How do planners enhance their practice through the lens of local culture and lived experiences?

Planners strive to enhance the quality of life for a range of residents and community members. But this is difficult to successfully achieve when the notion of community is abstract, and when planners lack knowledge of individual communities’ dynamic nature and history. How do planners enhance their practice through the lens of local culture and lived experiences?

On Tuesday, June 14 the Urban Design Committee and Arts and Culture Subcommittee of the New York Metro Chapter of the American Planning Association hosted “Living Los Sures: Place, Cultural Heritage, and Gentrification” an event in the Los Sures neighborhood in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The event was a crossroads for different urban planners to reflect on their practice in the New York region and to learn from the experiences and work of residents and community organizations that have dealt with issues of gentrification in Williamsburg over the past decade. In an attempt to better understand communities faced with gentrification and engage in meaningful conversations about the social impact of planning efforts, the event blended a walking tour with a documentary film and panel discussion (see Hyperallergetic article, “A Brooklyn Neighborhood Challenges the Memory Hole of Gentrification”).

The event began with an interactive walking tour of the neighborhood lead by key community leaders. The tour started at El Museo de Los Sures, where Alan Yu of Southside United/Los Sures shared their current exhibition Displaced Histories, a collection of residents stories living during the process of gentrification. James Ellis, Senior Director of Commercial and Economic Development at Perch Advisors, shared his work with merchant organizing and the stories of small businesses in the neighborhood. Virginia Ribot of Green Light District, a community sustainability initiative launched by El Puente, a human rights institution that promotes education and social justice guided participants to key locations, specifically the Keap 4th Community Garden that promotes communal gardening and green education. Following the tour, Christopher Allen Executive Director of UnionDocs shared the 1984 documentary, Los Sures which chronicles the lives of residents during the height of drugs and crime, while showing the steadfastness of residents to their neighborhood and the process of community building through family, friends, and community work.

Affordable Housing?

Los Sures residents have a strong history of fighting for safe and affordable housing. Virginia and Miguel shared that “affordable housing” is a problematic term for gentrifying neighborhoods. Monthly rent of affordable units in mixed-income developments across the city are calculated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) using the Area Median Income (AMI), which includes the entire metropolitan area of New York City, meaning that the annual household incomes from wealthy areas such as Westchester County, the Upper East Side and Riverdale are included in this calculation. As such, this ‘median’ does not accurately reflect the local conditions of Los Sures or other low-income communities in New York City. Virginia let us know that “affordable housing is not a term we use here,” and that Southside United and other community organizations focus their efforts on the provision of low-income housing.

210 Roebling Building

One stop on the tour was 210 Roebling, a six-story building originally owned by a slumlord who illegally converted what used to be residential units on the ground floor into commercial spaces. Alan Yu shared that tenants here lived in subpar conditions for years because the owner ignored requests for repairs. In the late 1980s, NYC Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) stepped in and used the 7A Program to remove the management responsibilities of the property from the owner, and transferred those responsibilities to Southside United. During this period, tenants made their month rent payments directly to the HDFC, and Southside United used the money to make critical building repairs. In the early 2000s, the property entered into the HPD Third Party Transfer (TPT) Program because the owner of the property was delinquent on real estate taxes and had years of unpaid municipal arrears (water, sewer, etc.). During this time, the building came under the interim ownership of Neighborhood Restore with the intent to transfer ownership; while Los Sures acted as the sponsor of the project and pieced together financing through the HPD Participatory Loan Program (PLP) to rehab the building (tenants were relocated during construction, and all were able to return after).

Originally the tenants of 210 Roebling had wanted to form their own co-op and lobbied Neighborhood Restore to transfer ownership. Southside United was supportive of the tenants and provided numerous tenant cooperative trainings through a collaboration with UHAB (Urban Homesteading Assistance Board) and HPD. Despite the organization’s efforts, the tenants could not reach majority consensus and develop their own charter documents (articles of incorporation, bylaws, etc.). In the end, Neighborhood Restore transferred ownership to Southside United to guarantee long-term sustainable affordability for residents in the neighborhood.

Los Sures

Our tour was inspired by Los Sures, 1984 documentary created and directed by Diego Echeverria. The hour-long film profiles the lives of five residents and is an invaluable snapshot of life in Los Sures, which was at that time the poorest neighborhood in New York City. Our route traversed streets that played a central role in the film. We concluded at Union Docs for a screening of the documentary and a panel discussion with our tour guides.

Union Docs is a center for documentary art that brings together experimental media-makers, dedicated journalists, critical thinkers, and local partners on a search for urgent expressions of the human experience, practical perspectives on the world today, and compelling visions for the future. In 2007, Union Docs received the last known copy of Los Sures and undertook the important work of restoring and preserving the film for wider distribution. The documentary inspired Living Los Sures, an ongoing project that enables continuous engagement with the film. The Shot By Shot index allows longstanding residents of Los Sures to splice their own stories into the documentary, and 89 Steps follows up with Marta 30 years after she starred in the film.

Los Sures Website (http://lossur.es/)

Los Sures and the work of Southside United tells a powerful story of how a strong community can combat gentrification by standing together. Our brief panel discussion after the film screening touched on specific strategies for housing retention employed by Los Sures residents since the 1980s, such as low-income housing cooperatives. The panelists also shared how exactly they measure this culture of community. A basic but important lesson shared was the fact that knowing your neighbors is critical to the health of a neighborhood.

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We consider the Arts & Culture Subcommittee’s first event a resounding success thanks to our tour guides, Union Docs and the amazing and inspiring Los Sures neighborhood.

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About the Authors:

Caroline Bauer: Project Director, Curb Your Litter: Greenpoint

Vanessa Monique Smith: Director of Research and Outreach, 3x3 Design


Voices of Urban Design is a discussion forum that is curated by the APA New York Metro Chapter’s Urban Design Committee. Posts are edited for clarity and length only; opinions and statements that appear in this blog are not endorsed by the American Planning Association nor its affiliates. We expect and encourage healthy debate!