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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Intersection | Prospect Heights returns this month with a panel discussion and series of tours to launch Our Places, a new booklet presenting stories and concerns of current and former neighbors, tracking development and demographic change, and looking at how it plays out on our streets. What is the future of Prospect Heights and our city?
Find out more at : inter-section.org
‘It was not about money’ : An Intersection | Prospect Heights discussion
June 15, 7-8:30pm
@ Information Commons Lab, Brooklyn Public Library, Grand Army Plaza
Talking with organizers, politicians and planners about the experience of change in Prospect Heights, and what it implies for neighborhoods across the city facing large-scale development. How do we preserve community?
Speakers include Letitia James, NYC Public Advocate, Thomas Angotti (Hunter College, CUNY), Deb Howard (IMPACCT), Regina Cahill (North Flatbush BID) and Catherine Green (ARTs East New York).
Moderated by Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani (Buscada) and Gib Veconi (PHNDC).
Guided tours : June 11 & June 18
Meet @ Met Food, 632 Vanderbilt Ave., between Park Place & Prospect Place
Join us for creative walking tours telling the new and old Intersection stories in sites around the neighborhood. How these are similar or different to your own stories?
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We installed almost 20 Intersection|Prospect Heights popup exhibitions in everyday places all around Prospect Heights. These included the supermarket, the library, the hardware store, dry cleaners and bars, among other places. One of the highlights of the project was forming relationships with these businesses and the ways that they came to host the project, and in many sites, to really support it, look out for it, and feel proud of it.
Met Food. The place that kept me going in my research, which David told me “talks more about the sense of community” than anywhere else, and the place to which I was most thrilled to see these stories and photographs brought back, almost 15 years later. Frank and Abdul, community-builders, and incredibly supportive people in this project. Not to mention hosts who on our guided tours provided all participants with bananas. Amazing.
Kimchi Grill, where our neighborhood stories were right next to another essential – hot sauce.
COLOR Bklyn. They shared their last months on Washington Avenue with us, and valiantly put the project out on the street everyday, protecting it from wind and rain, and helping us to engage people passing by on the street.
Brooklyn Public Library. One of the most wonderful parts of this project was working with BPL, and finding all the synergies between Intersection and all the amazing initiatives going on at BPL – from the Brooklyn Transitions series to the Brooklyn Collection to Our Streets, Our Stories, and beyond. The installation above was in the Central Branch’s children’s room, where we got some of the most heartfelt stories contributed, including the one below.
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There’s much to say on the kinds of experiences we had and the kinds of conversations we were privileged to be a part of, but for now – we thought you’d like to see a little of what the process of bringing the project to the public was like. A few of our favorite moments of making it happen, in pictures.
Reconnecting with our tour guides from 15 years ago. Here Mike Halkias of the Usual reads his own guide, and remarks on how much more hair he has in the cover picture.
Receiving the printers proofs for all six of our guidebooks – seeing them all together finally, in living color. Holding the dummy proofs in our hands – feeling what the guides might really feel like – one of the best days of 2015.
The guides and pop-up exhibitions come together – with places for people to leave their own stories.
Thrilling to bring one of our very favorite images back to the neighborhood. We’ve loved this boy since Gabrielle photographed him at the Conrad McRae basketball tournament at the Dean Street playground in 2002.
Installation began at Brooklyn Public Library – and shortly after setting down our first pop-up, it was so gratifying to see this man be the first to pick up a guidebook.
Once people started to pick up those guides, the pop-ups needed to be refilled regularly – much to our delight. While the installations at BPL and Met Food needed to be refilled most often, all of the locations required our regular trips around the neighborhood with the artists’ best friend, a shopping cart. Public art is glamorous – and we were happy for a very mild autumn!
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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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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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Two years ago, in March of 2012, we launched the Triangle Fire Open Museum, following up on our Triangle Fire Open Archive project, initiated for the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911. There were many critical parts of this project for us – not least the politics of understanding why a tragedy of one hundred years ago still speaks eloquently about critical questions of immigrants’, women’s and workers’ rights today. We’ve talked about this a great deal, in the projects, and in our writing about the Open Archive and Museum – such as our post on Urban Omnibus – but another critical element of the project is one we speak about less often, and yet is an element which informs all of our work in which we ask members of the public to collaborate : caring for the objects, ideas and memories entrusted to us, and making worthy homes for those precious contributions, which value, honor, and protect them. I recently found this clip from CUNY TV (in which I’ve inadvertently been given a new job title!) in which we talk about that idea, and how it was made manifest in the Open Archive and Open Museum.
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