Urban NYC Rises to ReImagine the City

I can’t think of anything that would inspire a person to re-imagine the world like feeling the cold-handed slap of their current reality hard across the face. I received such a slap two days before attending the Urban Uprising: ReImagine the City Conference, co-sponsored by the CUNY Graduate Center’s Center for Place, Culture and Politics, The Right to the City Coalition, The Brecht Forum, Growing Roots, and the Design and Urban Ecologies program at Parsons The New School for Design.  I had been arrested by the Amtrak police during a sweep for homeless at Penn Station and the incident had left me feeling sufficiently steeped in the “real.”

The two-day conference (Nov. 31 and Dec. 1) brought together architects, activists, urban designers and planners from around the country to re-imagine the city for the next hundred years.  Urban Uprising was a call for engaged citizens to confront key challenges of the 21st century — environmental, economic, social and political. Participants from more than 80 civic organizations across the city were invited to collaborate in working groups to develop strategic action plans to radically alter the way a city works, and who it serves.

Day two of sessions, which I attended, were at The New School where we were welcomed by Miguel Robles-Duràn, Director of the Design and Urban Ecologies program at Parsons. First panelist, Rachel LaForest of The Right to the City Alliance, asked the audience to break out of the mindset of choosing goals based on what was winnable and introduced the notion of transformative demands like Housing for People, Not Profit.

Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning Peter Marcuse challenged attendees to imagine a real occupation of Wall Street where the stock exchange hosted general assemblies and the high rises that house banking enterprises, instead housed the homeless. He offered as inspiration a vision of a society where people work without pay and life’s necessities were accepted as inalienable rights and guaranteed to every citizen.

Matt  Birkhold, who co-founded Growing Roots with Amaka Okechukwu, took jabs at the crowd and poked fun at himself for insistently fighting to prevent cuts to the budgets of institutions that we all know are failing, giving little thought to how we might instead begin reinventing them. Nancy Romer offered a slide presentation that played like a science fiction thriller, evidencing, through graphic representation of the rise in obesity, the attack on the American public through the corporate food system. Ruth Wilson Gilmore closed the session with a matter-of-fact, yet shockingly accurate geography lesson that expanded New York City beyond the five boroughs to include our incarcerated population in correctional facilities across the state, immigrant detainees and migrant workers.

Urban Uprising attendees were offered at registration a menu of discussion groups. I’d chosen to participate in the Public Space working group. We had just two hours to come to agreement about how to work together, come up with clear definitions and then “design” our public space. During our orientation, someone burst into the room to announce that, although they wouldn’t be participating in our particular break, it was imperative we included “sacred space” as part of our vision. After leaving us with their instruction, the person promptly left the room. There were occasional interruptions and a few late walk-ins, but we managed to get to work pretty quickly and the tone remained light and very respectful.

At one point one of the participants asked “how do we keep the vandals out?” That was when I got the distinct impression that, although we were in agreement about what we were designing, we may not have all shared the same idea of who we were designing the space for. Up until then I had not imagined that anyone would need to be “kept out” of the space at all. Suddenly, I was back in Penn Station where I’d been detained for protesting the removal of dozens of homeless people in an aggressive police sweep. It was not just a question what was considered “public” but who was included in the idea of “the public.”

This issue was underscored after lunch when the individual working groups were merged into pairs. This was done to remind all of the participants that these issues are interconnected and to encourage thinking across area of interest. Arts & Culture was matched with Criminal Justice, for example. Our Public Space working group was merged with Just Communities which I thought created space to continue investigating the question of who has access to public space and how it equates to social justice.