Contested City: An Interview with Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani

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Today on Gotham, Prithi Kanakamedala interviews Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani about the process of community-engaged pedagogy, collaborative public history, and advocacy around the Lower East Side's SPURA.

In her latest work Contested City: Art and Public History as Mediation at New York's Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, Dr. Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani examines a fourteen-square-block in New York’s Lower East Side, that was once home to thousands of low-income people of color and still remains a contested site today. The book brings together her long-term collaborative work at SPURA, which encompasses public history, public art, community engagement, and pedagogy.

You write in Contested City that when you first began teaching at the New School and conceptualizing your community-engaged classCity Studioyou asked Marci Reaven (then director of Place Matters at City Lore, now heading up the history exhibits at New-York Historical Society) the most basic of questions, so I'll start there. What is SPURA?

I think that question might be deceptively simple. At its most basic, SPURA is the acronym for the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, a 14-square-block area of the Lower East Side which was slated for urban renewal (and the demolition that accompanies urban renewal) in 1967. It extends east of Essex Street to Pitt Street, and south from Delancey to Grand Street. Many New Yorkers reading this may never have heard of SPURA, but have likely walked past it, perhaps on their way to the Williamsburg Bridge. In 1967, these 14 blocks were full of tenement buildings, occupied by more than 1,800 families, the majority of whom were low-income families of color. These families were displaced and told that they would be able to return to the new buildings built on the site. The tenements were demolished piecemeal over the next few years, yet, save a few buildings, nothing was built there for fifty years. The new construction on the site included two NYCHA buildings built in the early 1970s, and three apartment buildings behind St Mary’s Church which were built soon after. After that, very little was built til the early 80s, when two senior buildings were built. And that’s about it. In all that time a wide of variety of terrible and less terrible plans were proposed for the site, but all foundered on fights over affordable housing — with entrenched intra-neighborhood fights over who the Lower East Side is for that often pitted the Jewish and Puerto Rican communities of the LES against each other. Beyond these few buildings, for the past fifty years the rest of the SPURA blocks have been a collection of parking lots. It’s an urban renewal site where very little was rebuilt, where the corruption of politicians like Sheldon Silver left its mark, and which stood as a wound in the middle of a neighborhood for a long time. And it’s a story that very few New Yorkers, even now, know about. On a less basic level, SPURA is a marker of the pervasiveness of systemic racism in our built environment as well as a testimony to the power of long-term activism, since throughout this fifty years, activists have worked to bring back housing for people so long displaced.

I came to working at SPURA in 2008, as part of a coalition called SPURA Matters, which included many local activist, community, and cultural organizations, including GOLES (Good Old Lower East Side), City Lore, SPARC, and many others, working with the Pratt Center to try to restart the conversation about SPURA’s future from a grassroots level, rather than waiting for a plan to be presented from on high which they could rally to either support or oppose. I was in my first year teaching at the New School, and was creating a new Urban Studies class, City Studio, which I would go on to teach for five years, each year in collaboration with activists at SPURA.

Now, SPURA is being developed after a community-based planning process that began in 2010. There’s a great deal to say about that planning process and the set of development guidelines it came up with — and one thing is that it’s impressive that the negotiations that produced it happened at all — it’s a testament to a great deal of will to work together. The document that was produced is both an incredible and a tricky one — I’d say most sides in the fight over the future of SPURA got something they didn’t want, and of course, the flip side is also true. Like SPURA itself, the document holds a lot of contradictions, and this contradictory nature of the site, and the development, and the future is something I grapple with a lot in the book. Yet, there are some incredible wins — first, the fact that the 50% of the units that will be below-market-rate will be that way in perpetuity — which is largely unheard of New York, and shouldn’t be so rare. And second, that the people originally displaced (or rather, one person from each family displaced) will have priority to those below-market-rate units, if they can prove residency on the site in 1967. The new development now rising on the SPURA is site is called Essex Crossing. Three of the new apartment buildings have already opened, and more are coming. The Essex Street Market will be moving into one of the new buildings later this spring, after which the original LaGuardia-era market building will be demolished for another Essex Crossing building to be built on its site.

You "walk the neighborhood" in Contested Citythe visual of which is so moving (no pun intended)— if someone walked Contested City with you, what would be some of the stops, places or points of mediation, and/ or “highlights”?

