Category Archives: Blog

The Story of the Bronx’s Spofford Juvenile Detention Center

Spofford Juvenile Detention Center (Source: Google Street View)

The first time I went to Hunts Point was in 2009 when I was 12 years old. My father had learned of a chrome plating business on the small Bronx peninsula where he sought to get our bathroom sink’s tarnished legs rebuffed by professionals. After briefly seeing the workers doing the nasty business of chrome buffing, a toxic process involving exposure to noxious carcinogens, we decided to walk up the street and kill some time. I vividly remember my young mind being interested in a Sabrett Hot Dogs food distributor on Spofford Avenue, just before looking across the street at a sprawling, foreboding complex of white brick buildings guarded by rusted concertina wire. Austere in its design, this menacing complex scared me. “Dad, what is that place?” I asked.

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Plazas, Bikes, and Public Art: A ‘Streetfight’ Panel Discussion

Photo from the NYC Department of Transportation

In 1997, New York City had virtually no bike infrastructure. There were a few lanes scattered through the middle of Manhattan and maybe one or two running through Brooklyn and Queens. According to Sean Quinn, Senior Director of Bicycle and Pedestrian Programs for the Department of Transportation (DOT), 20 years of progress have produced vast increases in bike routes covering a large part of the boroughs. New York has definitely made tons of progress in their bike programs, though it was reassuring to hear from Quinn that they’re far from finished with their goals. There’s still plenty of gaps in the 2017’s map, especially in places that need it the most, where cars are not an affordable option, but streets aren’t inviting enough for bikers.

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Migrant Squatters in Berlin Fighting for the Right to the City

Gerhart Hauptmann Schule, Berlin. Photo by Millie Wong.

The Gerhart-Hauptmann Schule was already empty when police arrived to clear the building on the morning of January 11, 2018. A small crowd of around 100 protesters gathered in the dreary cold and marched solemnly to commemorate the end of Refugee Strike House. The ten remaining refugees and migrants who had been occupying the building had left voluntarily the night before after securing a deal with the Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain district council.

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Thinking Beyond the Market: Housing Alternatives from the People


Thinking Beyond the Market, from left to right: Tom Angotti, Monique “Mo” George, Valerio
“Val” Orselli, Anya Irons. Photo from Urban Democracy Lab.

Upon entering Gallatin’s Jerry H. Lebowitz theatre on a cloudy March 28 night, attendees of the Urban Democracy Lab’s (UDL) panel discussion, “Thinking Beyond the Market: Housing Alternatives from the People” were greeted with silky jazz tunes. These were pleasant, but did not emotionally prepare us for the gut wrenching, stimulating, and inspiring conversation that followed.

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You Can Teach a Man to Farm: Interview with Connor Vaughn, Farm School NYC

Connor Vaughn of Farm School NYC.
Farm School participants. All photos curtesy of Farm School.

Connor Vaughn is the Program Director of Farm School NYC, a farm education program founded by a collective of farmers, activists, and educators. I currently intern at Farm School, and sat down with Connor on March 29, 2018 to learn more about the organization’s philosophies behind education and food justice, as well as the potentials of urban agriculture. 

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Zoning, Academia, and UDL Teach-Ins

As students, we often hear nebulous terms tossed around in lectures, heated conversations, and especially on Twitter rants. The kinds of phrases I’m talking about are the ones that you have a grasp on, but may struggle to provide a precise definition when asked directly–or maybe, at this point, you’re too afraid to ask. This can be frustrating, but also restrictive. When you don’t possess the vocabulary used in a certain discourse, it can be difficult to truly participate and enact change.

We can be quick to employ these academic-sometimes-bordering-on-pseudo-intellectual terms in everyday conversations but seldom take the time to really unpack the meanings of these phrases, their political and social implications, and their origins in a historical context. The problem here being that many of these socio-political concepts can’t be reduced into concise, elevator-pitch-length definitions. To really get a hold on broad subjects surrounding urbanism, it’s important to not just read about them, but talk about them, walk through them (both physically and didactically) and ask questions about them, too.

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RAT FILM Screening and Discussion

Rat Film: Screening and Discussion with Director Theo Anthony and Historian Paige Glotzer

Check out the posted video of this discussion here.

On Tuesday, February 13th, The Urban Democracy Lab at NYU Gallatin screened “RAT FILM,” a documentary film that chronicles the extent of the “rat issue” in Baltimore, Maryland. RAT FILM focuses on the history of disparate and discriminatory housing policies in Baltimore through the agent of the rat. Filmmaker Theo Anthony was present at the screening and spoke to his wanting to learn more about his home city, and deciding to use the rat as a storytelling lens to explore themes of race and environmental hazards in housing.   The screening was followed by a panel discussion between filmmaker, photographer and writer Theo Anthony and Paige Glotzer, a Prize Fellow in Economics History and Politics at Harvard University in addition to a Q&A session with audience members. Conversation between Anthony and Glotzer oscillated between histories of “urban renewal” and the impact which mid 20th century city planning had on the current layout and experiences of communities within Baltimore.

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Populism, Gender and Language: Lessons from Latin America and Beyond


  • Federico Finchelstein (The New School): Professor of History
  • Sara R. Farris (Goldsmiths, University of London): Senior Lecturer on Sociology.
  • Carlos de la Torre (University of Kentucky)
  • Sahar Abi-Hassan (Boston University) PhD candidate, whose research focuses on political institutions.

The conference Populism, Gender and Language: Lessons from Latin America and Beyond was hosted by New York University’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS). It examined the role of gender in populism. Populism, Gender and Language was a part of Dr. Pamela Calla’s Feminist Constellations, which focus on broader topics relating to Latin America and beyond from a feminist perspective. CLACS professor Amy Huras introduced the speakers. The prevalence of populism in the global political landscape made Populism, Gender and Language an important educational experience for those that are trying to understand the recent rise of populist governments across the globe. 

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What is a Model City? Screening and Discussion

Gordon Hyatt and Susanne Schindler at “What is a Model City?”, photo by UnionDocs

In the late 1960s, residents of Central Brooklyn joined a meeting about a new federal program, Model Cities. The meeting quickly soon The first community meeting in Central Brooklyn about a proposed new federal program, Model Cities, devolved into chaos and confusion. Community members invited to the meeting were skeptical about what they were hearing: A federal program had been launched, they were told, to address some of the problems facing the inner cities. Community participation was a key component of the program. Members of the community were asked to plan the programs and have a say in where the budget was allocated. Yet these members of the community were wary after years of government missteps and neglect. During the meeting, several stood up to demand an explanation, saying that they had had harmful experiences with city programs before and did not see how this one would be different. The central question underlying several of their statements seemed to be–How should we believe you? As one community member asked, “Can any government program be taken seriously by the people who live in the slums of our cities?” To these community members, the premise of Model Cities seemed too good to be true—A wariness that turned out to be correct, especially after looking at the disappointing end results of the program when it concluded in 1974.

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Board to Death?

Crowded community meeting
At a November 2013 meeting of Manhattan Community Board 1, residents react to a proposed high rise to be built in the footprint of the Old Fulton Fish Market. Photo by Cristian Fleming courtesy of AIGA/NY Design/Relief Project

Urban Democracy Lab Associate Director Rebecca Amato wrote this piece for our friends at Urban Omnibus on March 8, 2018.  Many thanks to Urban Omnibus for allowing us to reprint.

What’s the relationship between liquor licenses and local democracy? The city’s 59 community boards mete out approvals, but they were intended as a framework for citizen participation in planning and land use decisions. Set in motion in the churn of urban renewal, the idea was to give citizens a say in the dramatic physical changes affecting their neighborhoods. In practice, when it comes to making decisions about the city’s future, community boards’ hands have been tied from the start. The official conduits for input in planning and land use may be strictly advisory, but that doesn’t mean they’re no place for participation. Meanwhile, from redevelopment coalitions to community benefit agreements, New Yorkers find other formulations for their desires. Below, Rebecca Amato looks at the aspirations and evolution of the city’s community boards, and at the many other ways that New Yorkers have demanded a voice and a say in the shape of their neighborhoods.

