Art, history, and urban contestation: a review of Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani’s Contested City

Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani, Contested City: Art and Public History as Mediation at New York’s Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2018).

Reviewed by Barry Goldberg

In 1965, the New York City Board of Estimate, an eight-member body that once had authority over the city’s budget and land-use matters, but has since been declared unconstitutional, approved a plan to create the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA). At the time, the site was one of lower Manhattan’s most racially and ethnically diverse communities, a fourteen-block area of small businesses and tenements in the heart of New York’s Lower East Side. Over 1,850 families lived there and roughly 80% were low-income. In 1967, the city took possession of – and began to demolish – the old SPURA buildings. Housing authorities provided a written guarantee to displaced residents that they would have priority rights to one of the roughly 1,800 new apartments built on the site.

But this promise went unfulfilled.

Instead, political infighting over the fate of SPURA—centered on the residents’ right of return and the provision of truly affordable housing—halted development for nearly five decades. Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani’s Contested City: Art and Public History as Mediation at New York’s Seward Park Urban Renewal Area tells us what emerged instead: “one of urban renewal’s grandest failures,” a string of vacant lots and abandoned land that embodied the city’s broken promise and broader neglect of low-income communities.

Now, after continued mobilizing by local activists and negotiations between key stakeholders, the city has approved Essex Crossing, a nine-site development project (five of the sites exist within the old SPURA territory; the others are nearby) that will inject over 1,000 housing units and new retail (a Trader Joe’s, Regal movie theater, and Target have already been built) into the Lower East Side. One-half of these new units will be reserved for low-, moderate-, and middle-income families in perpetuity. How these changes will affect both the SPURA narrative and the future of the neighborhood, the author notes, remains unclear.

An aerial view of the previously vacant lots on the SPURA site, Russ Buettner, “They Kept a Lower East Side Lot Vacant For Decades,” The New York Times, March 21, 2014.

What is clear is that Contested City is the first monograph to give SPURA its proper due, tracing the site’s evolution from the mid-1960s through 2017. Historians of urban America will gain much from this well-researched and compelling case study. More than a provincial account of local actors, the book examines the forces—“urban renewal, fights for and against affordable housing, discrimination and quota systems, urban disinvestment, and gentrification”—that have impacted postwar U.S. cities, writ large.

But Bendiner-Viani’s real contribution is to contemplate how these processes illustrate the complex definitions of “community” and the intangible meanings—cultural, psychological, and emotional—embedded in physical space.

Much of the book is a pedagogical reflection on “Layered SPURA,” a project the author developed as an Urban Studies professor at the New School. From 2008-2013, her students immersed themselves in SPURA’s history and ongoing development, reading scholarship, going on walking tours, attending community meetings, and, in the end, partnering with local organizations to produce a public exhibit on specific aspects of the site. By encouraging her students to depict the area’s “invisible and underrepresented layers of meaning,” Bendiner-Viani hoped to provoke “desperately needed conversations among people with different points of view about SPURA’s past.”

This approach was quite effective. In one of the book’s more poignant vignettes, the author describes placing “Layered SPURA” exhibits in a common room area of the Seward Park co-op, one of four nearby buildings that, until fairly recently, had housed some of the leading opponents of building low-income housing on the site (including the now recently-convicted assemblyman, Sheldon Silver, who remains a local resident). Bendiner-Viani describes watching typically antagonistic neighbors peacefully “sharing space to watch video oral histories of displaced residents [and] study photographs of the site.” Examples like this make Contested City a strong curricular model for educator-scholars developing similar public-facing projects in the classroom.

Layered SPURA images. Photo courtesy of Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani.

In centering her students’ experience creating these exhibits, the author shows how policy impacts everyday lives. In Chapter 2, she unfolds SPURA’s political narrative through her students’ questions and observations about the site during a walking tour. History comes alive as their comments spark discussions about past housing law, judicial cases, and community board actions. This approach keeps both her students and SPURA residents at the center of the site’s story, undergirding the book’s larger examination of the ways in which people infuse physical space with a myriad of “layered” meanings. Relatedly, Bendiner-Viani also describes her own connection to SPURA. In a book of stunning visuals, one of the most striking is her great-grandmother’s childhood painting of the site from the nearby Seward Park co-ops.

While others have examined failed urban renewal experiments, Contested City offers a unique perspective. It suggests that the Lower East Side – almost always framed as an early-twentieth-century immigrant neighborhood – warrants further analysis as a site for understanding New York’s changing political economy during and after the 1970s.

Unlike similar accounts, Bendiner-Viani focuses not only on the processes, but also the modern-day legacies, of urban renewal. Much of her story takes place after 2000 and includes detailed observations of the contemporary Essex Crossing/SPURA area. In doing so, Bendiner-Viani depicts urban renewal as a dynamic on-the-ground process, not a static top-down force operating on passive subjects. Contested City depicts Essex Crossing as a community in transition, one simultaneously anchored in a collectively remembered past and looking toward an undefined future. In short, SPURA’s urban renewal story is ongoing; it continues to unfold and expand, operating, in Bendiner-Viani’s telling, within a narrative lacking a defined ending. How might our understanding of urban renewal change if viewed from this vantage point—as a continuous process as opposed to a discrete episode with clear historical bookends?

These are among the larger questions that make Contested City a worthy, thought-provoking read. In all, the book will appeal to a diverse readership—not only academic historians, but also scholars, artists, and cultural institutions engaging the public in the arts and humanities. Bendiner-Viani has provided us with a strong model for fusing academic research with public history to untangle the sticky legacies of urban renewal in postwar New York City.

Barry Goldberg holds a Ph.D. in History from the CUNY Graduate Center. His research examines post-1960 Lower East Side racial politics, and his work has appeared in several academic journals and blogs. He is currently a Research Fellow at the Rockefeller Archive Center.

Featured Image (at top): A painting by the author’s great-grandmother, Josephine (Giuseppina) Cocarro, of the view from the Seward Park Co-ops. Photo courtesy of Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani.

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