How we experience the city through our bodies is an ongoing theme in all of my work, and I’m particularly interested in how we feel the histories and meanings around us as we move though this city. All my teaching about SPURA began with walking with my students and my community collaborators, and though it took me a long time to formalize it, an important part of my understanding of, and capacity to convey, the layered, complicated, contradictory nature of SPURA is through a walking tour. The tours I give ask everyone on it to participate, to claim a piece of the history, to empathize with stories that are not their own, and to understand both the implications of history, and as the poet Sekou Sundiata writes, how we each might be implicated. So, if I were to walk you through the book itself, I would call your attention to the different strands of ideas woven throughout the book — from activism to teaching to art-making — and the ways all of these rest on understandings of words that, not unlike your first question, are deceptively simple: community, collaboration, and public. I would engage you, on our tour, in a conversation about how those words are defined, and then I’d begin to point out how, throughout this site, throughout this story, each of those words has been defined radically differently, even in oppositely, by different constituencies. I’d encourage us to pause to really consider how different ideas of, for example, who the public is in “public good” (let alone the definition of “good”) have oppositional implications for the site’s future.

Your nameGabrielle Bendiner-Vianiis on the front cover as the author of Contested City (rightly so!) But the work is exquisite, because you weave the community's voices of SPURA throughout the book. So that the community is not just being written about, but writing themselves into the work. I felt like I knew them all by the end of reading this. Can you tell me more about the process of writing this bookhow you spoke to the many publics, the many communities that your work engages with?

Some of this depth comes from the way the book emerged from “Layered SPURA”, a five-year collaborative project that I created with local community activists and my students through five years of my “City Studio” class at the New School. That project created five annual community-based exhibitions, tours, and events about SPURA as a place with a people’s history. This work meant that before I ever knew it was a book, the project incorporated and learned from a great many diverse community and public voices. And the many years of commitment meant that there was a lot of time for nuance, observing, listening, trust-building.

The relationships built through “Layered SPURA”, and the fact that I’d been involved since 2008 — the beginning of the most recent phase of planning at the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area — meant that when I went back to interview people while I was writing, we were building on a shared experience together.

I should say that honoring the multiple voices of this story was one of the most crucial parts of this project for me. I wanted to make sure that people’s voices came through, their perspectives and their complexity. In fact, at some point in the writing process, I had thought of asking my collaborators to each write a small section or reflection for the book, to really make sure their voices were front and center. Yet, the day I was about to broach the suggestion with one of partner, we sat down together and the first thing she said was, “I’m really excited to be talking with you about this again — but just one thing — don’t make me write anything!” And I thought, OK, plan B.

And to quote Marci and you one more time, you write "Timelines are useful because on their face they can be[...] as Marci says, 'less confrontational' while being 'foundational things that can be shared' and used by many different people.'" You wrote a new timeline for this bookwhy?

To be honest, writing the timeline of SPURA was one of the most painful parts of writing this book. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Placing the events at SPURA in the larger national context of the Civil Rights movement was deeply satisfying and illuminating, helping me make more concrete the connections I’d long had in my head. The other part was painful — because, as I write in the book, the timeline of SPURA is complicated, politicized and overlapping. I’m not sure if other sites have used opposing mimeographed timelines as organizing tools, but at SPURA they certainly did. It is hard to make SPURA’s history linear. In fact, I generally work hard to avoid the linear telling of history in all my work, preferring to show the interconnected nature of histories, presents, and futures. But in the end, it was crucial to give the book and the reader a kind of scaffolding around the messiness, contradictions, pain, and joy that are the core of this story.

The book celebrates and honors SPURA's historic communities, and its current residents. But it's also in deep dialogue with pedagogical practice. Can you elaborate on the process of leading a sustained, community-engaged class?

As you rightly say, this work takes years, and I think it's particularly important to acknowledge both the power dynamics and the process of trust-building that are central to collaboration. Collaborating is a relationship, and relationships require trust. Trust requires time. Sometimes an awful lot of it. It is real work for everyone involved: partners, students, artists, faculty, community members. As such, when we talk about collaboration, we need to talk about labor, power, and risk, and how building this kind of trust can also highlight issues of inequity in these relationships. For example, when we first began, I had no doubts about my main collaborator GOLES (Good Old Lower East Side) as an organization, but Damaris Reyes, GOLES’ executive director, had every reason to have doubts about a large private educational institution such as the New School. In one of our public presentations about the project — this one at the Queens Museum — Damaris explained, “I mean, Gabrielle, she’s great — it’s not about her — I was like, it’s your institution.”

Another aspect of the shaping of City Studio was to always treat our partners as co-teachers, not clients or recipients of “help.” Partners taught students about organizing, local literature, public history, and personal histories that opened students’ eyes to experiences distinct from their own. This helped students learn important questions to ask and allowed them to see the complexities and personal implications of the planning process. A big ask, this kind of engagement underscored the necessity for us to understand the commitments on all sides and make sure that our partnerships were mutually beneficial and contributed as much to their organizations as they gave to students’ learning.

