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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Asking passersby on the street in Jamaica, she asked people to step into her make-shift photo studio for a portrait and to answer the question, “Where would you take me on a guided tour?” The work also brought into a new context the Intersection | Prospect Heights guidebooks–which when people perused them in Jamaica, elicited comments of “I know how that feels…” and “I go there to shop!” and of course, “I think gentrification is happening everywhere…”
The linkages across space, even in one city, were significant–and were echoed by where Jamaica residents would in fact, take someone on a tour. While Jamaica Ave got a lot of love, locales also ranged from the local pizza place to Paris, France. Lower Manhattan, going home to Rhode Island, or to the small town in Minnesota visited just once, also figured significantly in this imagined geography.
Intersection | Jamaica built on a much earlier work, Playground, in which Gabrielle asked people in East Harlem the very same question in 2002. One of those people had said he’d take her to Jamaica — and finally, in 2016, she got there.
I’d take you to Jamaica, Queens. 165th Street. I didn’t go to Jamaica Queens until I was like fourteen years old. But, Jamaica Queens is like home to me. Still, everybody there knows me, the people haven’t changed much.
– Pierre Rene, the Bedazzler
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Embedding Histories in a Changing Prospect Heights, by Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani
Engaging Change & Displacement – One Story at a Time in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, an interview with Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani
Atlantic Yards Report
Intersection/Prospect Heights project aims to start dialogue on neighborhood change
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A year ago, I thought to myself, “it’s time to go back to the supermarket!” Not just any supermarket. No – a supermarket on Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, around which a neighborhood has changed dramatically. I was thinking about how we critically need nuanced conversations on sense of place, community representation, displacement and sustainability. Prospect Heights is a microcosm of the gentrification and large-scale development pressures facing Brooklyn today, with a marked decrease in African American residents over the past fifteen years, and a marked increase in residents with incomes over $100,000. Over the next ten years, as the Atlantic Yards and infill developments come to completion, the population will be up to 70% larger.
What does all this mean? How do we talk about it, argue about it, and even laugh and cry about it? This October, using the deep ethnographic and photographic work I began 15 years ago with the Guided Tours project, Buscada, in partnership with PHNDC and the Brooklyn Public Library, are set to launch a new public art & dialogue project to do just that.
Intersection | Prospect Heights is a series of unofficial, idiosyncratic and personal guidebooks, popup exhibitions around the neighborhood (especially at the supermarket!), creative walks, and public dialogues. We hope you’ll take part in the project to travel back in time, back to the supermarket, and laugh and cry with us – about the past and future of Prospect Heights, as well as that of other neighborhoods around the city facing these same pressures.
More info coming soon – but mark your calendars for the project opening & our first public dialogue on October 7th, 6:30pm!
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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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Today is the first day of publicly sharing a new Buscada project that we have been working on for a while. It is the first in a series of project ideas, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.
The project is called 168 and it helps you balance how you spend your most precious asset, your time. It gives you a quick and simple way to track your time and a unique tool to analyze how you spend your time each week.
It’s a thinking tool: it helps you look at what you did but also helps you question why you focused your time in the way you did.
If you have an iPhone or iPod running iOS7 please check it out and let me know what you think. If you like it, please share it with your friends and networks and maybe even share a review of the app. Download from the Apple App Store
Our aim with this project is not to make people more efficient with their time (although that may be an outcome) but to make them more mindful of how we all use this incredibly precious asset.
Thanks and we hope you enjoy using the app.
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If there were one thing that talks more about this community than anything else, it’s probably the supermarket, you know? Because of the people that are there and what they try to do. They do it to make money, granted, but they do it because they seem very happy to be here…concerned about people, concerned about delivering service to the neighborhood–to the whole neighborhood. It’s not that they came in and decided, ‘Oh, we’re getting rid of the Goya stuff here, you know? We’re going upscale.’ No. Still got ham hocks there. It’s what made this neighborhood for us. 25 years ago we got very lucky on the house, but really it’s the fact that it’s a comfortably mixed neighborhood. Now… I can’t pull down my veil of ignorance… Yeah, I’m part of the dominant society, but it just feels to me like a comfortably mixed neighborhood.
In 2001, I began a project in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, which I called Guided Tours. In this work I asked neighborhood residents to take me on tour of “their” Prospect Heights. I was interested in understanding people’s experiences of their everyday neighborhoods, and had a feeling that within very common spaces very complex ideas about identity, neighborhood and the world were getting worked out. That work became the basis for my dissertation, Guided Tours: The Layered Dynamics of Self, Place and Image in Two American Neighborhoods, and for journal articles in Space & Culture and Society & Space, as well as spurring me to ask similar questions in a neighborhood across the country, in Oakland, CA.
