Native-born and new arrivals alike, New Yorkers sure love to talk about neighborhood change. But many conversations skirt the complex questions these changes bring to the fore. Gentrification is a tale of zoning regulations, real estate markets, and demographics. It is also a tale of guilt, anger, apprehension, embarrassment, nostalgia, despair… everything but indifference.
Based in the Lower East Side, where dramatic change is both a permanent and accelerating condition, the members of the Perfect City working group are developing a dialogue that feels less familiar. The project’s instigator is a playwright who has previously plumbed the depths of local government and participatory democracy through performance. The working group members, many from the neighborhood, most under the age of 21, are not the kind of experts whose testimony is usually called on in these situations, but they are experimenting with the possibilities for a project that starts as art to make real change. To that end, the Perfect City working group is inserting its perspectives into a heated and heartfelt territory through discussion, performance, and this fall, a two-week festival at Abrons Art Center.
We invited the group to host a roundtable at the Architectural League. Joined by some guests, including architects who work in the Lower East Side and on participatory design, the group led us through an exercise in what they call avoidance mapping. It turns out mapping what we avoid also shows us where we feel we belong. The exercise opened into a broader conversation on belonging, the sense of home, the things we avoid, the things we can and can’t avoid, and the distance from or possibility of living in a “perfect city.”
In retrospect, the exercise recalls a series of maps produced when the Los Angeles Department of City Planning (advised by Kevin Lynch) asked residents of different neighborhoods to sketch their image of the city. The results are the images of many cities, and strikingly, the very different worlds inhabited by residents of upper middle class white, African American, and Mexican American neighborhoods. The former are expansive, the latter tightly circumscribed. The maps are from the 1970s, but the story they tell is hardly unfamiliar today. Then and now, cognitive maps help us see the connections between the personal, affective, and experiential, and the collective experiences and structures that guide how different groups experience and access urban space. –M.M.
I had been watching the city I’d come to as a place that tolerated and even celebrated diversity — not to mention misfits, freaks, punks, and queers — become increasingly homogenized, made safer for new white arrivals, and less hospitable to people of color and the poor. As a white male carrying all the trappings of privilege, I saw myself as part of the problem and I wanted to do something about it. But I had a lot of questions: Is fighting gentrification even possible? Is it its own form of NIMBYism? What, tactically, concretely, is creating this nagging feeling of loss?
I found some answers, as well as more questions. From watching a presentation of PlaNYC under Mayor Bloomberg, I saw that the city was harnessing seemingly progressive ideals like farmers’ markets, bike shares, and transit to continue making New York a citadel for the wealthy. I saw that the uniform ethic of nostalgic artisanality, gig and sharing economy venues, and broken windows policing created unwelcoming and unsafe spaces for young people, especially of color. I learned the difference between community development and economic development, while watching developers and gentrifiers alike conveniently conflate the two.
As a theater-maker, I’m often interested in the performances that occur out of necessity or expression in cities as a matter of going through your day: government meetings, real estate sales pitches, bus tours, and the cursory interactions that occur on an urban walk have all been the departure points for my prior work. Perfect City is a logical continuation of that set of inquiries. I also wanted to start this project with more questions than answers, about form, content, and context. Can we do something impactful about an issue that is so pervasive? Can everyone have a say in what makes something art, “good” art, or “necessary” art? This means I didn’t presuppose that what we’d end up with would be theater.
The Perfect City working group, comprised of seven to ten members at any given time, started meeting in July 2016. We get together once or twice a week. Our meetings are discursive, rowdy, and complex. We share writing and ideas, we talk about what’s happening in the neighborhood, we learn from guest activists, artists, and planners. We are paid for our work. We think it’s a valid use of time and resources to pay young adults who grew up in the city to generate art projects and activism. In a way, Perfect City has become an ensemble of artists, activists and other interested citizens, each of whom brings a skill-set and point of view that informs what we make. So far this has included performances around a table for invited audiences, the beginnings of a poster campaign with store owners, a photo series, and more.
