by Michael Lebron
On The Pitfalls of Urban Renewal Programs and “Artwashing”
On Sunday afternoon, the Fullerton Center for Culture and History hosted a discussion on urban renewal programs throughout the Hudson valley: what prompted them, their impact and current approaches to dealing with their legacy. Leading the discussion were Ben Schulman, who writes for CityLab, Architect, Metropolis and others. Also on hand were Dave Hochfelder, Ann Pfau and Stacy Sewell, researchers who have been studying the issue for 5 years, focusing first on the Albany region, then extending their inquiry down the Hudson to New York City’s Stuyvesant town. Rounding out the panel was Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani, urbanist, writer, curator, and artist pioneer of public arts and community engagement.
In the late 60s and early 70s, many inner cities decayed due to white flight, industrial migration and rerouting of traffic flows by the interstate highway system. Urban planners struggled with the problem of attracting the middle class back into urban cores. Their solution often resulted in treating the decline like a cancer and cutting it out. This resulted in hollowing out of these cities – including historic architecture – and in the displacement of families, 90% of them black or Puerto Rican, to make way for grand redevelopment schemes. The federal government provided 75% of the funding for demolition and site acquisition. City officials happily accepted this funding and then campaigned on the proposed reconstruction. But the feds didn’t provide proper funding for construction, and when it was time to build, pretty much nothing happened, leaving cities like Newburgh with a hole in its heart.
These sites remain as zones of contention, with community activists, property owners and other stakeholders vying for influence. Even in the best of times, these groups have different frames of reference. In today’s polarized political climate, those differences are magnified. The failed Alembic project is a perfect case in point, with most of the community being cynical about whether or not it would really benefit them, or if the units would instead go to outsiders while profits line developers’ pockets and politicians’ resumes get enhanced.
Not so obvious points of contention are projects like the Newburgh Land Bank’s “Artist In Vacancy” program, which, according to its website, “lends properties as temporary platforms for creative interventions that attempt to transform the City’s liabilities into safe, accessible sites for engagement: spaces which draw the public experience inside the vacancy and bring life back to underserved neighborhoods.” While the program is well-intentioned and often results in intriguing artworks, it primarily benefits relatively well off middle class artists while the community that actually lives around these sites are not necessarily a part of the engagement.
As an example, one day the families living around the corner of Lander and Fullerton found art installations placed on two vacant lots there.One of these artworks was a set of brownstone steps mounted on steel rods. Children immediately started to use it as a jungle gym. Parents objected as it was a clear safety hazard. This eventually led to fencing around both sites – symbolically magnifying the gap between the community and the art for whose benefit it was intended – with a sign mounted on the fence announcing “Community Garden”, in disregard to the irony. This response to revitalizing urban areas has a name – artwashing– and has aroused controversy and even violence in cities around the world, from South Los Angeles and Oakland to Cape Town and London. https://tribunemag.co.uk/2019/02/against-art-washing
Both cases illustrate how much work needs to be done to simply get people to be able to hear one another.
gabrielle bendiner viani