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, Contested City bridges art, design, community activism, and urban history. This is a book for artists, planners, scholars, teachers, cultural institutions, and all those who seek to collaborate in new ways with communities.
“Bendiner-Viani has written an exemplary, must-read study of long-term neighborhood activism and engaged teaching. Her rigorous, absorbing prose gives witness to and unpacks what it means to organize for people’s place-making and the ongoing fight against rapacious urban bullying and paranoid racial politics.”—Jack Tchen, Inaugural Clement Price Chair of Public History and Humanities, Rutgers-Newark
“Contested City is a welcome sounding board for artists, designers, planners, educators, and others seeking to alter landscapes of power everywhere. Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani critically orients readers to how stories, conflicts, and cities shape one another, while demonstrating how art and design can supplement self-government ‘without claiming centrality,’ and how making things that ‘don’t tell you what to think’ can be helpful for all of us.”—Damon Rich, urban designer, MacArthur Fellow
“This book demonstrates the power of creative community-engaged practice to understand complex problems like affordable housing in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It serves as an indispensable guide to those contemplating community-engaged work that weaves together public history, visual analysis, mapping, and oral history.”—Mallika Bose, Pennsylvania State University
“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.”—Ada Calhoun, St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America's Hippest Street
“Displacement is one of the most critical issues of our time. Bendiner-Viani brings her expertise in environmental psychology and urban history to this highly accessible and provocative book that explores art, community, and student engagement. Focused on New York City, the issues and practices described in this book are widely applicable in cities across the globe.”—Yolanda Chávez Leyva, director of the Institute of Oral History & Borderlands Public History Lab, University of Texas at El Paso
2020 Brendan Gill Prize finalist