Learning to See SPURA
Reflections on urban displacement, art, and community praxis
For forty years, as New York’s Lower East Side went from disinvested to gentrified, residents lived with a wound at the heart of the neighborhood, a wasteland of vacant lots known as the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA). Most of the buildings on the fourteen-square-block area were condemned in 1967, displacing thousands of low-income people of color with the promise that they would soon return to new housing — housing that never came.
Over decades, efforts to keep out affordable housing sparked deep-rooted enmity and stalled development, making SPURA a dramatic study of failed urban renewal, as well as a microcosm epitomizing the greatest challenges faced by American cities since World War II.
Artist and urban scholar Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani was invited to enter this tense community to support a new approach to planning, which she accepted using collaboration, community organizing, public history, and public art. Having engaged her students at The New School in a multi-year collaboration with community activists, the exhibitions and guided tours of her Layered SPURA project provided crucial new opportunities for dialogue about the past, present, and future of the neighborhood.
Simultaneously revealing the incredible stories of community and activism at SPURA, and shedding light on the importance of collaborative creative public projects, Bendiner-Viani’s new book, Contested City : Art and Public History as Mediation at New York’s Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, bridges art, design, community activism, and urban history. Read an excerpt from chapter 2, “Walking the Neighborhood” below.
When I was growing up, the city to me was a personal thing, its features as familiar as the shape of my own nose. Because I was a native New Yorker, a hybrid of two multigenerational New York families, one Jewish, one Italian, how could my ancestral home be anywhere but on the Lower East Side? The Lower East Side represented a past visited often — to buy bialys on Grand Street and luggage on Eldridge Street, to go to summer day camp, to wander back and forth between the Lower East Side and Chinatown.
When I was in college, earning a degree in the growth and structure of cities at Bryn Mawr and deeply missing New York, it was hardly surprising that my senior thesis was about the Lower East Side. My work on the construction of differing images of the famous neighborhood was based on my summer research and my teaching fellowship, which was in part spent working with teenagers at Henry Street Settlement’s Abrons Art Center as an artist and assistant teacher in a community mural project called Artscape, led by artist Nicky Enright.
At Abrons, I realized that I both knew the Lower East Side and simultaneously did not know it. All our students lived in the neighborhood and had different kinds of connections to it than I did. I started asking them to give me their own tours of the neighborhood so I could get to know a place I thought I knew so well. They took me to pizza joints and to all the stores on Delancey Street. They were the first people to introduce me to the area between the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges, known as Two Bridges, an area of powerful community organizing. One student Cherise, a proud Boricua, told me the best places to get the Puerto Rican flag painted on your fingernails. The teenagers’ stories, their murals, and what they taught me about defining a sense of place would shape my entire career, not least contributing to why I started the SPURA project many years later, and why I returned to it year after year.
After college, life and a Watson Fellowship took me to the not-dissimilar East End of London and to the informal settlements of Buenos Aires, asking people in those cities to take me on tours of their neighborhoods. In London, I worked in places similar to Henry Street Settlement, in community arts projects at Toynbee Hall and Hoxton Hall, two of the East End’s most venerable settlement houses and community centers. In all this work, I grappled with people’s sense of place and my ability to photograph or document it; I thought about the ways that the walks they were taking me on could help others understand those neighborhoods differently.
Looking for colleagues to talk with about the kind of hybrid art and research I was doing, I began work on a PhD in environmental psychology, a field I now describe as a social science approach to people’s relationship to place. I became enmeshed in the politics and personal connections of place by initiating a many-year series of walks in Brooklyn, New York, and in Oakland, California, to understand people’s personal, cultural, and political connections to everyday places like supermarkets and parks. I asked people to give me their own guided tours of their neighborhoods, akin to what I’d done in London and on the Lower East Side, after which I’d photograph these seemingly banal places and interview them again with the photos to create archives of everydayness layered with meaning.
Several years after my work in Brooklyn, Oakland, and the Vladeck Houses, I returned to the Lower East Side, this time as a professor of urban studies at the New School and director of Buscada, which combines art and research practices in urban neighborhoods. Marci Reaven, a historian and director of City Lore’s Place Matters project, took me on a walk as I was creating a community-engaged class for my first semester of teaching. Marci suggested that perhaps my new class could work with Place Matters and the longtime housing and neighborhood activists, Good Old Lower East Side, on their current project: SPURA Matters.
“SPURA,” I asked. “What’s that?”
On our thirty-minute walk, heading east from the New School on 12th Street, zigzagging south and eventually onto and across Grand Street, Marci began to tell me the painful stories of SPURA, stories of disappointment, displacement, and discrimination involving this failed urban renewal site. The awkward blocks of parking lots just north of Grand Street that I had unconsciously avoided when I worked at the Abrons Art Center suddenly made sense. The area was uncomfortable because it was unfinished. It was uncomfortable because it held pain and open wounds in its very fabric. And as we walked, Cherise and all the others from Artscape and those first guided tours came rushing back to me. So did my walks with my grandmother, my walks to meet my aunt at the diner on Grand Street near the school where she taught, and my childhood shopping forays with my mother to Orchard Street. I knew this place so well. Yet Marci was telling me another story, one I didn’t know at all.
