There has been a lot of buzz recently about pop-up urbanism. From New York to Vancouver, there are a number of new, small projects that reclaim a bit of underused space and turn them into public spaces. I have yet to find a really clear definition of “pop-up urbanism,” but the projects are generally small, often temporary, ways to explore creative possibilities urban space.
While such projects may not require the hundreds of millions in financing - or the years of planning - of major urban redevelopment projects, the term “pop-up” can belie the effort that goes into making them happen. Recently, I have had the privilege to get an insider’s perspective on a project that is a bit of pop-up urbanism, and I want to profile it here to give some perspective on what goes into making these pop-ups happen.
The Project for Empty Space (PES), a New York-based non-profit, brings contemporary art to abandoned or unusual urban spaces. The site is an abandoned, city-owned lot on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The newest installation in the space opened on September 13, and in the weeks leading up to the opening, I’ve watched it take shape, while talking to PES founders Jasmine Wahi and Meenakshi Thirukode about their goals, and what it takes to realize them. First, they had to find a plot of land to use. This alone took several weeks of working through the city bureaucracy. It turns out that this was an unprecedented use of land for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (NYCHPD), the agency that owns the space, so it took a while to process the agreement that allowed PES to use the site. Second, they had to raise money. PES raises money through sponsors (usually local businesses), grants, and an annual benefit dinner. They also spend a lot of time reaching out to local organizations, such as the Lower East Side Girls Club, because community involvement is so important to PES’s mission.
The abandoned lot at 181 Stanton Street in its original state in 2010 (photo courtesy of Project for Empty Space)
Their mission is to bring art into abandoned or unusual urban spaces as a way of revitalizing a neighborhood. Their goal isn’t just to put art in the space and walk away; the idea is that this will be a starting point for the community to reclaim the space for their purposes. By making something positive happen in the site (as opposed to staying a rubble-strewn gap between buildings), they hope to spark the interest of the site’s neighbors in making the land a valued part of the neighborhood again. They’ve been in the space at 181 Stanton Street for a year now, and this is the second exhibit. In that time, residents of the nearby apartment buildings have told them that it has transformed the neighborhood. People slow down as they walk by, peering into the space. Some stop to chat with the artist, curators or others who have stopped to see it. It sparks conversations, and gets people thinking about the space again. In the past, it was an eyesore, something to hurry by and not spend too much time looking at. PES’s hope is that the space will become a permanent community fixture, where the community will determine how it develops.
Opening day of Fall 2010 installation. Photo courtesy of Project for Empty Space.
Between the NYCHPD and a 50-year resident of the neighborhood, we pieced together a sketchy history of the lot at 181 Stanton Street. Until the early 1980s, there was a building on the site typical of many on the Lower East Side – probably built in the early twentieth century, with apartments on the upper floors. According to the long-time neighbor, the building deteriorated in the 1970s – like a lot of things in New York – and finally, when the last tenant moved out in the early 1980s, the building was knocked down so it would not be colonized by squatters. It’s not quite clear when the city purchased the site, but it was probably sometime in the early 1970s.
Since the building was torn down, the neighborhood has turned around considerably, but the space remains undeveloped. It is too narrow for current building codes, so it would require a variance to built on it again.* It might seem logical for it to become a garden or courtyard for one of the adjacent buildings, but only if the neighbors are willing to pay what the city considers to be market value for the un-developable land: $3.2 million. Even a future as a space curated by PES is not necessarily assured: NYCHPD has told PES that it wants to be relieved of administering the lot. If they want to stay in the space, they have been told, they must either buy it or find another city agency to take over its administration. But finding that agency will be PES’s responsibility, which means that Jasmine and Meenakshi have to try to persuade employees in the vast city bureaucracy to help their cause (or even just return their phone calls). Not surprisingly, they have not yet found any agency eager to assume a new responsibility. And at the laughably high asking price, the city has yet to find any buyers.
The PES Fall 2011 installation taking shape in early September. (photo: Meenakshi Thirukode, courtesy of Project for Empty Space)
In our current economic times, pop-up art installations, cafes and other public spaces are taking the place of larger projects. They are an innovative way of creating increments of urbanism in the face of economic reality, where larger, more permanent projects may be on the shelf for quite a while yet. But as you visit some of these pop-ups and enjoy them, remember how much work goes into them. Behind each of them is not a massive developer with huge coffers, but often just a couple of people who care deeply about their city and want to make it a better place, one piece of incremental urbanism at a time.
* The lot has a frontage of 18.92’. The narrowest frontages among neighboring buildings are at least 20’, and most are at least 25’ wide. Source: http://gis.nyc.gov/doitt/nycitymap/template.jsp?applicationName=ZOLA).