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Contested City reviewed in The Metropole

We’re honored by Barry Goldberg’s review of Contested City in The Metropole, in which he calls the book a model “to untangle the sticky legacies of urban renewal” and to “illustrate the complex definitions of “community” and the intangible meanings — cultural, psychological, and emotional — embedded in physical space.” Read on below for an excerpt of the review, or read the whole thing here.

Art, History, And Urban Contestation: A Review Of Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani’s Contested City

Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani, Contested City: Art and Public History as Mediation at New York’s Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2018).
Reviewed by Barry Goldberg

In 1965, the New York City Board of Estimate, an eight-member body that once had authority over the city’s budget and land-use matters, but has since been declared unconstitutional, approved a plan to create the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA). At the time, the site was one of lower Manhattan’s most racially and ethnically diverse communities, a fourteen-block area of small businesses and tenements in the heart of New York’s Lower East Side. Over 1,850 families lived there and roughly 80% were low-income. In 1967, the city took possession of — and began to demolish — the old SPURA buildings. Housing authorities provided a written guarantee to displaced residents that they would have priority rights to one of the roughly 1,800 new apartments built on the site.

But this promise went unfulfilled.

Instead, political infighting over the fate of SPURA — centered on the residents’ right of return and the provision of truly affordable housing — halted development for nearly five decades. Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani’s Contested City: Art and Public History as Mediation at New York’s Seward Park Urban Renewal Area tells us what emerged instead: “one of urban renewal’s grandest failures,” a string of vacant lots and abandoned land that embodied the city’s broken promise and broader neglect of low-income communities.

Now, after continued mobilizing by local activists and negotiations between key stakeholders, the city has approved Essex Crossing, a nine-site development project (five of the sites exist within the old SPURA territory; the others are nearby) that will inject over 1,000 housing units and new retail (a Trader Joe’s, Regal movie theater, and Target have already been built) into the Lower East Side. One-half of these new units will be reserved for low-, moderate-, and middle-income families in perpetuity. How these changes will affect both the SPURA narrative and the future of the neighborhood, the author notes, remains unclear.

What is clear is that Contested City is the first monograph to give SPURA its proper due, tracing the site’s evolution from the mid-1960s through 2017. Historians of urban America will gain much from this well-researched and compelling case study. More than a provincial account of local actors, the book examines the forces — “urban renewal, fights for and against affordable housing, discrimination and quota systems, urban disinvestment, and gentrification” — that have impacted postwar U.S. cities, writ large.

But Bendiner-Viani’s real contribution is to contemplate how these processes illustrate the complex definitions of “community” and the intangible meanings — cultural, psychological, and emotional — embedded in physical space.

… CLICK HERE TO READ ON for the full review.