Maybe our more radical proposition is that Perfect City is a 20-year project — meaning the issues we are addressing are not solvable in a year or two (the timeline for a lot of art projects), and we want to make real change. On one hand, our conversations are wide-ranging, from aesthetics to zoning; on the other, we have a set of long-term goals that are very concrete. We’ve been trying to find ways to engage people who are both like us and different from us, with a goal of having more of a voice in the evolution of our city.
Our working group conducted our first Avoidance Mapping workshop and discussion with he Architectural League. The workshop came about through a shared, playful, and pointed language we’re developing among ourselves. At one session last fall, I asked the group how they were experts in their neighborhood, and Jamel said, “I’m an expert at avoiding people I don’t want to see.” Mallory Catlett, the dramaturg and director working on the project said, “Can you draw a map of what that looks like?” And Jamel did. As a performance moment, it’s dryly funny and something many, if not all, city-dwellers and walkers can relate to: we all try to steer clear of certain places and people, whether we’re aware of it or not. As an exercise designed to lead to conversations about gentrification and displacement, safety and perception, it’s a lens through which to look at bias, belonging, and other subjects. It’s useful (seeing how knowledge of and belonging to a place lead you to be able to successfully navigate it), provocative (what and whom you avoid says as much about you as the avoidances themselves), and creative (allowing us to foreground new, perhaps competing narratives of the city).
At the workshop we asked people what, whom, or where they avoided, whether it was real or imaginary, and what the consequences might be of successfully avoiding that person, place, or thing — or not. How did time factor into their maps? How did their gender, race, class, and geographic backgrounds inform their informal cartography? There was a sense from most participants that this deceptively simple charting of a day or a block or a building led them to understand who they were in the city — what they felt they belonged to here — in a new way. The combination of maps and the stories that animate them are what make exercises like these potent and valuable. While some of these responses and points of view might seem purely emotional or fear-based, having the geography on which to imprint those experiences makes them harder to dismiss or ignore.
The evening felt subtly profound to me. Young people with no training were leading architects and planners in a nuanced conversation about belonging in the city, who gets to claim space, who can’t, and why.
Whenever I see cops, I usually make sure my hands aren’t in my pockets (especially coat pockets). If I have to backtrack because I left something at home or realize I went the wrong direction, I’m very conscious of who is behind me and how they would react to me suddenly turning around towards them. If I have to cross over to the other side of the street, I’m very aware of how whoever is on that side might feel to see me coming towards them.
The block of Twelfth Street between Avenue A and First Avenue is really dark at night. Sometimes I opt to go that way when I’m headed home because the people I want to avoid are sometimes on Eleventh and A. I’ve had some very awkward encounters on that block at night. People coming to a full stop when they see me and crossing over. Or just standing still until I pass them because they’re closer to the corner and would be more vulnerable if they came further in the block as we pass each other. People looking back at me several times and then crossing over.
I’ve never really had a negative reaction to this. I think it sucks because there’s the obvious thing of racial profiling going on, but at the end of the day people just want to be safe. I myself would be alarmed if I were on an empty block at night passing by a group or a single person who I think looks like they may be up to no good. The difference between me and the average white person, or non-local who may see me as a threat is that I have a lot more cultural and urban knowledge than them. Looking at an African American man or Hispanic man or any other kind of minority, I can easily tell what they’re about by their demeanor. The way they dress. The way they walk. The way they talk. The way they look at you. There are clear signs, in my opinion, that should help you determine who may be a potential threat if you’re alone on an empty street. But the lack of knowledge of that will cause someone to put their avoidance hat on regardless. “Better safe than sorry,” right?
I think a lot of people who experience this from my end of it would feel like they’re a monster in the face of “White America,” but at the same time, I’ve seen African American and Hispanic people rob, fight in the street, and do other things that the average person wants to avoid (not just white people or people new to the city). And I know a lot of African Americans and Hispanics who would cross over, or at least be alarmed if they came across suspected trouble-makers in a dark empty street. We have to change the perception altogether of minority demographics to get past the racial profiling, because in this sense, (although not to be used as an excuse) it’s a person’s default precaution to stay safe around unfamiliar people they are yet to understand.
On the Lower East Side, I see the landscape changing on a daily basis — construction looms overhead and luxury buildings soar to new heights. I’m not looking forward to the day when hundreds and thousands of people will descend on the Lower East Side and it will no longer be the culturally diverse, grungier, and quieter part of town that I’ve known it to be. I don’t know how to hold onto something that is evolving in front of my very eyes.
To illustrate how I feel about these changes, I’d like to share a story on a seemingly unrelated and innocuous topic: fashion. I’m all about comfort — high heels can be found in department stores, but not in my closet. My preferred getup includes a t-shirt paired with a soft sweater, loose-fitting pants, and sneakers. This outfit makes me feel comfortable, provided that I am in the “right” place. Chances are you won’t catch me in this attire in Midtown. I sacrifice comfort for aesthetics when I’m in a place like Midtown because I feel like I’m being judged by the people walking down the street. Yet if you make your way further south and head into the heart of the Lower East Side, more likely than not, you’ll spot me in the aforementioned outfit.
I’ve been dressing like this for quite some time now, and while my attire hasn’t changed, my level of comfort has. My perception of being judged for my outfit in Midtown has found its way to the Lower East Side. Strolling down the street in my sweatpants one day, I came across an art gallery that opened several blocks from my apartment. Hipsters were milling around in the gallery and spilling over onto the sidewalk, and though we had zero interaction, I felt that they were judging my attire — my comfortable getup was the antithesis of the ambience they were trying to create. I suddenly had an urge to walk away from the gallery as quickly as possible to extricate myself from being the target of their judgments.
As a psychology major, I recognize that I had fallen prey to the spotlight effect, a cognitive bias that makes us believe that other people are more focused on us than they actually are. In reality, these art-aficionados were probably too busy sipping their wine to notice li’l ol’ me. However, this is the impact that their presence had on my psyche.
Now imagine that feeling multiplied many times over, because that is precisely what is happening, and will continue to happen, in my neighborhood. Newcomers have been moving in and more will arrive en masse as luxury high-rises are being erected left and right. I just want to feel like I belong in my neighborhood — is that too much to ask?
Ironically enough, while we call ourselves Perfect City, we have yet to have a full-fledged discussion on what makes a city perfect. If I had to start somewhere — I’d say that New York City is inching towards perfection when it starts to take into consideration how changes and new developments will impact the people who are from originally from a neighborhood, the people who truly call this place their home. It is then that the conversation shifts from what will bring in the most money to what will help sustain the culture and diversity that draw people to New York in the first place.
I would do my best avoid the mean kids in high school, but it can be hard since school is such a narrow space.
I think that one of New York City’s greatest strengths is the ability to draw anyone to the city without judgement. It’s welcoming. Perhaps too welcoming, in the sense that foreigners (not necessarily just from a different country, but also different states) come here and immediately call it home. I don’t think New York is home to anyone who hasn’t grown up — either since childhood, or who has simply lived a long time in the city — through the ups and downs of this powerful place.
“Home” is an individual concept in which a person lays claim to a particular place. I have lived in Long Island City (LIC) for 15 out of my 20 years, and I have never called this neighborhood “home.” I have moved four times over the course of 18 months (including returning to the place where I lived for 13 years prior to moving those four times). Residency isn’t the same as home. Right now I live away from home as I can be. I don’t belong and I know it. Developers are in control of the changing faces and costs of neighborhoods. Condos continue to rise higher every day; rents drop near these construction sites, even as they skyrocket for homes that have been here for decades.
LIC used to have a strong sense of community no matter what part you were from. That’s all disappearing now, and I feel helpless. It’s discomforting having this feeling in my chest, especially as someone who has a hard time letting things bother him and letting things sit on his shoulders. Almost every day, I dream of a vigilante swooping down and taking back these neighborhoods from one-percenters. Maybe I can be that vigilante. Maybe Perfect City can be that vigilante.
This is a map of my hallway. What seems like an innocuous setting is, when you know who’s behind each door, a site where avoidance and belonging can be loaded terms. I animate it and make it real, for generations, because I may live here with my children someday.
