Contested City : Art, Planning, and Community Power

A sold-out evening at the Graduate Center, CUNY, hosted by the Center for the Humanities, the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics, and the Gotham Center, exploring how public art and public history can come together to create places for dialogue in support of activism in the contested city.

A diverse panel of community activists, arts practitioners, and scholars—Kemi Ilesanmi (Executive Director of The Laundromat Project), Prithi Kanakamedala (Bronx Community College), and Gregory Jost(Director of Organizing at Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association)—responded to Contested City: Art & Public History as Mediation at New York's Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, the new book by Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani. 

Contested City simultaneously reveals untold stories of fifty years of community activism in Manhattan's Lower East Side around the highly contested Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA)—and sheds light on the importance of collaborative creative public projects in this complex place. 
The narrative of Contested City has bearing on the new mega-development of Essex Crossing now rising on the SPURA site, as well as the many places around our city in which housing is precarious and neighborhoods are threatened. This discussion was for everyone who seeks tools to make their neighborhood more just.

Gabrielle interviewed by Prithi Kanakamedala - at the Gotham Center

Such a pleasure to be interviewed about Contested City by public historian Prithi Kanakamedala for the Gotham Center for New York City History. Read an excerpt of our conversation below - or read the whole thing here.

Your name — Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani — is 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 book — how 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.

Read the whole interview here.

Contested City launches with a packed house

On one of the coldest, iciest nights of the year, the Contested City book launch on February 12th couldn't have been warmer. My heartfelt thanks to the more than 100 of you who were there, and the many more who were there in spirit. It was an honor to share the night with long-time collaborators and activists extraordinaire, Damaris Reyes of GOLES and Tito Delgado of SPARC.

Highlights included Damaris' surprise that our long collaboration could turn into a book, Tito's call for the public control of land for the people, Gabrielle's challenge to the City to use SPURA as an example and make all affordable housing permanent, and seven-year-old Eva's statement that while she wasn't interested when she arrived, by the end of the evening she was sure she wanted to read the book. 

Contested City excerpt in Public Seminar

Get a sneak peek at Contested City in this excerpt from Chapter 2 “Walking the City”, recently published by Public Seminar.

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.

Read the full excerpt here.

Gabrielle interviewed in Public Seminar

A great new interview with Gabrielle by Julia Foulkes in Public Seminar - on everything from disinvestment, to visual urbanism, to the possibilities of art, and the vagaries of social practice.

Here’s an excerpt - read the rest here.

JF: You have a unique set of skills and experiences — an artist with deep knowledge of design; a scholar with a doctorate in environmental psychology; an activist with community organizations; and a life-long New Yorker. They all seem to be part of what you call “visual urbanism.” Could you explain this approach to understanding and acting in the city?

GB-V: You could say that visual urbanism is the term I coined to explain to other people how all my jobs and life experiences make sense in my own head as interwoven parts of one commitment to understanding people and the meaning that places hold for them. It is also a way of working that argues that creative practices can be a way of knowing, belonging as part of urban research because they help us pose questions we might not otherwise know to ask. For me, this practice is also one that struggles against the often-uneasy relationship between text and image, and between imagination and fact. I am trying to create spaces, projects, and research where these ways of knowing are equal: the text does not caption an image, the image does not illustrate a text. Images, words, feelings, and histories are experienced together, each bringing a new facet of understanding or new voice to a conversation. I’m interested in this work as something that can act in the world, that can build on the accessibility of images to spur conversations and action in our complicated cities, neighborhoods, and homes.

Contested City book launch, Feb 12 : RSVP here!

Join us for the Contested City book launch! Free and open to the public!
Please RSVP on eventbrite here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019, 7:00 PM – 9:00 PM
The New School, Theresa Lang Center
55 West 13th Street, 2nd floor
New York, NY 10011

Join urbanist, artist, and New School professor Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani to celebrate the launch of her book Contested City: Art and Public History as Mediation at New York’s Seward Park Urban Renewal Area.

Revealing the untold stories of fifty years of community activism at the controversial Seward Park Urban Renewal Area on New York’s Lower East Side — now the site of the mega-development Essex Crossing — ContestedCity sheds light on the importance of collaborative creative public projects in this complex place. Bridging art, design, activism, and urban history, this is a book for everyone who seeks to make their own city more just.

Ada Calhoun, author of St. Marks Is Dead, says of Contested City: “This underdeveloped piece of downtown Manhattan has long confounded New Yorkers. With scholarly rigor and deep respect for community, Dr. Bendiner-Viani uncovers its secrets at last. Her research has resonance for controversial ‘urban renewal’ projects everywhere.”

The evening will feature a presentation by Gabrielle, along with reflections from her long-time collaborators Damaris Reyes, Executive Director of GOLES (Good Old Lower East Side) and Tito Delgado, former SPURA resident and SPARC member. Join us for the conversation, the book-signing, and the celebration of the past and future of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area.

This event is sponsored by the Urban Studies department at The New School.

For more on the book:

Listen to Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani interviewed about Contested City on WNYC’s All of It with Alison Stewart

For review copies/media inquiries, contact Allison T Means, University of Iowa Press: