Open City: Blogging Urban Change Christiana Baik

For Open City, Cristiana Baik has written about Bush Terminal and Industry City, city nomenclature, and social justice organizing in Queens among other topics. Find out more about her approach to this process in the interview below. For an overview of the project, click here.

Bush Terminal | Photos: Christiana Baik
Urban Omnibus (UO):

What have you been looking at specifically? And where?

Cristiana Baik (CB):

Specifically, I’m looking at Sunset Park, and although I initially started in Sunset Park’s Chinatown, my most recent research and conversations have veered towards the waterfront, especially the Navy Yard and Bush Terminal.

UO:

How do you define urban change?

CB:

In the past, I’ve defined “urban change” as a euphemism for gentrification. During this project, some of this view has shifted into something less pessimistic — meaning, urban change can describe shifts beyond the influences and impacts of real estate development. Demographic shifts, for example,  don’t always coincide with socio-economic changes. Most of the former definition (gentrification) comes from having lived in neighborhoods with very different political and demographic profiles that underwent significant urban changes definitively shaped by real estate development (including Echo Park in Los Angeles and Hyde Park in Chicago).

UO:

How are you going about investigating urban change in this project?

CB:

One way I’ve gone about writing on Sunset Park is simply walking around. Right away I noticed — at a time when I knew nothing about Sunset Park — the demographic divisions: 2nd, 3rd Ave. is mostly industrial/post-industrial (warehouses, Bush Terminal, Navy Yard), with a very small arts-related contingent (like Light Industry and the artist studios), 4th, 5th, 6th Avenues are heavily Latino (Dominican, Mexican), while 7th and 8th Avenues (around the late 30 and on) are spines of a growing Chinatown. It made me wonder when these demographic changes began to occur, which then led me to investigate recent city-wide revitalization plans that has, in some ways, helped shape these shifts.

I think talking to people — local residents — is pretty much the heart of the blog, and probably the best way for us to think about the way urban changes have affected local communities. The process of interviewing has also been the most difficult aspect of the project for me — finding a non-invasive way to access people’s stories without feeling like you’re objectifying them. The role of a privileged writer coming in to tell someone’s story just really doesn’t jive with me, hence I am always a bit tentative/paranoid about how I go about conducting interviews or writing about interviewees, etc. On one hand, and for various reasons, I haven’t found it very plausible to get “life histories” of individuals. I don’t think the project necessarily asks or lends itself to this kind of process — it’s a daily blog, which, more often than not, calls for interviews that are tongue-in-cheek. As a writer, I think this degree of freedom/”openness” is one of the most interesting aspects of the project.

UO:

As a writer with a background in anthropology and affordable housing, in what ways do you find blogging a useful medium of investigation of or communication about this topic?

CB:

I like blogging because it’s so different from formalized papers (or a well “crafted” poem). Obviously, you don’t want to spew out wrong information and dive into writing posts that are poorly informed! Yet, at the same time, blogs are a bit less formal and allow the author to float ideas out there: well formulated speculations, I would say. It’s also an interesting venue for people to read your work. Most of my writing has been intended for small, pretty specific audiences — either other poets or academics. But Open City appeals to a broad range of folks, from urban planners, architects, to activists, as well as artists and writers. It’s pretty cool.

UO:

What have you noticed in particular? From your observations so far, what jumps out at you? What have you particularly enjoyed writing about? What has most surprised you about the neighborhood(s)?

CB:

Specifically, with Sunset Park, I think the less obvious things have surprised me. For example, my expectation was that most of my posts would center around Sunset Parks’s growing Chinatown (which I still think is incredibly vital, important to think and write about), which hasn’t been the case at all. In this sense, it’s the way that I’ve experienced most writing projects: it’s the unexpected turns that are almost always what makes the work more interesting. Veering into Bush Terminal, the Navy Yard, has been surprising and interesting. And I knew almost nothing about it before Open City.

Cristiana Baik currently resides in Brooklyn, New York. As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, she concentrated in Anthropology and Gender Studies. She received her MFA in Creative Writing (2009), and is currently a graduate assistant, student at NYU. Her work has been published in various literary magazines, including American Letters & Commentary, Jacket Magazine, the Boston Review, and Conjunctions, and her chapbook The Victory of the Strange Heart Beating, was published by Blue Hour Press in 2009.

It was in Chicago that Cristiana first became interested in issues of urban planning. As a college student, she studied and lived in South Africa and Israel, to get a broader sense of how land distribution and power politics creates different forms of consciousness. She continued with her work, when she became a project management associate at the Los Angeles Community Design Center (now Abode Communities), a nonprofit affordable housing developer and architecture firm. She worked on various issues at LACDC, from relocation, mixed income housing, to demographic research.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.