In June 2018, I got to live the urbanista dream–presenting at the Queens Museum’s scale model replica of New York City, the Panorama. As a speaker at the 2018 Open Engagement conference, I led participants through an hour-long virtual tour of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, as we walked above all of New York. Talking #SPURA at the panorama (“In the Same Room without Screaming”) was everything I hoped it would be – amazing to talk about collaborative public art practices and the depth of history, activism, and the long search for justice in that space.
Looking down, finding those few blocks at the end of the Williamsburg Bridge, we could still see, frozen in time, the many parking lots now being built up, the parking lots which had once been 14 square blocks of tenements demolished through urban renewal, the brutal policy championed by none other than the creator of the very panorama we stood on, Robert Moses. Being able to point out those tiny parking lots in the bottom right of this picture really helped make the point for all of us how complex and storied each one of the many blocks of this vast city are.
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In October, I had the pleasure of opening the TRANSlocacions conference hosted by Idensitat ID and Arts Santa Monica in Barcelona. My talk, on my ongoing Layered SPURA project, focused on the ways in which we can understand some of the complexities and controversies of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area by understanding the different ways that people have moved through this site of 40-year-old urban renewal and recent gentrification – as visitors, immigrants, tourists, and even conquerors.
In particular, I talked about the need to reframe students’ roles in a “community engagement” project such as this – to make sure that our collaborations with our community partners were in fact mutually determined and mutually beneficial, and to ensure that my students, most of whom have no personal connection to the area, are practicing a kind of productive, rather than consumptive, visiting when engaging with SPURA and its multiple communities.
It was a great pleasure to talk with colleagues from Barcelona afterward, and to hear that my concerns, and practices, resonated with their own. In particular, it was fascinating to hear how the painful histories of a small section of the Lower East Side could resonate so deeply with people working in collaboration with the residents of the Raval, a small neighborhood of Barcelona just behind the location of our conference at Arts Santa Monica. There, my colleagues noted, gentrification and displacement did not come from one large-scale redevelopment effort by private real estate, but rather, had been spurred by large-scale development by cultural and state institutions – museums and universities. This insight makes clear the great need for nuanced thinking about power, particularly in the heady, popular, and sometimes over-lauded relationship between universities and communities.
One colleague explained the challenges of the Raval, and more generally the pitfalls of non-critical collaborative relationships involving universities, by saying, “We call them the three tenors [the university, the museum, and the art center], because they’re so busy singing loudly, no one else can get a word in edgewise.”
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The RFP for the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA) site has gone out, the bids from developers are coming in, and it is possible that new things will happen at the SPURA site. My article “Layered SPURA : Spurring Conversations through Visual Urbanism” featured in Radical History Review asks some questions about this process : What of the site’s history? What of the ongoing need for affordable housing? What of the need for thoughtful architecture in the building of all housing? Will these things be heeded in this process? How can thinking these through, and new ways of thinking about contested space, help inform the way we think about and plan for SPURA? “Layered SPURA” explores my four-year visual urbanist project on SPURA, a collaboration with students and community groups to use creative practice to ask complex questions and to reconsider the city.
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Get a preview of the exhibition
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Our 2010 Urban Encounters festival at Tate Britain this past June was a great success, and I thought it worthwhile to reflect on our intentions for this year’s event.
This organization, co-founded by myself and Paul Halliday, and now a Buscada project as well, addresses the dialogue and practice of visual urbanism.
This year’s main event, Urban Encounters: Routes and Transitions at Tate Britain on 29 May 2010, was inspired by the multiple meanings of these words : routes and transitions. All of the talks will soon be available for download and listening on iTunes U through Tate Britain, but meanwhile, a short explanation of the intentions an interests behind this year’s main event.
We were particularly interested in both embodied local routes, as well as global flows and the individuals who experience both of these kinds of movements through space – as well as through time.
The other part of this theme – transitions – was been inspired by our interest in change – and its relationship to the city, as well as the city-dweller. What does a still (or even a moving yet finite) visual medium have to say about change? about the change of landscapes? the change or transitions or adaptations made by people themselves, traveling these global and local routes in the processes of migration and life otherwise? Are there traces that can be found, or new geographies made through the visual?
The panels addressed these routes and transitions through three major themes –
Global Routes: Personal & political addressed global routes / global flows of capital, colonialism and war, as they intersect with personal routes and connections through space and time.
Making Transitions: Practice & location considered the ways in which migrants and migrant stories inhabit, and create, locations – from front rooms to municipal buildings, housing developments or the space of radio waves. This panel asked how the process of “making space” is a part of the movement between nations and neighborhoods?
The Remembered Road: Archives & pasts explored the way in which archives from the official to the personal can be read, re-read, or reinterpreted, to find the traces of different kinds of migrant, and mobile, histories – and to understand cities’ multiple pasts.
There are some enormous questions here, and some thrilling answers and provocations were posed by our speakers’ work.
Yet, a mix of dialogue and practice is at the heart of Urban Encounters – we encourage dialogue amongst our panelists as well as with our audience. In building the field of visual urbanism and we hope that you will engage in a dialogue with us. I hope that those of you who were not able to join us at the event will listen to the podcast when it becomes available – and for those that were able to join us at this or past years, please get in touch to continue the dialogue here, via facebook, twitter, or email at info [at] urbanencounters.org.
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