradictory all the way through — and will remain so for the foreseeable future. A story of brutal discrimination and spatial injustice, it is also the story of remarkable resilience, committed activism, and robust neighborhood meaning.
My own practice bridges many fields, and hence Contested City is meant to speak with all those who are colleagues in this kind of work's struggle and love for New York. It is about the vital and largely untold histories that cut across the many pressures of housing in New York City. It is also a story that shows the commitment of the many activists and community members who believe that affordable housing is a right. The themes of SPURA are at work in sites all over New York — from the Lower East Side to East New York — and we need to heed what lessons we can, to do everything possible to keep this city one in which people can actually afford to live.
As a work of social practice, Layered SPURA took seriously the possibilities for art and culture to create new spaces for dialogue in contested places. Hence, by exploring the creation of equitable partnerships and the complexities of collaboratively defining community, Contested City is for artists, cultural workers, and cultural institutions making community-based, community-engaged, or social practice projects. Designers too are trying to understand what it means to intervene, to collaborate, to coproduce and codesign, and so this book is for people asking those questions. Growing from a project based in a university course, this book is for urbanists, urban historians, and academics researching and teaching in areas of civic engagement, service learning, and public humanities.
Finally, this book is for those involved with activist groups, community organizations, public agencies, and nonprofits and anyone else considering the possibilities of collaborating with university classes, artists, or cultural institutions — in terms of what such collaborations could add to the work of your organization and what you should consider when building those partnerships.
The chapters that follow will ask you to keep an open mind about the questions that SPURA explored. Perhaps, like me, you'll find that though you thought you didn't know the neighborhood, you've actually known it all along.
The next chapter takes you on three walks into the neighborhood. First, you will walk through my own histories with the Lower East Side. Then, you will walk with my students as they struggled to piece together very complex histories. Finally, you will join us on a tour through the streets and histories of SPURA, just as participants in the Layered SPURA tours have done. In chapter 3, I talk about practice, about how we did what we did as a class and as a creative practice. In particular, I talk about the ways my students learned through their own crises in the classroom, and what the structure of our class did for the possibilities of collaboration and actually making something, even in the context of complexity and discomfort. Chapter 4 takes you on further forking paths, this time through language, to understand the ideas at the heart of any community-based, social practice, civic engagement project: community, collaboration, and public. If you think these words are nice, simple, or easy, it is my fervent hope that this chapter will help you see otherwise — and see that we ignore their complexity and inner conflict at our peril. In chapter 5, I come back to practice, to the creation of alternative spaces and the way we learned from another crisis in the project. This chapter explores possibilities for exhibitions to act as alternative spaces for dialogue in contested neighborhoods. Finally, in chapter 6, I conclude with thinking about this neighborhood's future, the injustice of gentrification, the moment when the first tenants moved into Essex Crossing, and the possibilities for cultural work going forward.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Contested City"
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Table of Contents
1 Layered SPURA: "Unless It's Written; It Never Happened" 1
2 Walking the Neighborhood: "Where Did All Those People Go?" 25
3 In Practice #1: Crises and Teaching 65
4 Three Words: Community Collaboration, and Public 77
5 In Practice #2: "In the Same Room without Screaming" 117
6 The Next Fifty Years: "The Situation Is Getting Real" 127
What People are Saying About This
“Contested City is a welcome sounding board for artists, designers, planners, educators, and others seeking to alter landscapes of power everywhere. Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani critically orients readers to how stories, conflicts, and cities shape one another, while demonstrating how art and design can supplement self-government ‘without claiming centrality,’ and how making things that ‘don’t tell you what to think’ can be helpful for all of us.”
“This book demonstrates the power of creative community-engaged practice to understand complex problems like affordable housing in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It serves as an indispensable guide to those contemplating community-engaged work that weaves together public history, visual analysis, mapping, and oral history.”
“This underdeveloped piece of downtown Manhattan has long confounded New Yorkers. With scholarly rigor and deep respect for community, Dr. Bendiner-Viani uncovers its secrets at last. Her research has resonance for controversial ‘urban renewal’ projects everywhere.”
“Bendiner-Viani has written an exemplary, must-read study of long-term neighborhood activism and engaged teaching. Her rigorous, absorbing prose gives witness to and unpacks what it means to organize for people’s place-making and the ongoing fight against rapacious urban bullying and paranoid racial politics.”
“Displacement is one of the most critical issues of our time. Bendiner-Viani brings her expertise in environmental psychology and urban history to this highly accessible and provocative book that explores art, community, and student engagement. Focused on New York City, the issues and practices described in this book are widely applicable in cities across the globe.”