so please when I die… / don’t take me far away / keep me nearby / take my ashes and scatter them thru out / the Lower East Side – Miguel Piñero
Buscada’s exhibition Keep Me Nearby, at the Cuchifritos Gallery & Project Space located inside Essex Market, returned to the intersection of Essex and Delancey Streets a decade after our Layered SPURA project began. At a time when the area is full of new development, the exhibition asked what it still means to make home on the Lower East Side, and how understanding the complexity of the neighborhood’s past can help us imagine a future. Growing from, and putting into practice, many of the ideas from Gabrielle’s book, Contested City: Art and Public History as Mediation at New York’s Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, the exhibition showcased never-before seen images by photographer Nick Lawrence of the lived-in apartments that were demolished at the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area in the late 1960s, and Gabrielle’s “Layered SPURA” postcards, the interactive project that engages the viewer in the many histories, stories, and dreams embedded in this place.
Most of the buildings in the 14-square-block Seward Park Urban Renewal Area were condemned in 1967, displacing thousands of people–mostly low-income people of color–with the promise that they would soon return to new housing, very little of which was ever built. In 2017, one of the city’s largest developments, Essex Crossing, began rising on this site. To help people understand what’s at stake in the future of this place, Keep Me Nearby debuted on May 2019 at the Artists Alliance’s Cuchifritos Gallery & Project Space in the new building of the 79-year-old Essex Street Market, at the heart of the new development.
Keep Me Nearby hosted a series of Layered SPURA tours, guiding more than fifty participants–from teenagers to seniors–to use their bodies, their voices, and their capacity for dialogue to understand the contested urban past, present, and future on the Lower East Side. Guests from SPURA’s long-time local activist community also joined the tours, and each event sparked conversations about this old, new, place.
Visitors to the exhibition often said that seeing it inside the sometimes-disorienting new space of Essex Market reassured them that the Lower East Side they thought they knew was still relevant. Other visitors had never heard of SPURA and were drawn into these histories and what they imply for the future. Still others couldn’t help but exclaim on seeing the photographs on the wall: “That looks just like my tía’s house!”
Together, these works help us look back in order to look forward–to see this place as home, and to reclaim our civic capacity to protect the city as a place for people, for dialogue, and for justice.
A word on the epigraph: Miguel Piñero’s iconic “A Lower East Side Poem” has long grounded Gabrielle’s Layered SPURA work, and we share it with you with deep love for the soul of the Lower East Side.
Nothing in community can be done alone. Special thanks to Edwin Tito Delgado for introducing Gabrielle to Nick and to this archive, and to everyone involved in all parts of the Layered SPURA project over the years, including Damaris Reyes, Harriet Cohen, Marci Reaven, Nilda Rivera, Lillian Rivera, Ed Rudyk, Kara Becker, and all the City Studio students at the New School. For imagining this exhibition with Gabrielle on the occasion of Cuchifritos re-opening in its new home, thank you to Jodi Waynberg, Alessandro Facente, Franklyn Rodriguez, Ting Y. Lin, and as always, Kaushik Panchal and Luca Panchal-Viani.