New buildings go up in New York all the time. In my work, I hardly ever look at the relatively short time frame in which most of these buildings are built. I look at the longer arc of neighborhoods — of place, history, and attachment. But sometimes these two bump into each other in powerful ways, and the need for dialogue, and action, about place becomes imperative. Without dialogue, we end up with stalemate and stagnation in the best case. In the worst, violence against people and property erupts.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on the Lower East Side, at the long-contested site of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA) — now rebranded “Essex Crossing,” and more frequently discussed as parcels of developable real estate than as a place with meaning and histories. In May 2015, one of the first community meetings held to discuss access to new affordable housing at Essex Crossing was shut down by the fire department 45 minutes in, due to extreme overcrowding. That the meeting drew such an audience spoke to the neighborhood’s hunger for housing, after many years of inaction. But the presentation was unclear, community members’ questions were cut off or deflected, and many attendees could not follow the proceedings due to the baffling lack of Chinese or Spanish translation. The meeting was more than just a case study in poor planning: It also made obvious that failing to grapple with the multiple attachments different residents have to a place results in a crush of bodies, an astonishing level of sound — and an almost insurmountable enmity within the community.
The engagement with the different meanings of place that was so absent from this meeting is frequently missing from community planning meetings across the city. But at SPURA, one of urban renewal’s most notorious errors, that absence is especially significant. Over the past forty years SPURA has been marked by discrimination and conflict, and the pain of displacement and exclusion has not been forgotten. In 2008, in collaboration with the SPURA Matters coalition of community-based activists, planners, and public historians, I waded into the painful history of this site and began a five-year-long engagement with its stories. Growing out of work with students in my annual “City Studio” class at the New School, the “Layered SPURA” project used art and dialogue to illuminate the meaning of SPURA as a place, issuing a call to heed its history.
A brief history
A brief history
SPURA has been shaped by many of the most powerful forces at work in cities across the US: Immigration, urban renewal, fights for and against affordable housing, discrimination and quota systems, urban disinvestment, and gentrification. In the mid-1960s, New York City took ownership of this 14-square-block area of tenements for the then common, but increasingly unpopular, practice of urban renewal. These tenements, occupied primarily by Puerto Rican, African American and Eastern European Jewish and Catholic families, were slated for demolition in 1967 — a highly contested “slum clearance” which was to have yielded low- and moderate-income rental housing. 1,852 families, many of which were of low or moderate income and many of which were families of color, were displaced and promised the “right to return” to housing within the new development. Yet, for many reasons — New York’s fiscal crisis and controversies over the urban renewal process nationwide, among others — the original sponsor pulled out. No replacement was found for the whole site, and though demolition went ahead, little of the planned housing was ever built. SPURA became a patchwork of broken promises, disinvestment, and empty lots in the heart of the Lower East Side.
Many development proposals were made for this site in the more than forty years since its demolition, but all have foundered in community-level fights over affordable housing. The result has been an unevenly developed site full of (admittedly valuable) parking lots. In a still-relevant 1988 letter to the editor of the New York Times, Bonnie Brower, then executive director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development Inc., explained the significance of decisions made at SPURA:
“The issue of how and for whom New York City targets and allocates its limited public resources of property and funds to create more desperately needed permanent housing is one of the most pressing and important public policy issues confronting us. Because of the grossly uneven economic and racial impact of the city’s housing and homeless crisis, any development project, like Seward Park, that uses substantial amounts of these resources warrants rigorous public scrutiny.”
SPURA has been beset by dubious proposals ranging from huge malls to luxury housing, and by politicians’ behind-the-scenes collusion to keep out affordable housing. Not long ago, the Times exposed the corruption of former New York State Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver and his crony Willam Rapfogel, leader of the area’s United Jewish Council, who worked together to secure political control, in part by excluding people of color from the SPURA site. In 2003, a hearing for the latest SPURA plan was shut down amidst racial epithets, shouted by proponents of market-rate development at advocates for affordable and public housing. In 2010, a local real estate mogul and prominent member of the area’s conservative Jewish community, Heshy Jacob, evoked the Six Day War of 1967 (also the year that SPURA was condemned) and the inflammatory debate over Palestinian refugees’ “right to return” to Gaza and the West Bank, suggesting that both Palestinians and those who would return to SPURA after having been pushed out decades ago are “terrorists” with little claim.