This psychogeographic mapping takes a typical day and turns it into a relational path of physical, mental, and social avoidances. As examples, it shows the ways I tape my computer to avoid being seen through its camera or the walks I take with my five-month old to avoid her crying out of boredom at home.
Perfect City asked to consider the complex systems of urban structures and systems through our lived-experience. This is a performative and accessible approach that allows participants to easily consider current conditions that cause avoidance and potentials for change in those conditions. I try to work in similar performative and personal ways. For example, through urban games that ask people to reflect on their own experience using a space to negotiate moves with others.
This map reflects how societal behaviors and the built environment have taught me to police my body in order to protect myself simply for being a young woman of color.
There comes a level of privilege for those that can walk around the city at any time of day and not have to fear for their safety.
Not having to walk more than five blocks without reaching a comfortable corporately owned coffee shop (y’all know what I mean) while some need to use hours of transit just to reach a supermarket, school, or place of worship. Sometimes bringing in new structures to a neighborhood can bring people convenience, like a new store that carries your favorite brand of muffins — gluten- and GMO-free, and vegan! These places can also bring natives of the neighborhood disconnection; this “convenience” destroys culture and homes. While walking through a neighborhood, please really study and question your surroundings. Who do these places benefit? Who are they built for?
Although we pride ourselves on being a progressive city, our policies are regressive. Black and brown communities are still feeling the aftershocks of policies set in place to divide, conquer, and weaken black and brown people from creating strong and resilient communities we call home.
I sketched a map of the cycling routed I follow with my boys around the bottom of Manhattan, highlighting obstacles I typically try to avoid. One is more keenly aware of threatening traffic issues and environmental hazards cycling with children through our city’s streets.
As architects, we believe people need to connect to their environment through the direct shaping and modification of place. Unfortunately, there is almost no room for this type of engagement in the way projects are currently developed and implemented. The language and experience of hands-on making is not only universally accessible, immediate, and powerfully symbolic, but it also has an outsized impact on the outcome of a project.
A map of deciding which train to take home at night, factoring in distance to my house, past uncomfortable interactions on specific corners, the darkness/emptiness of certain streets, and whether waiting 20 minutes to transfer to the G in order to have the safer-feeling and shorter walk home is worth it.
Sharing avoidance stories is a way to articulate what may be lacking in our city when it comes to safety and belonging, and to invite us to consider what could be done on a more macro-level to address problems that at first glance may seem purely personal or emotional. The city itself has a deep impact on the “personal histories” of people who live here, particularly people who grew up here. How can you dissociate your subjective, emotional approach to navigating the world from the range of ways New York City forces us to navigate its streets, its people, its systems? Many of these avoidances have real systemic weight. If you grew up riding the subways to school, or in public housing, or as a woman who has learned to watch her back as she walks home at night, or as a person of color who must perform harmlessness and submission in a city with a history (and present) of racist policing (and on and on), your past, present, and future self are tangled up with the complex structures of this place. One’s history and identity affects how one moves through the city — and how the city responds back at you.
The word “belong” is exclusive. It only favors you when you meet the requirements of the authoritative force. In this context, authority belongs to the real estate industry, and therefore I don’t feel I really belong in this city. I don’t meet the requirements that are put forward by the industry.
For me, this is an interesting connection to make — the idea that you don’t belong to the real estate, but you do belong to the knowledge. Meaning you know the city and operate in it in a belonging way because of the depth and time of your experience here. But you don’t actually “belong” in the sense of having the authority to maintain space here.
Yes, you got the right sense of what I mean in terms of “belonging.” I’ll add, the reason I’m representing it as authority and having a hard time describing other aspects of it is because, in all, I know that’s the bottom line. I could talk about the knowledge and experience, but I feel that’s a bit beside the point. This reminds me of the little clash that happened during our roundtable at Henry Street, over the term “ownership.” One person thought that despite living in a gentrifying neighborhood, community members who rent can still feel a sense of ownership over that place. Another person felt like that sense of ownership only goes so far, and when a real owner wants you out, you’re out. I agree with the latter. For me, it’s hard to think about belonging when I know it’s technically only conceptual.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.