For fifty years, as New York’s Lower East Side has gone from disinvested to gentrified, residents have lived with a wound in the neighborhood, a series of vacant lots known as the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA). Most of the buildings on the 14-square-block area were condemned for urban renewal and “clearance” in 1967, displacing almost two thousand families–mostly of limited means, and mostly families of color. Residents were promised that they would soon return to new housing, very little of which ever 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. Fifty years of activism for affordability and justice finally led to an extraordinary process in 2012 of neighborhood negotiation through which guidelines for the site were developed that would include 50% below-market-rate housing. Essex Crossing, one of the city’s largest developments, is the manifestation of those guidelines, and is now rising on the SPURA site. The new building for the venerable Essex Market, of which Cuchifritos is a part, is at its heart.
Ten years ago, artist and urbanist Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani was invited to enter this tense community to collaborate on a new approach to planning through public history and public art. Created in a multi-year collaboration with community activists GOLES and SPARC, and her students at the New School, the exhibitions and performative guided tours of Bendiner-Viani’s “Layered SPURA” project provided new opportunities for dialogue about the past, present, and future of the neighborhood.
Throughout the summer, Cuchifritos Gallery will host a series of Layered SPURA tours which will encourage participants to use their bodies, their voices, and their capacity for dialogue to understand the contested urban past, present, and future(s) of the Lower East Side. Special guests from SPURA’s long-time community activist community will join the tours, and each event will culminate with a conversation about this old, new, place.