At the intersection of Essex and Delancey, meanings are claimed by multiple groups, and often contradict one another. The neighborhood’s history as the crossroads of the Jewish, Chinese, and Latino Lower East Sides intertwines with shifting claims of who will shape its rapidly gentrifying future. These tensions will not fall away, even as new buildings rise.
When Marci Reaven, an historian and director of City Lore’s Place Matters project, took me on a walk to SPURA in 2008, it was by no means the first time I had been there. As a native New Yorker from Jewish and Italian New York families, this was my ancestral home. Growing up, the city was a personal thing to me, its features as familiar as the shape of my own nose. Spending time in this neighborhood now feels like traveling back in time — I remember buying bialys on Grand Street and underwear and luggage on Eldridge, heading to summer day camp, wandering all over Chinatown as a child. In my deeply atheistic upbringing, it seemed as close as my family got to the site of an origin story.
Perhaps it was inevitable that I would return to the Lower East Side in my work. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the image of the Lower East Side, based in part on a community mural project called Artscape, where I worked with teenagers at Henry Street Settlement’s Abrons Art Center. At Abrons I realized I knew the Lower East Side, and simultaneously did not. I started asking our students to give me tours, so I could get reacquainted with the streets I thought I knew so well. Their stories, their art, and their individual senses of place helped shape my career.
Ten years later, now a professor of Urban Studies at the New School and director of Buscada, a practice combining art and research practices in urban neighborhoods, I returned once more. As we walked, Marci related the painful history of SPURA, and invited me to work with SPURA Matters. Memories of the students from Artscape came rushing back to me, alongside outings with my grandmother, my mother and my aunt. I thought I knew this place so well — and yet, Marci was telling me a story I didn’t know at all.
Over the next five years, more than fifty of my “City Studio” students and I collaborated with long-time housing activists GOLES (Good Old Lower East Side), particularly Damaris Reyes, SPARC (Seward Park Area Redevelopment Coalition), and JFREJ (Jews for Racial and Economic Justice), as well as the public historians at Place Matters/City Lore and the community planners at the Pratt Center.[i] Together, we combined public history, creative practices, and visual work to create a series of annual collaborative exhibitions and guided tours in and about the neighborhood. Unlike most art, pedagogy, or architectural projects about SPURA, our exhibitions never prescribed what should happen on the site. And rather than wait for a development proposal that the neighborhoods’ divergent communities would merely oppose or support, we took proactive steps to spark dialogue. We wanted people to see SPURA in new ways, and to spur desperately needed conversations between people with different points of view about SPURA’s past, present, and future.
A unifying principle of the “Layered SPURA” project has been to make SPURA visible not as a tabula rasa or as a parcel of real estate, but as a place possessing community and history. But my students and I grappled with understanding the residents of the Lower East Side as a “community,” despite being often at odds. In this neighborhood, “community” can be exclusive as well as inclusive, based in ethnic and religious backgrounds, political alliances, and differing ideas about the value of land. Hence it was crucial to heed Raymond Williams’s critique of community: “The warmly persuasive word [used] to describe an existing set of relationships, or . . . to describe an alternative set of relationships. What is most important, perhaps, is that unlike all other terms of social organization (state, nation, society, etc.) it seems never to be used unfavorably.” In direct opposition to this, the feel-good (mostly meaningless) development terminology of “community-engagement” belies the long-standing divisions between people who have lived side by side for decades at SPURA. It also denigrates the hard work that has been done in the face of these divisions to organize the residents for change. Our goal was to involve people from all perspectives on the site, to start a conversation about the deep discrimination at the heart of SPURA’s story, and to help present-day New Yorkers feel connected to, or even implicated in, this history.