In this work, I considered the powerful potential for dialogue through photographs of the everyday, and how bringing people’s everyday worlds back to them might allow them to see those spaces in new ways. Now, I’m returning to this body of work to think about how an archive of the everyday from more than thirteen years ago might help the community talk about the incredible gentrification and change (not least due to the Atlantic Yards / Barclay’s development) that has happened in this neighborhood in the intervening years.
I’m beginning this process by making a selection of the work available online, and through a series of forthcoming blog posts as a way to think about this archive in new ways. As a start, above is a photograph of Met Foods from 2005, with a thought from one of my tour guides that explains how a supermarket might help us begin to talk about the complexity and detail of gentrification and housing segregation in New York.
See the selected archive online : Guided Tours : Prospect Heights.
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I was both thrilled and stumped when Radhika Subramaniam and Margot Bouman asked me to contribute to “Masterpieces of Everyday New York: Objects as Story”, the exhibition now on view at Parsons Sheila Johnson Design Center. Why? Thrilled because I’m a New Yorker, born and bred, I live here now, teach students about cities, and generally have taken New York as a part of my being and birthright. Thrilled because I make photographic and urbanist projects that are all about objects and the emotional meanings vested in objects and buildings – like our Triangle Fire Open Archive and Open Museum, and my Guided Tours and SPURA projects. Thrilled because I loved the British Museum & BBC series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, which Radhika and Margot acknowledge as inspiration for this exhibition. But stumped too, because how could I possibly narrow down the number of objects in this city which have been meaningful to me – and the number I find to be important to tell the city’s own story as intertwined with my own? And of course, to be brutally honest, I wanted to pick something really good.
But what? And how to make it something that only I could really write about? I mulled it over and over, and then, clear as day it came to me. A photograph I had written about before in drafts of my dissertation, diaries, and other places, as the way I imagine New York in my mind’s eye, though daily experience often contradicts it. This photograph of my mother and I standing at a phone booth on Kenmare Street in the early 1980s was taken by my father, and long ago, taken by me out of our family collection and carried with me on trips far and away as a way of remembering home. In this way, my nomination of the phone booth was a double object – both the photograph and the once-ubiquitous phone booths of New York themselves. You can read my full contribution below.
The intertwining of 62 objects keenly felt by their nominators and observers can be seen at Parsons’ Sheila Johnson Design Center until September 4th, 2013.
This is a double object. It is both the phone booth pictured (the kind you now see on city streets denuded of their telephones) and it is the photograph itself.
This picture of my mother and me was taken by my father on the corner of Kenmare and Mulberry Streets in the early 1980s. And somehow, this picture has become my image of New York. It is not just the New York of my childhood, but rather this image persists as the way I think of New York now, though I live here still, and can see for myself that this reality is long gone. In my mind, New York is somewhat grey, Datsuns and Plymouths dot the streets, and the sidewalk is patterned with dropped chewing gum (this last may in fact be true.)
Looking at this photograph, I think of both the phone booth and the mother and child using it. Here, we are joined at the booth with our matching umbrellas, but as I got older, phone booths allowed me to stretch that distance between us. I remember my mother’s repeated refrain, as I traveled far to school on my own at age 11 : “Be sure you always have a quarter with you to call if you need me.”
This arrangement seems almost impossible to imagine now, when people give their children cell phones in elementary school. To suggest that a child might roam New York with but a quarter in her pocket as a way to call home (and with no way to call her!) would be unthinkable to many parents I now know.
As I became a teenager, the phone booth was less the way I called home, and more the way I called friends: beeping my first boyfriend from phone booths (so self-important, and so terribly high-tech at the time), and learning the special code (now long forgotten) one could use to find the unlisted phone booth’s number, so someone could call you back.
These ubiquitous booths weren’t beautiful, nor did they always work, but they provided a (sometimes false) sense of privacy in public for conversations, scribbling messages, drunkenness, exhaustion.
New York’s public phone booths waned as my own participation with the public world grew. Now, as an adult, out in the world, and thinking about how my young son will one day call me, these private little spaces from which to reach out to others in the midst of a public street are now only husks, replaced by devices in our pockets, which people imagine envelop them in privacy, but mostly create intersecting bubbles of sound and chatter as we walk down the street.
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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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As we get ready to think about the next steps in the Triangle Fire Open Archive and Open Museum projects, I’m looking back at the article I published on Urban Omnibus last fall, “Making Meaning Together : The Triangle Fire Open Archive and Open Museum.”
The piece was about our projects, temporary and permanent memorials, and how to continue ephemeral work – and whether this is an oxymoron. Stay tuned for new and ongoing versions of this ephemeral-archival work.
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