The stakes and the timelines for universities and activists are very different. While professors invariably contribute unpaid time to this kind of work, the margins for community organizations can be even slimmer. Organizations are overextended, people are often underpaid, and the issues they fight for are usually intractable, always long-term, and certainly beyond the length of a semester or even a year. In this precarious situation, it is a serious undertaking for community organizations to make time for and to commit to working with college students, faculty, designers, or artists. There can, of course, be great benefits on all sides to these partnerships — that’s the reason to do them in the first place. But the benefits must really compensate for the time spent — in ways most valuable to individuals and their organizations, which might be through funding, access, leverage, and capacity building for their campaigns.

One of the biggest takeaways from City Studio is that negotiation of participation, collaboration, and partnership needs to be there from the beginning, something to be worked out, to work on, to shift and change, as relationships do, building trust over time.

You state your philosophical, practice-based, and pedagogical approach is "visual urbanism." What is that?

“Visual urbanism” is the phrase I coined to describe the hybrid practice I work with in all my projects — it holds both visual and urban explorations to the highest standards and through their combination makes a new way of knowing about place. It brings practices that are often on the periphery of their disciplines to the center — it is not place-based social science that adds some pictures, nor is it art that adds a little light research. A crucial goal is to develop rigor, method, and critical perspective in using the visual to know cities, and to build on the ways in which people engage with images to more fully engage them with their own environments and cities.

In using visual urbanism pedagogically, I am interested in a hybrid of experiential learning and learning through making. I am not primarily concerned with my students becoming artists or designers, though some do. Rather, I am more interested in the ways that the process of making something, as it intersects with the process of doing and experiencing and collaborating with people in the real world, helps them learn, solve problems, synthesize ideas, and express ideas in ways that are meaningful to others.

In using visual urbanism and art practices in our Layered SPURA exhibitions, beyond presenting a didactic history, we wanted to make exhibitions that left people asking questions, rather than feeling like they knew answers. At the time we did these exhibitions, there was a lot of tension in the neighborhood about the future of SPURA. It's easy to be outraged by this history, but we wanted to create spaces where people could think about the politics but also about the people at its heart.

The projects that students created and that we showed in each annual exhibition engaged multiple senses to do this. They were often tactile, auditory, or required the viewer to shift their perspective — to see familiar spaces differently, or to look into a peephole into another tiny world. When slowing down to look in a new way, to listen to oral histories or ambient sounds of this environment, to touch the pieces of a project, and simultaneously care for it, it's harder to maintain entrenched, knee-jerk reactions. At the very least, we wanted these exhibitions to help people see each other's humanity. We didn't think our exhibitions would suddenly convince people who'd long opposed affordable housing to suddenly embrace it, but that these could be one of many steps toward community-based negotiation. The exhibitions tried to create a space that wasn't a place of binary opposition. The students themselves recognized that the “board meetings and protests... that people who live in contested neighborhoods are used to experiencing can be taxing,” and so they made projects that had many ways into them, projects that didn’t tell you what to think.

Finally, what's next for SPURA? And what's next for Buscada?

One of my biggest concerns is what's next for SPURA as Essex Crossing is developed on top of it. It is infinitely better to have buildings on this site, rather than parking lots, but there was a way that the parking lots made visible, or at least visceral, some of this place’s painful, and also powerful, history. How will the history of activism be honored and remembered? How do we avoid the erasures that are so emblematic of every other urban renewal site? Out of the approximately 1000 units of housing on the site, the 50% that are below market-rate are crucial, but what else is necessary? I'm also interested in the role of community and cultural institutions in telling the history, and in creating places for the diversity of people at Essex Crossing to cross paths and to build a sense of shared interests and a shared future. These kinds of spaces for dialogue — the kinds of spaces we began to build in the Layered SPURA exhibitions — are essential in a place that has the potential to be, rather than an actual community, mere units of housing, or worse a series of somewhat segregated spaces. The questions of the knock-on effects of Essex Crossing — like other large-scale developments around the city — on the further gentrification on the Lower East Side are also a concern. The neighborhood as a whole needs to be considered — particularly in light of the outrageously tall, outrageously expensive, towers near the Manhattan Bridge.

What's next for Buscada is not unrelated. Buscada is my design and research studio, in which we collaborate with community and cultural organizations to bring the approaches discussed here to a wide variety of neighborhoods and communities. In these collaborations, we make projects that create new opportunities for dialogue, often using contested or layered histories as a spark that helps people talk about the challenges of our contemporary city, and to build capacity amongst communities to effect change in their own neighborhoods. We will continue to work in neighborhoods facing large-scale development, and with arts and culture organizations interested in engaging communities equitably, creatively, and toward social justice.

Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani is an urbanist, curator, and artist pioneering public arts and urban research for community engagement, and is author of Contested City: Art and Public History as Mediation at New York's Seward Park Urban Renewal Area. She is co-director of the design & research practice Buscada, and teaches urban studies and public art at the New School.

Prithi Kanakamedala is an Assistant Professor in History at Bronx Community College, CUNY. She also works regularly with cultural institutions as a Public Historian in New York City.