Our projects explored mapping and form, different ways of seeing the geography and its legacy, as well as oral histories, memories, and soundscapes. Across five years of work, all the projects encouraged touch, playfulness, and imagination. For example, one student created cubes that visitors could pick up, covered with photographs of the mundane and profound actions of socializing, eating, work and play at the Seward Park Extension buildings — this project focused on the SPURA of the present. Some students filmed interviews with neighborhood residents and activists Ed Rudyk, Rosa Brobeck, Frances Goldin and David Nieves, several of whom had been evicted from SPURA — their documentaries told the human story, before the parking lots. Still others depicted the site’s many possible timelines, creating square “viewers” that combined and superimposed translucent images of the imagined and unrealized futures of the SPURA site over present-day photographic panoramas. Other students made composites of maps drawn by residents, illuminating how the place’s diverse meanings could conflict, intersect, and overlap.[ii]
A key part of the project was the “Layered SPURA” guided tour, which began as a way for my students to know the site, and later evolved into interactive and performative tours of the site for the public. Participants read from cards representing different perspectives from the neighborhood, and channeled those voices as we moved through the space. One young woman brought us the voice of an elderly man, long ago pushed out; an older man adopted the voice of a woman who, in 2010, feared what “affordable housing” might do to her newly purchased co-op’s property values. A high school student read from the transcripts of a 1973 racial discrimination class-action lawsuit against the two public housing buildings when they opened, after an activist sit-in took over the building’s management office. The settlement gave 161 former site tenants priority to the buildings — and established an ethnic quota for the building: 60% Hispanic and other minority and 40% white, reflecting racist ideas of neighborhood “tipping points.”
We also read the physical markers of the site’s history. At one point, stopping in front of 157 Broome Street, we examined a homemade sign that hangs from its awning, reading “36 Attorney Street.” This part of Attorney Street had been demolished by urban renewal’s superblocks, and the building would have shared that fate, if not for tenant-activists like Tito Delgado who broke the locks and occupied it. Now both a successful limited-equity coop, and a publicly visible, subversive monument, this building was an important part of every tour.
The ongoing politics became particularly clear as the “Layered SPURA” group navigated perceptions of which “side” we were on. Though our project never endorsed particular existing plans for the site, we had purposefully partnered with organizations fighting for equity, affordable housing, and the redress of discriminatory wrongs from the urban renewal and post-renewal period. Unsurprisingly, this alignment did not go unnoticed.
The conflict came into sharpest relief when we needed physical places in which to hold our exhibitions — few spaces wanted to take on such a hot-button topic. Our first year, we partnered with a local architecture firm, common room, that used the elevator lobby in their building as a gallery space for urban-related exhibitions. The building was part of the complex built during the first phase of SPURA urban renewal in the late 1950s as limited-equity co-ops for members of the ILGWU (International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union). In 2008 it had converted to a market rate co-op, having aged out of the Mitchell-Lama law that had created it. Though they themselves lived in buildings designed as affordable housing, some co-op residents had been vocally opposed to affordable housing in the yet-unbuilt urban renewal area on the north side of Grand Street. In the first year, all had gone well. In the second year, as discourse around SPURA became heated, our partner GOLES advertised the exhibition with the tagline “SPURA Unites Community & Students.” This seemingly innocuous statement touched off a firestorm. In emails to common room, the building management declared that they would not have opinions about SPURA foisted on them, that our project was an unacceptable use of their space, and that they might revoke the right to use the common room lobby.
Perhaps it is true that all publicity is good publicity. What had initially threatened the existence of the “Layered SPURA” exhibition ultimately brought an even wider range of people to its opening. When both affordable housing advocates (our supporters) and the management of the Grand Street Co-ops (who had been so upset by the idea of the exhibition), arrived, they found an exhibition asking questions and adding nuance, rather than telling anyone what to do. The dialogue provoked by this project had not had a platform at any other kind of community institution or event — each of our installations were rare reprieves from community board meeting conflict zones, creating what scholar Rosalyn Deutsche has described as “alternative space.” In attendance were people who, according to our astonished partners, were rarely in the same room without screaming. Die-hard supporters of market rate development stood affably alongside long-time public housing advocates, sharing space to watch video oral histories of displaced residents, study photographs of the site, and take turns peering through the peepholes of viewing boxes. Joel Feingold, an organizer with GOLES, called the exhibitions “peacemaking things.” One former site-tenant and GOLES member said she was “particularly thrilled to be in a setting where she could talk freely with people from all of the ‘factions’ — a real rarity in 42 years of controversy.”