It seemed appropriate to introduce my students to this complicated place in a similar way. Each year, on the first day of the “City Studio: Exhibiting SPURA” class I created after my walk with Marci, having dispensed with the practicalities of the semester, I asked my students to jump on the F train for fifteen minutes, taking it from 14th Street to Delancey Street. They were to walk around SPURA on their own or in pairs for thirty minutes, make some drawings and maps and write down their observations and questions, and then come back to our classroom. Some students were new to New York. Some had lived in this city their entire lives. None had ever heard of SPURA.
The New School’s Urban Studies department wanted me to create a class in partnership with a community group that would make something public at the end; the rest was up to me. As such, the students I was asking to walk on that first day in 2008 were beginning a class I had designed to address the histories of housing in New York and the Lower East Side. I wanted to immerse them in community development and activism, to train them in both basic and innovative urban research methodologies — ethnographic, visual, mapping, historical, and participatory. I was also introducing them to notions of engaged art practices intertwined with research with the particular goal of thinking about how research and art can act in public, to, as I said in the syllabus that year, “help illuminate issues important to residents and at stake in planning decisions.” We were struggling with ideas of social practice before the term existed, like many of the authors and artists we looked to. With this class, I also sought to introduce students to a hybrid way of working, one that involved critical reading, writing, and creative making. The class argued, as I had been arguing in my own work for some time, that making was a way of knowing that could be thought of productively in the context of urban research.
Before I asked them to walk, my introduction to the class and my syllabus presented the idea of exploring what is visible, what is hidden, and what is no longer there. With this limited historical context, the students tried to puzzle things out on their first uncertain walk. Locked gates furthered my students’ feelings that they weren’t supposed to be there, but some also noted that they saw potential. There were closed spaces, mixed-up places, and old-fashioned spaces, and they drew some of these, including the cobblestone streets and the then defunct and now-demolished firehouse emblazoned with a mural memorializing 9/11: Never Forget.
Having realized that they, like me, had in fact been there before, they came back confused but strangely familiar with SPURA. We talked about how they more frequently spent time on the opposite sides of Essex Street or Delancey or Grand: going to local bars or restaurants, coming off the Williamsburg Bridge on their bikes, or living in the small, overpriced tenement apartments nearby. After spending a short time looking at this place, most of them realized — just as I had — that though they’d been there before, they’d never really seen it.
These first observations were an important basis for our way of working. All fields have their own approaches, and in understanding cities, qualitative research and behavioral observation plays a big role. I’ve always been interested in the ways we do research. Methodology can sound dull, but in reality it is deeply linked to epistemology — understanding how we know what we know. So when wading into SPURA, a place that was both deeply familiar and completely new, I wanted my students, along with everyone engaged with the project, to be clear about how we knew what we knew—how our knowledge of the place was growing and changing, whose perspectives were informing these understandings, and what kinds of readings of space and place were happening.
Immersing oneself in a place and carefully observing that place are part of that process. Participant-observation has a long and rich history. When my students went back to SPURA a week later, they honed their observations. I liked to use examples from William Whyte’s The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces and John Zeisel’s framework of research for design as concrete models and guidelines for students to learn what it means to look closely (but we were careful to be critical of Whyte’s often gendered and otherwise positional analysis). On these trips, some students looked for physical traces, while others watched behavior, marking on a paper grid the movements they observed on a street corner or in a park. Still others wrote out observations and conducted short interviews, practicing what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz called thick description. These all resulted in useful insights about the place. Yet even more important, all these methods were a way to guarantee that students spent a significant amount of time at the site at three or more different times of day. When you sit around, being still for a minute or an hour, things happen in front of you. And you tend to pay close attention, because you’re not really sure what you’re looking for.
In addition to offering them an opportunity to report back on what they observed and how the spaces of SPURA felt physically and emotionally, these exercises often revealed my students’ own discomfort or feelings of foreignness in the neighborhood, feelings it was crucial to discuss, rather than letting them fester. These were things we’d continue to discuss throughout the semester, as we talked again and again about whose Lower East Side it was, to whom SPURA belonged, and how that belonging was bestowed: through history, care, use, or property ownership.
Purchase a copy of Contested City: Art and Public History as Mediation at New York’s Seward Park Urban Renewal Area on Amazon here or on the University of Iowa Press website here. Join us at the book launch of Contested City on February 12, 7-9pm. It is free and open to the public. RSVP here.
Dr. 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 principal of the design and research studio Buscada and teaches urban studies and public art at The New School. She was the 2017 Post-doctoral Fellow in Visual Culture at the International Center of Photography and holds a PhD in environmental psychology from the Graduate Center, CUNY. She regularly consults with arts and culture organizations on community and art engagements and strategic visioning. Her creative practice has been shown at institutions including MIT, the Brooklyn Public Library, the Center for Architecture, the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, and Tate Britain. Her work on cities, culture and photography has appeared in journals including Visual Studies, Urban Omnibus, Space and Culture, Society & Space, and Buildings & Landscapes.