Contested City: Art and Public History as Mediation at New York’s Seward Park Urban Renewal Area

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.

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, author St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street

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.

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, 2017 MacArthur Fellow

Coming in spring 2019 at the University of Iowa Press.
Book website at Contested City Book.
Available for pre-order on Amazon!