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.
* * * *