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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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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Get a preview of the exhibition
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Please join us on October 7, 8 & 16th at our residency at Creative Time’s Living As Form, “a vast collection of documentation of 100 socially engaged projects from the last twenty years and from locations around the globe.”
Our residency features a new iteration of our ongoing work on the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA), in collaboration with Temporary Services’ MARKET.
More on the Buscada SPURA project
More on MARKET
You may know SPURA as the parking lots along Delancey Street. More than forty years ago, the area was razed for “slum clearance” and few renewal projects have been so contested. Very few of the originally-planned buildings were ever built, and many people were once displaced from the site, some now live on it, and many people live in the blocks around it. Many different communities claim SPURA, and imagine different futures for it.
Our work builds on Gabrielle’s City Studio class at the New School, and considers the past, present and future of this contested site, collaborating with community organizations, and using a visual urbanist approach to create a series of annual exhibitions to create space for dialogue.
On October 7th, 8th and 16th, in residence at MARKET, we continue to present and explore the multiple stories of SPURA. Please join us, and students from four years of City Studio us to tell your own SPURA stories, to talk with others at our booth, and to discuss the future of the neighborhood.
We will also be hosting a walking tour, on October 8th at 2pm, in collaboration with Dutch artists Bik Van der Pol, to explore the layered nature of SPURA, the hidden and intersecting voices behind the often perplexing physical, political and personal landscape of SPURA.
Sign up for our walking tour
Friday, October 7, Saturday October 8, Sunday October 16th, 12-8pm
Special guided tour on the complexities of SPURA : October 8, 2pm
the historic Essex Street Market, SE corner of Essex & Delancey Streets
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Get a preview of the exhibition
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In late January, Buscada attended the first of a series of meetings hosted by MAPP International Productions to plan a new arts and community-engagement project about global interdependence, inspired by the interdependence movement championed by Benjamin Barber and others.
The meeting brought together a collection of artists, writers and performers to explore ideas of civic engagement and art practice.
We took this opportunity to ask the diverse group one deceptively simple question :
How do you get people to engage in dialogue?
This is the beginning of a new project in collaboration with MAPP International Productions to understand the processes and practices of engaging civic dialogue, art practice and pedagogy. This project is a continuation of our work begun with The America Project Teaching Method.
How do you answer this question for yourself? How do you encourage dialogue? We hope this is the start of a long and productive conversation.
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Most New Yorkers know SPURA, but often, unless they’re Lower East Siders, they don’t know that they do. Many have walked through the LES along Delancey Street, noticing the parking lots on the south side of the street near the Williamsburg Bridge. Or, they’ve walked down Norfolk to Grand Street, noting the unevenness of development and an odd sense of unfinished-ness they can’t put their finger on.
This is SPURA, the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area. It is more than six square blocks that 42 years ago were subject to highly contested “slum clearance” – resulting in the displacement of many people – and an unfinished “renewal,” with few planned buildings actually built.
These decades-old events have resulted in one of the largest and longest-standing undeveloped city-owned plots of land. SPURA is at the center of Lower East Side debates on affordable housing, debates which have sometimes been painful and highly race- and class-based. There are passionate communities involved in the question of SPURA, communities which for 42 years have been unable to reach productive dialogue and negotiation.
Each year for the past three, I have taught a class called City Studio which takes a visual urbanist approach to SPURA. I teach students creative ethnographic, visual, archival, and community-based methods to understand and represent SPURA’s contested urban space.
My classes research in archives and with community members, take part in community planning processes, and work in partnership with our community collaborators, GOLES, Place Matters and the Pratt Center for Community Development. Finally, each year’s class creates and curates an exhibition to help envision the site’s past, present and future(s), and try in one small way to spark, and create space for, productive and peaceful dialogue on the area.
This week was a big one for SPURA itself and for my class.
Today saw City Studio 2010’s final critique (one project, “Framing SPURA”, above) – and it was one that bodes very well for our exhibition which will open at common room 2 in February 2011. Images from all of the projects in the final critique are here, on flickr.
This week, SPURA itself has been in the spotlight. The question of SPURA has been under consideration by Community Board 3 for the past few months, in fascinating conversations, and some heated debates since October about the possibilities for affordable housing on the site. This Monday saw the debates grow more heated – but led a step closer toward agreement, and, importantly, to the potential for a larger stake for affordability on the site. The next few months will be crucial for SPURA – and what its development means for those displaced from the site, for those living in the neighborhood, and for the city at large.
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This fall, we’ve been developing an exciting new collaborative curatorial project, working with the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition and Ruth Sergel. In honor of the upcoming centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire on March 25, 2011, we’ve developed and designed the Triangle Fire Open Archive, a curated online archive of community-created objects and stories. We’re encouraging people to submit objects culled from personal & public collections, and to use these objects to tell their own stories relating to the history of the Fire, or to the labor, immigration and gendered issues of the Fire that are still critical and resonant today.
Through the collaborative curation of the Open Archive, we’ll be able to see objects, and read narratives, never before seen together.
On Monday December 13, we had our first evening of collecting objects, working with Lucy Oakley and Marci Reaven’s class at NYU, who have recently curated the soon-to-open Grey Art Gallery exhibition, “Art/Memory/Place: Commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire”.
The students did a phenomenal job of writing new reflections on their favorite objects they’ve found in researching the Triangle Fire – some drawn from public collections (as above, a portion of an image from the Kheel Center), and some drawn from their own family albums. Many contributed these objects (in digital form) to the Open Archive, and we’re thrilled to have started down the path building the Triangle Fire Open Archive with them.
We look forward to many more people getting involved, contributing objects, and telling stories through the Open Archive in the months to come – either through our online tool or at our open public events, when we’ll help photograph and digitize people’s objects.
All the digital material collected will be donated and archived by the Kheel Center which hosts the preeminent website on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The site will go live in January of 2011 – we’ll keep you posted!
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In the Fall of 2009 I embarked on an experiment with my colleague, landscape architect Elliott Maltby : co-teaching a hybrid design and social science studio on public space at Parsons the New School for Design. I reflected on the interdisciplinary process of developing our “Public Space Critical Studio + Practice-based Seminar” on this blog few months ago, here.
Once the class was over, Elliott and I did some deeper reflecting, and wrote an article on our experience of developing and teaching “hybrid ways of doing.” I am pleased to announce that this article, valuable for anyone thinking about interdisciplinary collaboration and teaching, is now available in the most recent edition of the International Journal for Architectural Research. “Hybrid ways of doing: A model for teaching public space” by Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani and Elliott Maltby is downloadable here and from the project as featured on Buscada.
We welcome your experiences with this kind of teaching and thinking.
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