Participation will resuscitate the asthmatic democracy of American cities! The inclusion of ordinary New Yorkers in municipal decision-making will reflect the people’s will! Who could argue with such declarations? After all, what is a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” as Lincoln so potently put it, if not one in which the people have clear mechanisms for participation? At a time when New Yorkers are braving controversial rezonings, gentrification pressures, overloaded infrastructure, climate change threats, and rising homelessness — and as the nation endures a stunning test of democracy’s resilience — calls for local community control and lively citizen participation are increasingly alluring. This energy echoes, in many ways, the moment when community boards were established in New York City decades ago. Yet, if one were to rate community boards on their ability to represent their constituencies, influence policy, or corral democratic feeling around specific community issues, the results would be mixed. Just as they provide a platform of inclusion for “the people” — a legitimized place for that elusive participation that we so desperately believe will keep our democracy afloat — community boards also have a history of being painfully ineffective, even undemocratic, when it comes to forging monumental urban policies. And in a city driven by real estate activity, planning and development are two of the areas in which the boards’ role and validity are most vexing. [Read more here]


The Help-Yourself City | Book Launch featuring UDL Board Member Gordon C.C. Douglas

Please join author and UDL board member, Gordon C. C. Douglas for the launch of his new book The Help-Yourself City: Legitimacy and Inequality in DIY Urbanism.  

Details below:

The Help-Yourself City | Book Launch

03/26 Monday | 6pm | Institute for Public Knowledge, 20 Cooper Square, 5th Floor

NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge invites you to join for the launch of Gordon Douglas’s The Help-Yourself City: Legitimacy and Inequality in DIY Urbanism. The author will be present in conversation with Caroline Leeand Harvey Molotch.

When local governments neglect public services or community priorities, how do concerned citizens respond? In The Help-Yourself City, Gordon Douglas looks closely at people who take urban planning into their own hands with homemade signs and benches, guerrilla bike lanes and more. Douglas explores the frustration, creativity, and technical expertise behind these interventions, but also the position of privilege from which they often come. Presenting a needed analysis of this growing trend from vacant lots to city planning offices, The Help-Yourself City tells a street-level story of people’s relationships to their urban surroundings and the individualization of democratic responsibility.

Gordon C. C. Douglas is Assistant Professor of Urban Planning and Director of the Institute for Metropolitan Studies at San José State University. He is a multidisciplinary urbanist whose work sits at the intersection of urban political-economy, community studies, and cultures of planning and design. Prior to joining the Dept. of Urban and Regional Planning at San José State, he was the Rebuild by Design Postdoctoral Fellow at New York University, where he also served as Associate Director (2015-2016) and Acting Director (2016-2017) of the Institute for Public Knowledge.

Caroline W. Lee is Professor of Sociology in the Anthropology & Sociology Department at Lafayette College. She is a comparative institutional sociologist with research and teaching interests in the following areas: political sociology, social movements, economic sociology, law, sociology of knowledge and culture, urban and environmental sociology, and research methods. She is the author of Do-It-Yourself Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2015) and an editor of the volume Democratizing Inequalities (NYU Press, 2015).

Harvey Molotch is Professor of Sociology and Metropolitan Studies at New York University. His writings focus on cities with special attention to economic development, urban security, artifacts, and product design. He is the author of several books including Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger (Princeton University Press, 2012), and Where Stuff Comes From: How Toasters, Toilets, Cars, Computers and Many Other Things Come to Be as They Are (Routledge, 2003).

Coding While Black: Artificial Intelligence, Computing, and Data in a Racialized World

“The end is in the beginning, but lies ahead” – Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

On February 26th as part of Gallatin’s black nerd apocalypse: Black History Month 2018; the Urban Democracy Lab co-sponsored Coding While Black: Artificial Intelligence, Computing, and Data in a Racialized World. Coding While Black was a conversation between NYU professor Charlton McIlwain and artist and professor Stephanie Dinkins. The event was introduced by Gallatin professor Sybil Cooksey. Afterwards, each speaker discussed their work, offered a few remarks and engaged in a discussion. This was followed by some questions and a reception with cheese and adorable tiny carrots, marbles of technology in their own right.

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