The constant evolution and renewal of New York City can often leave casualties in its wake, whether it’s the shuttering of a beloved local business, or in some cases the loss of a home. In the 1960s, a 14-square-block area in the Lower East Side was cleared as part of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA). Thousands of people lost their homes and were left with inadequate options for relocation. For decades, this clearance left a scar on the neighborhood, but artist, urban scholar, and curator Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani took it as an opportunity to open a modern dialogue about urban renewal among community members. In a new photography exhibit, Keep Me Nearby, inside the recently opened Essex Street Market and through her ongoing Layered SPURA walking tours, Bendiner-Viani is keeping the conversation going as the Essex Crossing development is being built on the SPURA site. If you are an Untapped Cities Insiders, you can join Bendiner-Viani for a guided walkthrough of the new exhibit followed by a members-only Layered SPURA walking tour of the surrounding area.

Keep Me Nearby, explores the theme of making a home through the display of never-before-seen photographs of the interiors of houses that were demolished for the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA) in the late 1960s. The photographs were taken by photographer Nick Lawrence while working on another project photographing teenagers of the Lower East Side. The moving images are now on display inside the Cuchifritos/Artists Alliance Gallery at the new Essex Street Market, the cornerstone of the Essex Crossing development. The photographs take viewers inside the soon to be demolished homes of the family of Lower East Side resident Angel Soto and a nearby tenement. The photographs were discovered by Bendiner-Viani while doing research for her book Contested City: Art and Public History as Mediation at New York’s Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (Humanities and Public Life).

Photograph by Sindayiganza Photography

Complimenting the photographs of Keep Me Nearby inside the gallery are pieces of Bendiner-Viani’s ongoing decade long, interactive project Layered SPURA. This project was created by Bendiner-Viani in association with her class on urban studies at The New School and partnerships with the community rights groups City Lore and Good Old Lower East Side. The project “restarted the conversation on why SPURA matters..and ask what it looks like for artists and students and residents to collaborate and create an equitable, mutual, beneficial relationship with community organizations,” says Bendiner-Viani. Layered SPURA was a new way, using a new idea of “visual urbanism,” to create new spaces to have open dialogue, spaces more conducive than say community board meetings where tempers often flare and certain voices go unheard.

Photograph by Shunji Noda

Inside the gallery, visitors will find cards crafted from the archives, photographs, and interviews of Bendiner-Viani’s long-time work at SPURA. As you walk through the space, the cards piece together the complicated stories of SPURA’s effect on the community. The cards are then taken out into the surrounding neighborhood and incorporated into Layered SPURA walks where, with special guests from SPURA’s long-time community activist community, participants use their bodies, voices, and capacity for dialogue to understand the contested urban past, present, and future of the Lower East Side. Each tour will end with a conversation about this old, new, place. Bendiner-Viani notes that while the Essex Crossing development is being built on the SPURA site, it is still important to keep the conversation going and support community organizations that are working as watchdogs and “making sure promises are kept.” The story of the SPURA site is complicated and messy but Bendiner-Viani hopes to “show people the human side of it,” and to engage residents in sharing their own stories as the community looks towards building the future.

Photograph by Shunji Noda

Untapped Cities Insiders are invited to join Bendiner-Viani on a guided walkthrough of Keep Me Nearby followed by a members-only Layered SPURA walking tour of the surrounding area on the evening of July 18th. Not an Insider yet? Become a member today to gain access to free behind-the-scenes tours and special events all year long.

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Keep me Nearby will be on display until July 21st and the last public Layered SPURA tour will take place on Saturday, July 20th at 2:00pm. You can reserve a spot here.

Next, check out The Top 10 Secrets of NYC’s Lower East Side and 10 Fun Facts About the New Essex Market