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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