The possibilities of exhibition spaces as settings for open-ended community conversation evolved throughout the project. While our first objective was simply to get a difficult conversation moving again, when plans for new development started to take shape at a city level, we also used the exhibitions and our annual “newspapers” to educate about and comment on the larger process. SPURA Matters and “Layered SPURA” convened community visioning sessions and ongoing exhibitions to help community members define key questions a plan should address, rather than formulating responses or reacting to existing proposals with pre-set rules. The local community board, CB3, developed its own guidelines for a Request for Proposals (RFP) from developers, rather than deferring to city-defined parameters. While this process and its outcome were both imperfect, reflecting a Bloomberg-era fondness for developers and resistance to city subsidy of affordable housing, it was nevertheless significantly more participatory than the lip service to community involvement typical of the planning process. Though the RFP ultimately included big compromises, it also enshrined vital protections for affordability in perpetuity, and the right of former site tenants to return. The results are similarly imperfect: There will be a great deal of luxury housing in an area once the stronghold of working class immigrants in New York; the levels of affordability don’t adequately reflect the real incomes of area residents; and its shiny newness stands in literal and metaphoric contrast with older housing in need of maintenance and city support. But SPURA could easily have become yet another luxury development in an increasingly unaffordable New York City. As Essex Crossing materializes, its “community spaces” and public spaces must make an abiding commitment to ongoing dialogue. Only then will we have any real shot at a coherent neighborhood.
[i] Many organizations were involved in the SPURA Matters project, which was spearheaded by Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) and included Place Matters/ City Lore, The Pratt Center, Seward Park Area Redevelopment Coalition (SPARC), Ana Luisa Garcia Community Center, Center for Urban Pedagogy, CHARAS-Tu Casa Sound Studio, Cooper Square Committee, Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association, CAAAV, East Village Community Coalition, Grand Street Settlement, Hester Street Settlement, Immigrant Social Services, Indochina Sino-American Community Center, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), Lower East Side Business Improvement District, Lower East Side People’s Mutual Housing Association, Lower East Side Tenement Museum, St. Mary’s Church, Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, University Settlement, Urban Justice Center, as well as the Layered SPURA project.
[ii] Amy Nguyen, Matthew Taylor, John Lake, and Corey Mullee made square “viewers,” suggesting the multiple “frames” for viewing this space. Stephanie Messer and Zachary Fried layered residents’ personal maps of the area. The complete list of student collaborators over five years is as follows: David Braha, Oscar Brett, Sarah Charles, Lindsey Devers, Anastasia Ehrich, Debora Raquel Faria, Jamie Florence, Savannah Foster Zachary Fried, Matt Fujibayashi, Romina Giel, Kara Gionfriddo, Joshua Guerra, Ernest Haines, Leijia Hanrahan, Anke Hendriks, Christopher Hepner, Jaclyn Hersh, Vinh Hua, Evan Iacoboni, Badrul Hisham Bin Ismail, Tori Kaplan, Cara Keller, Candace Kiersky, Eric Kim, Sohee Kim, Lila Knisely, John Lake, Michael Lawlor, Samantha Lewis, Rachael London, Hannah Lyons, Claudie Mabry, Stephanie Messer, Corey Mullee, Amy Nguyen, Beatriz Rodrigues Fernandes Pereira, Katherine Priebe, David Privat-Gilman, Ian Pugh, Adam Schleimer, Kaushal Shrestha, Kira Sirois, Lily Steedman, Matthew Taylor, Gabriel Tennen, Sam Washburn-Baroni, Brittney Williams, Emily Winkler-Morey, Nattaphat Wongweerachotkit, Alexander Wood, and Hannah Zingre.
Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani is principal of Buscada, a design, art, and critical research studio focused on place and civic dialogue. She is a professor of urban studies and public art at the New School in New York and holds a PhD in Environmental Psychology from the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is currently working on a book about the “Layered SPURA” project for the University of Iowa’s Humanities in Public Life series.
*The language of this editor’s introduction has been updated to reflect the reality of ongoing disagreements about the future of the SPURA site, particularly about the real affordability of housing units designated “permanently affordable” and built on public land.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or The Architectural League of New York.