Parking Wars: Students Take On SPURA

A panoramic view of the SPURA site on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Unless you’re from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, you’re probably unfamiliar with the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, colloquially known as SPURA. It encompasses five vacant lots on and around Delancey and Grand Streets. At first glance, it seems to be used primarily as a parking lot. But ask any longtime resident and you’ll find there’s much more to SPURA than meets the eye.

For the past four years, several groups of New School students have been working to uncover the hidden story behind SPURA. In City Studio, a course created by Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani, a faculty member of Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts, students dedicate each fall semester to ethnographic and visual research on the site. They have talked to former residents, neighbors, city agencies, and activists in hopes of drawing a fuller picture of SPURA’s past, an understanding of its present, and a vision for its future.

The results of this research are presented in the exhibition Layered SPURA: Spurring Conversation Through Visual Urbanism, on view through February 25 at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at Parsons. The exhibition, which mixes installation, photography, video, and audio, offers visitors a rare look into the complex world of city planning and its community impact.

We often think about urban development from strictly a planning perspective,, says Bendiner-Viani. But this project gave us a chance to explore the human side of development and see how planning affects individuals and communities.,

Slated for redevelopment in the 1960s, SPURA remains the largest undeveloped tract of city-owned land in Manhattan south of 96th Street. When the initial plans for redevelopment were announced, residents of the area were relocated, supposedly temporarily, to make way for the new construction. The project fell through, and residents were left wondering when, if ever, they would be able to return to SPURA. Many of them never have, but continue to follow the development plans closely through the activities of community boards and other organizations.

Bendiner-Viani’s students interviewed these former residents and many other stakeholders, including those who have remained just outside the project’s footprint and new residents who know little of the area’s embattled history. Using the results of these investigations, the students started developing ways of spuuring new conversations on what SPURA’s future could be.

This method, which emphasizes the city as a system and draws on the techniques of long-term community collaborations, visual urban ethnography, public policy, urban planning, and design, exemplifies The New School’s approach to the rapidly growing field of urban studies. The university has launched four degree programs in the field in recent years: a BA in Urban Studies at Lang and a BS in Urban Design, MA in Theories of Urban Practice, and MS in Design and Urban Ecologies at Parsons.

With each passing semester, Bendiner-Viani says, the projects and exhibitions of the City Studio / Layered SPURA project have created spaces for new kinds of conversations about SPURA. After decades lacking productive dialogue about the neighborhood’s future, we seek not to suggest solutions for a place beleaguered by top-down planning, but to spur conversations amongst people with different points of view about SPURA’s past, present and future. Our collaborators have even suggested that the exhibitions have been peacemaking things., We hope that’s a role we can continue to play., she says.